When charitable acts are perceived as 'tainted' by personal gain

by Anna Mikulak

(Medical Xpress)—We tend to perceive a person's charitable efforts as less moral if the do-gooder reaps a reward from the effort, according to new research.

This phenomenon—which researchers call the "tainted-altruism effect"—suggests that charity in conjunction with self-interested behavior is viewed less favorably because we tend to think that the person could have given everything to charity without taking a cut for themselves.

"We are just starting to learn more about how people evaluate the of others," explains Yale University researcher George Newman. "This work suggests that people may react very negatively to charitable initiatives that are perceived to be in some way 'inauthentic.'"

The new findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In one study, Newman and colleague Daylian Cain instructed to read scenarios in which a man was trying to gain a woman's affection by volunteering at her workplace. Some participants read that she worked at a homeless shelter, while others read that she worked at a . A third group of participants read both scenarios.

In line with the tainted-altruism hypothesis, participants who read that the man volunteered at the homeless shelter rated him as less moral, less ethical, and his actions as no more beneficial to society than the participants who read that he volunteered at the coffee shop.

Participants who read both the scenarios, however, seemed to realize that doing some good by volunteering at the homeless shelter was better than doing no good at all: They rated the man as equally moral in both scenarios.

Several other experiments supported these results, showing that participants viewed making a profit from a charitable initiative as less moral than making a profit from a business venture, and they were significantly less likely to support that charity as a result. Participants only realized the inconsistency in this logic when they were reminded that the person in question didn't have to contribute to charity at all.

In their final experiment, the researchers tested the tainted-altruism effect with the Gap (RED) campaign, a real-world initiative that donates 50% of profits from certain products purchased at Gap clothing stores to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria. This time, participants rated the company poorly if they were reminded that Gap keeps the other 50% of profits. However, those who were asked to further consider that Gap didn't have to donate any money at all realized the flawed logic and rated them more highly.

"We found evidence that 'tainted' is seen as worse than doing no good at all," Newman says. "Importantly, this effect can be framed away and appears to be pretty malleable."

The researchers believe that finding ways to reduce the tainted-altruism bias might lead to more charitable donations and could help to boost the public image of philanthropic organizations and individuals.

"In some cases, public assessments of charitable actions as genuine may trump any actual benefits realized from those efforts," they conclude.

More information: George E. Newman and Daylian M. Cain. "Tainted Altruism: When Doing Some Good Is Evaluated as Worse Than Doing No Good at All." Psychological Science 0956797613504785, first published on January 8, 2014 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613504785

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Moral realism' may lead to better moral behavior

Jan 29, 2013

Getting people to think about morality as a matter of objective facts rather than subjective preferences may lead to improved moral behavior, Boston College researchers report in the Journal of Experimental So ...

Psychologists probe moral judgments of suicide

Jan 08, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Suicide is a major public health issue; it takes the lives of more than a million people each year. It is also widely believed to be immoral. Why do people so commonly believe it is wrong for people to ...

Recommended for you

Report advocates improved police training

Aug 29, 2014

A new report released yesterday by the Mental Health Commission of Canada identifies ways to improve the mental health training and education that police personnel receive.

Meaningful relationships can help you thrive

Aug 29, 2014

Deep and meaningful relationships play a vital role in overall well-being. Past research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being ...

Learning to read involves tricking the brain

Aug 29, 2014

While reading, children and adults alike must avoid confusing mirror-image letters (like b/d or p/q). Why is it difficult to differentiate these letters? When learning to read, our brain must be able to inhibit ...

User comments