Thursday, June 07, 2007

Paying It Forward—The Economics of Altruism

I was deep in conversation with my 14-year-old son regarding the relative costs and benefits of wearing a helmet while skateboarding. Guess which side I was on? We were driving from the Bay Area to Davis, California, for Memorial Day weekend. Deep into the task of convincing my son that the various monetary, emotional, and intellectual costs of brain surgery far outweighed the relatively minuscule cost of looking slightly uncool when wearing a helmet, I stopped to pay the toll at the Carcinas Bridge. I reached out to hand the toll taker my $4, but to my astonishment, he waved me off, saying, “The car in front of you paid.” Have you ever had that sinking feeling in your stomach when you’ve done something wrong? I was feeling exactly the opposite! I felt like I had just won some mini-lottery. It changed my whole perspective on the day. I even ignored my son's wisecracks about my having ruined his social life by imposing the helmet “law” on him.

Now, I could have attributed this event to some random act of kindness: certainly commendable, but anomalous nonetheless—except that this was the third time it had happened to me in the last 12 months. In economic terms, this doesn’t seem to add up. Why would so many people pay the toll for complete strangers with no hope of a return on their investment? How did it start? What was the incentive? Who was philanthropist zero? And what of the positive repercussions this created for the rest of the community? What other acts of kindness did this generate?

If economics is about people acting in their own self-interest, does this make sense? Maybe it makes complete sense. Perhaps people are motivated by the personal gratification they derive from their own generosity rather than the desire to make others feel good. In fact, anonymous acts of kindness allow us to imagine that we've done some amount of good that might be far in excess of reality. In that sense, $4 is a small price to pay for a momentary feeling of supreme virtue.

Thus, to some degree, acts of kindness are reciprocal—we aren't giving something for nothing. When we pick up someone else's toll or leave extra money in the parking meter, we magnanimously give up a small amount, but we potentially receive a powerful feeling of satisfaction in return. None of this is to say that the effects of this type of behavior are undeniably positive, simply that the motives involved may have more to do with self-interest than with pure altruism.

Economist Steven Landsburg offered his take on the economics of altruism a few years back in an interesting article in Reason magazine. Check it out here.

Discussion Questions

1. What happens in Vernon Smith's envelope experiment when participants are told that their actions are anonymous? What happens in the experiment when participants are told that researchers will track individual decisions?

2. In the James Cox version of Smith's envelope experiment, donated sums are automatically tripled. How does the behavior of participants change under this scenario? Why, according to Landsburg, is this evidence of something dark and disturbing about human nature?

3. What could the Cox experiment teach charitable organizations about techniques for raising money?

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  • At 7:54 AM, June 09, 2007, Blogger Unknown said…

    Might it have been that the toll booth doesn't offer change, and the driver in front only had a large bill?

  • At 11:53 PM, June 19, 2007, Blogger Dakoo said…

    The toll booth always has change. Economics makes more sense when we measure material wealth, philanthrophy does not have much to do with it. The individual who paid the toll did recieve self satisfaction but placing a value on the satisfaction is immposible -is as much as buying a car or drinking coke...maybe? maybe not? maybe it is true altruism? I would think it is a hybrid of altruism and self interest, I wonder how complexity economics would tackle such an issue....

  • At 10:46 AM, July 27, 2007, Blogger stafex said…

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