Doing good or a do-gooder?

Why does the term “doing good” provoke positive connotations? Why does the term “do-gooder” provoke negative connotations?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a do-gooder as “some whose desire and effort to help people is regarded as wrong, annoying, useless, etc.” and an “earnest often naïve humanitarian or reformer.” Richard Whitlock, a British doctor, supposedly was the first to document the term “do-gooder” in writing in 1650, when he described one as “a person who seeks to correct social ills in an idealistic, but usually impractical or superficial way.”

Nobody appreciates a do-gooder. American social psychologist Professor Craig Parks of Washington State University conducted a series of studies in 2009-2010 on do-gooders, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. His research, a series of four studies entitled The Desire to Expel Unselfish Members from the Group, involved volunteers to undertake tasks without being prompted. He also had a group hand out gifts without being prompted.

Before the study was undertaken, Parks found that his participants thought that their selfless behaviour would make them popular in the research groups. The results of the study revealed the opposite. The do-gooder participants were not popular by other group members. Why? Weren’t they doing good?

Parks found that a do-gooder, in his research, made other members of the group feel guilty and they felt pressured to behave in the same manner. Do-gooders were resented because it was perceived that they set a “level of expectation” that would make others “look bad.”

Do-gooders were resented because it was perceived that they set a “level of expectation” that would make others “look bad.”

The participants were seen to be do-gooders in the negative connotation rather than doing good – and one reason was that the participants appeared to be, from the group members’ perspective, as “deviant rule breakers.” One person in the group described their behaviour as: “it’s as if they’re giving away Monopoly money [a board game] so someone can stay in the game, irking other players no end.”

In all four studies, the other group members wanted to expel the person from the group who was giving the gifts or doing the tasks without being asked to. They did not know that this was an experiment. This was even though the whole group improved their welfare as a result of the do-gooders task or gift. Parks described this as “what is objectively good, we see as subjectively bad.”

This was the research task. The researchers told the members in each group that they would receive an allocation of points that they could keep or give away for an immediate reward of food vouchers. They were told that giving away points would improve the group’s chance of receiving the food vouchers, which would be shared between them. More food for the group was the incentive. Generally the members would make fair trades or swaps of one point for each voucher. However, in each group the researchers secretly told one person to make lop-sided exchanges – giving up no points and taking lots of vouchers (which the researchers called the “greedy” person) or unselfishly giving away a lot of points and taking only a few vouchers (which the researchers called the “do-gooder” person).

As expected, group members did not want to work with the greedy participants again. However, a majority of group members also said that they did not want to work with the unselfish person again – the do-gooder. They perceived that the person was breaking the rules of the research game. Sometimes they said the person who was giving gifts must have had “ulterior motives” and therefore were suspicious of them and rejected them.

So, when you conduct acts of giving to charity or philanthropic work, are you doing good or are you seen to be a do-gooder? Hopefully the act of kindness won’t be seen as “annoying” or “useless.” For some acts of giving, a prior knowledge of the situation may avoid negative connotations and negative perceptions – in other words, try to find the most appropriate way of giving to avoid being “annoying.”

The act of doing good is intended to be a spiritual act, an expression of caring for other people such that the life of an individual, or a collective group, improves temporarily, permanently, now or into the future. Giving might not always be appreciated, but it is always worth giving.

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls specialises in human rights, peace and reconciliation, disaster relief, and aid development, primarily in developing countries, states in transition, and conflict zones. She is the author of four books: The Sudan Curse, Kashmir on a Knife-Edge, Bardot’s Comet and Liberia’s Deadest Ends.

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