Should charity begin at home?

Why we don’t value altruism in a mate.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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When it comes to giving aid and charity, whom should we help first: those in greatest need, or those we’re close to? The first choice may be more ethical. But a recent Yale/Oxford study suggests that, while people want to see leaders make that choice, they’re not enthusiastic when close companions or significant others do.

Psychology assistant professor Molly Crockett and her team surveyed over 2,000 volunteers on how they felt about the idea that one should strive to help others, regardless of who those others are or whether they’re connected to the giver. They found, for example, that participants showed more approval for a theoretical spouse or friend who believes a grandmother should pay for her grandson’s car repair—and less approval for one who feels it’s better for the grandmother to fund anti-malarial bed nets for strangers in need. This preference for favoritism was strong.

But when participants imagined people in distant, impersonal roles like bosses or politicians, they were indifferent. The study appeared online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The team’s inspiration for the study came from Strangers Drowning, a book by Larissa MacFarquhar about people who have made extreme sacrifices for strangers. Although what MacFarquhar calls “cold-blooded altruism” sounds reasonable, it often strikes us as peculiar, even unnatural. Crockett theorizes that evolution may have favored moral intuitions that optimize social relationships. Keeping our relationships strong requires signaling to others that we are loyal.

“In a globalized world, the challenges that we face now are such that we really ought to be directing our resources towards those who need it the most,” Crockett says. “There’s a lot that’s very appealing about this philosophy of utilitarianism. But our evolved moral psychology is set up to solve a very different set of problems. What we face today is the tension between what our moral psychology prefers and what is the approach that will best meet the demands of global threats.”

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