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Generosity and Guilt Are Connected

Guilt is an advantage if it keeps us on the same page as others.

Why are some of us more generous than others? Could we be banking community goodwill for the future? Or, are we motivated by internal conflicts as Freud supposed?

Human generosity has a deep evolutionary basis wherein our ancestors flourished through mutual support.

The Sharing Species

The most obvious example of mutual benefits was the sharing of food, specifically the equal sharing of valuable high-energy nutrition such as meat, fish, or honey. Other great apes share food occasionally as well.

When children imitate others, they produce a replica of what they have seen and include some movements that are inessential in solving a problem, such as a theatrical waving of the hand before drawing a chain attached to a reward. This is called over-imitation. When highly social bonobos were tested on the same problem, they stripped out the inessential movement and did only what was required to obtain a food reward.

So, despite their frequent social interactions, bonobos are not as intensely social as humans. Another key feature of human sociability is that we internalize not just the actions of others but also their emotions. Guilt is a good example. If we do something that upsets others we feel very uncomfortable and that discomfort registers as guilt.

Freudian Guilt

Freud was a leading pioneer in the theory of social emotions like guilt and pride. Pride is essentially the opposite of guilt, according to Freud, and it helps us to behave in ways that are socially reinforced even if personally costly, such as donating to a charity. According to Freud's way of thinking, we are subject to internal emotional conflicts whether we are aware of them or not.

So, our good behavior may be motivated by guilt. When we do something bad, it evokes feelings of guilt. Such conflicts might get suppressed and re-emerge as psychological disorders. Or they could motivate actions that relieve the internal tension. For example, a person who experiences guilt might be motivated to engage in acts of unusual generosity to relieve their discomfort.

That altruism is sometimes motivated by guilt was confirmed in an experiment based on a money-sharing game. Some players received more money than expected according to the rules of the game. They continued to split the money equally with partners even though the partner did not know of the windfall.

While this behavior is consistent with Freudian theory, it is the opposite of what would be expected if humans were the selfish actors predicted by simple Darwinian competition.

What Is the Adaptive Value of Giving in Response to Guilt?

Most of us are not completely selfish actors, however. This fact is highlighted by the existence of a small minority of people—antisocial personalities—who are not swayed by feelings of guilt and are described as lacking a moral sense. What matters is not that such individuals exist but that they are such a small minority. The implication is that people who are affected by feelings of guilt are more successful in terms of survival and reproductive success.

The antisocial individual was likely recognized as a social cheat and was rejected, and discriminated against, by others. This could take the form of banishment or physical aggression.

Having an internal sense of guilt is an advantage if it helps us to stay on the same page as others in the community in a close-knit, highly cooperative society. Guilt is thus a companion piece to over-imitation in our evolution as a hyper-social species whose success relied upon cooperation. When our sense of guilt warns us that we are in danger of alienating our community, being generous is an effective mechanism for restoring our reputation and keeping the trust of acquaintances.

Although guilt can help explain unusual generosity, it is just one of many influences. If a person is highly generous in their charitable donations, for example, it does not mean that they are heavily burdened by guilt. Another critical determinant of generosity is access to resources.

Access to Resources

In a modern world characterized by hereditary inequality, some wealthy individuals are sensitive to the injustice of a system of inheritance that concentrates resources close to the top of the economic pyramid. They feel a certain amount of guilt about undeserved advantages, which motivates some amount of charitable giving.

Yet, we should not exaggerate the role of guilt as a motive. There are many others. Large public donations can be interpreted as an expression of wealth and prestige that is analogous to the conspicuous consumption of owning a private jet. In political donations, there is also an element of pay-to-play.

Generous giving is not necessarily a matter of relieving guilt. It could be interpreted instead as one manifestation of a primal social contract based on ancestral food-sharing. Sometimes sharing just feels right.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
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