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Giving Too Much Versus Giving Too Little

Evolutionary pressures shaped optimal levels of niceness.

Key points

  • A major issue that underlies our evolved social psychology pertains to the tension between contributing too much versus contributing too little.
  • Humans have lived in groups for thousands of generations, leading to a complex psychology that balances selfish versus other-oriented behavior.
  • This selfish/other-oriented tension can be found in any and all kinds of human social interactions.
Source: 089photoshootings/pixabay

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario A: Chairing the PTA Fundraiser

Imagine that you volunteer with a group of three friends to organize a PTA fundraiser. You start out super-excited about the event. You envision a community yard sale that is well-advertised and that is pitched as helping out the PTA for the local elementary school. You organize to secure the space. You put together a small social media and marketing campaign. You put out a call to all parents in the district asking them to participate as either sellers or as organizers.

When the date starts to quickly approach, you reach out to your three friends who agreed to co-organize things. You realize that someone will be needed to bring tables, chairs, and a tent. You will need someone to organize a food-and-drink station. And you need someone to secure some volunteers to make it happen.

You find yourself taken aback when a text that you send out requesting help with these things gets no response. Zero. Nothing at all!

After two full days, one of your friends from this group sends you a personal text explaining that she and the others are all way too busy to contribute in any of these ways right now, but that they hope to attend the event itself. And she thanks you, on behalf of all three of them, for your "great work so far."

Needless to say, the event goes on, and it is even reasonably successful, but you walk away feeling like a bit of a fool for having had to do it all yourself.

Scenario B: Group Project Failure

You're a graduate student taking a class in scientific research methods. The professor randomly assigns you to a group with three other students in the class. The planning meeting that you all organize and attend goes very well. Tasks are allocated, and it all seems like it should be fine. You agree to take on the role of leading the data-collection process, which is essential to the project.

About four weeks later, your project is approved for data collection and your groupmates look to you to lead this component of the project. “Gosh!” you think. You have zero time to take this on at this point. Your kids both have tons of homework that you need to help them with each night, let alone after-school activities. And dinner, housework, etc., on top of that. Then there is your full-time job …

When texts come in from your groupmates from class, you balk. You find yourself not even replying, in spite of the fact that they are clearly looking to you to oversee this critical part of the project.

Within a few days, one of your groupmates, Teresa, steps up and somewhat politely says that she'll "help out" with the data collection. Teresa is known as a star student in the program and you can tell that she just wants to get the project done and receive a good grade for her efforts, which, to this point, have been substantial.

Before you know it, the project is complete, and the professor gives you all a solid and well-deserved (little thanks to you…) grade of A. Terrific work! The data-collection process was particularly impressive! writes the professor in an email to your group.

As you read that email, sitting on your couch after dinner, Netflix blaring in the background, you kind of feel like a jerk.

Minds Evolved for Groupwork

Unlike other Hominid species, Homo sapiens made what David Sloan Wilson (2007) calls a "great evolutionary leap." Humans like us form important bonds that cut across kin lines. This is, in fact, a foundational part of the human experience that led humans to such achievements as the building of cities and symphonies as well as landing on the moon.1 While there are many contenders when it comes to evolutionary explanations regarding why humans are unique in the ways that we are, the idea of humans being strongly evolved for group behavior seems especially viable.

Unlike our Neanderthal relatives,3 our Homo sapiens ancestors created ways of living in relatively large groups that included both kin and non-kin. Coalitional and cooperative psychology emerged. And people evolved the ability to work together toward common goals. And this proved to be a highly effective approach to life.

Evolutionary Costs and Benefits of Groupwork

Evolution is very much an optimizing process. And once this highly groupish nature came to characterize the human experience, pressures emerged surrounding the tension of taking actions that are best for oneself versus best for the group. In species that do not tend to organize stable groups, the choice is relatively clear: Organisms that have adaptations that benefit themselves will out-survive and out-reproduce others. But in species characterized by groupishness, things get a bit complex.

In a species like ours, if your group succeeds, then everyone in the group, including you, stands to benefit. But when it comes to living in groups, there are always pressures to take more than one's fair share and to give less than necessary. In a prior blog post, I referred to this as the fundamental human conflict.

As renowned evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson explains, this conflict results from a combination of within-group pressures (pressures to succeed within a group at a cost to others) versus between-group pressures (pressures to facilitate the success of your group relative to other groups). Within-group pressures cultivate selfish behaviors. Between-group pressures tend to cultivate other-oriented behaviors that serve the goals of the group. Humans, by our very nature, are constantly facing tensions between these two kinds of evolutionary pressures.

The Math of Being Too Nice

Some evolutionary biologists, such as renowned scholar Robert Trivers,4 see evolved human behavioral strategies in mathematical terms. In a species such as ours, where we evolved to interact with others regularly in group contexts, there is a critical mathematical balance. Individuals who give too much to others and to the group at large run the risk of being made fools, just like in the PTA example above.

But people who contribute conspicuously less than their fair share, such as in the graduate school group project example above, run the risk of being perceived as selfish jerks who take advantage of good, hard-working others.

From an evolutionary perspective, neither of these outcomes is all that great. If you take an approach to life rooted in self-sacrifice, you may be regularly taken advantage of by others. And from an evolutionary perspective, that will cost you.

But if you take an approach to life that is rooted in efforts to contribute as minimally as possible and to take advantage of others whenever the opportunity arises, you're at risk of being shunned by the group. And that's a heck of an evolutionary cost as well.

Given the long history of reciprocal altruism and social living in small, stable groups that characterize humans, we definitely evolved a suite of behaviors and psychological processes connected with group living.

From a mathematical-optimization perspective, humans evolved to demonstrate a balance of selfish versus other-oriented behaviors. And tipping that balance in either direction regularly leads to social and emotional problems.

Bottom Line

The human experience is complex. A core issue that underlies this complexity pertains to the consistent conflict between selfishness and other-oriented approaches to life. For thousands of generations, humans have lived in small groups that included both kin and non-kin. In such groups, our ancestors needed to balance giving too much versus giving too little.

Across our evolutionary history, humans have developed a complex psychology that works to balance these issues. Yet, as is always true with evolution, perfection is elusive. For this reason, people may find themselves feeling like they've given too much on one day and given not quite enough on another day. And these kinds of experiences cut across all kinds of human interactions, within intimate relationships, in the workplace, within friend groups, and beyond.

Sound a little like life as you know it? Welcome to the human experience.


1. Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death From a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

2. Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

3. Geher, G., Holler, R., Chapleau, D., et al. (2017). Using personal genome technology and psychometrics to study the personality of the Neanderthals. Human Ethology Bulletin, 3, 34–46.

4. Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.