Get what you give

In an interview some years ago the actor Kevin Spacey was asked why he was engaging in a project to help aspiring artists in the film industry. He answered to the effect that once you get to the penthouse there is an obligation to send the elevator back down. Whether you need to wait until you get to the penthouse to send the elevator back is a moot point but the principle that he is giving voice to here is that you cannot just continue to take, there must be a time when you give. This is an ancient social principle but it is also being constantly highlighted in the psychological research.

In the new study people were asked to take part in a game. They were told that another participant had six dollars that they could share with them. They then received an envelope that they believed came from the other participant. The envelope either contained six dollars (generosity), three dollars (equal/ fair), or no money (greed). The subjects were then given another six dollars and told that they could share it any way they wanted with another participant.

The results showed that people who received a generous share did not show any more generosity than people who were given a fair share. However, people given a greedy split were much more likely to only pass on a small amount or none at all to the future participant. On average those who were the subjects of greed only gave $1.32 to the next participant.

A second study used work instead of money. People who believed they had been assigned a boring task, instead of a fun task, by another participant were much more likely to assign boring tasks to other people. The inclination to reciprocate negative behaviour with more negative behaviour was again stronger than the likelihood of repaying positive with positive.

The researchers say that this points to the fact that the brain is wired to pay more attention to negative stimuli. This is a well proven fact and makes sense if you wanted to survive a harsh world when you were essentially on your own and not part of a structured society. According to the researchers their findings suggest that generosity and acts of altruism will not just multiply exponentially because negative acts will always be more likely to grab our attention and shape our behaviour.

Isn’t this just another reason though to make sure even more of your acts are generous ones? The less selfishness, the less chance minds will perpetuate it. If the question is, “What should I do about this?” The answer is to live and love generously.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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