The Dark Side of Prosociality: It May Have Cookies.

There’s no unselfish good deed

-         Joey Tribbiani, Friends.

Last week, I was heading to work in a Mumbai local, when a middle-aged lady, presumably on her way to work as well, entered the compartment. She sat right opposite me, and after a few minutes proceeded to remove a neatly folded food packet, a paper plate, and a spoon from her bag. She served herself some pre-Diwali chivda from the packet, and finished her food while being careful that she did not spill any of it on her clothes. After finishing the food, she did what majority of people who travel in Mumbai locals do – made several manoeuvres to fit the paper plate in through the window grills, in an effort to throw it out.

Before any of her attempts could succeed, I acted on instinct, and called her off on her ‘trashy’ behavior, thereby garnering the attention of a couple of women around. I then advised her to throw all trash in dustbins at the stations, henceforth. Post this incident, she proceeded to do something that intrigued me – she handed a good sum of Rs. 50 to a woman who was seeking ‘donations for cancer patients’ in the train compartment. Now there’s nothing weird if someone actually wants to contribute to a cause, right? Except, she had initially refused the woman, and then called her back to give her the money; all after being called out in public on a socially inappropriate behavior that she exhibited.

Incidents like this one raise several questions about how prosociality actually works. Is prosocial behavior really selfless, or is there a personal agenda attached to it? Research has shown that people who engage in charity are often happier and healthier than those who don’t. This is because, the act of donating money to someone activates the mesolimbic system of the brain, which modulates behavioural responses to stimuli such as food, sex, and drugs, which are associated with instant rewards and reinforcement. Cialdini and colleagues (1973), in their Negative State Relief model, asserted that individuals who engaged in transgressions would behave in a more helpful manner later, so as to reduce the negative affective state induced by doing harm. Thus, individuals who engage in prosocial behavior may be doing it just to feel better about themselves after exhibiting a behavior that has led to self-deprecation. The final benefits to the person receiving the help hardly hold any importance. The constant pleasure derived from the ‘feel-good neurotransmitters’, leading to helping behaviors, may also lead to what is called a ‘helping high’, thereby impelling individuals to help others more, so as to attain personal pleasure from it. This occurrence is termed as ‘warm-glow giving’ within Economics.

When individuals engage in prosocial behaviors, what often gets overlooked are the repercussions of these behaviors. While an act may seem like it is contributing to the greater good, there may be other negative latent factors resulting from the act. Mother Teresa’s ‘missions’ seem to be an excellent example of this. Her recent canonisation garnered severe criticism, as many regard her work to be fraudulent and fundamentalist. Her social work in India is regarded by sceptics as an image built up by colonised logic – that of a white woman helping the poor of the global South. Further, it is suggested that she helped people only with the ulterior motive of converting them to Christianity. Mother Teresa had controversial views about abortions, going so far as to call it the greatest destroyer of peace, in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. She glorified pain and suffering, and her ‘homes for the dying’ were riddled with unhygienic conditions. Therefore, despite her will to help people, one may argue that the altruism only caused more social harm than good. While it can be assumed that some individuals may have been propelled into undertaking social service due to her influence, the followers who refused to see behind her mask of generosity, and were brainwashed into believing her ideas about pain and suffering, abortion, and her ways of dealing with the sick, were a massive collateral damage. There are numerous not-so-famous instances of misinterpreted and deceptive prosociality, and one needs to be cautious about the overall effects of ideas they are endorsing (paying off Trump’s debts, anyone?)

When one speaks about altruism, the topic of helping victims of mishaps often comes to mind. Many a times, these victims fail to receive any help from people around them. Common perception as to why they receive no or minimal help, is that people are intimidated by having to deal with the police and the law later on. However, another factor that comes into play in such situations is people thinking ‘what’s in it for me’, before attempting to help. For many individuals, the comparison of costs of helping someone with its rewards determines how ‘prosocial’ they are going to be. Usually in cases where people have lost a valuable item and someone returns it, they may be expecting a reward majority of the time. This phenomena, as expounded by social-exchange theory denotes that humans consciously calculate the rewards for helping someone and only engage in helping behaviors when these rewards outweigh the costs.

To conclude, while altruism may seem like an extremely desirable quality, the motive behind it may not always be a positive one. This is not to take away any credit from individuals who genuinely mean well for others. However, as far as people’s perceptions towards altruism are concerned, there are many factors other than the actual act of helping that come into play, and while one would benefit from understanding these aspects, one could also undertake some self-introspection the next time they think of helping someone. As Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker in A New Hope: Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.

Sampada Karandikar