Indulge in some altruism this year

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Indulge in some altruism this year


Let us suppose that you are the lucky winner of 100,000 won ($86). You can receive the money in cash, but first you must decide whether you will share the amount with someone else, and if you do, how much you will give to the other person.

This is the so-called “dictator game” - a game in experimental economics. Surprisingly, economists have found that seven out of 10 people say that they would share the money. Although they could keep the whole sum for themselves, most would give away an average of 25,000 won to others.

Economists testing the claim that human beings act as “homo economicus,” those who act only in their own self-interest, were greatly intrigued by the result of this research.

University of Chicago economics professor John A. List suggested that the results of the study do not necessarily mean that human beings were born to be altruistic. He asked what would happen when an extra step that allowed people to take others’ money was added to the game. As List wrote about the new study, “fewer subjects are willing to give money when the range of choices includes taking the other player’s money.” The number of people who were willing to share the money decreased to 3.5 out of 10. “The new result suggests that the altruism observed in previous versions of the dictator game was partly due to people’s fear of looking stingy,” List said.

But why else do people, who are born to be egoistic, sometimes practice altruism?

First, it is because people share the same genes with their relatives. Second, they expect that after giving they will get something in return. Third, they hope to develop a positive reputation. Fourth, they want to show themselves off to possible mates. These reasons alone, however, do not exactly explain why people donate large amounts of aid from far away for the earthquake victims in Haiti.

Richard Dawkins, a British popular science author focusing on evolution, has chalked this up to an evolutionary paradox.

In ancient times when human beings lived together with close relatives, they might have been altruistic by nature due to some or all of the reasons mentioned above. The reason why we continue to be altruistic to others, even though the environment is completely changed, is that something changed in the course of evolution, similar to how a man feels sexual desire toward a woman who will not give birth to his baby.

Three years ago, neurologists at the National Medical Center presented their research on the brain activity of people who decided to donate money to charitable causes. Through MRI brain scans, they found that the vascular targeting agents, the part of the central nervous system for pleasure that is activated when people engage in sex, eat food or take drugs, were likewise stimulated by philanthropy. As the act of helping strangers gives no less pleasure than that of sharing with a loved one, people tend to repeat philanthropic acts again and again.

“Sharing brings happiness” is not an empty set of words.

Witnessing the horrible scenes of devastation in Haiti, I wish there were more people who would indulge in “altruistic pleasure.” If we can be happy while helping others, it will further this noble cause in our society.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Shin Ye-ri
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