Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being

Is It Bad to Help Yourself While Helping Others?

By Alex Shaw, Oren Shapira

Pursuing one’s purpose involves at least two things: a desire to do something purposeful and the ability to overcome impediments to fulfilling that purpose. One way that people try to pursue purpose is through volunteering to help others, yet they soon find it very difficult to motivate themselves to keep volunteering when it becomes challenging. Some of our NPP research is focused on how to keep people motivated on their path to purpose in things such as volunteer work. One way to keep oneself motivated to volunteer is to choose volunteering activities that are personally rewarding. However, recent research suggests that helping oneself while helping others can be evaluated quite negatively by third parties.

charity philanthropy giving positive psychology behavioral science altruism morality

Image: © 2006 Eric

Profs. George Newman and Daylian Cain of the Yale School of Management recently discovered that people more negatively evaluate those who benefit themselves by volunteering and doing charitable behavior as compared to those who benefit themselves through more neutral behaviors. The authors told participants a story about someone who volunteered their time at a homeless shelter (charitable behavior) or volunteered their time at a coffee shop (neutral behavior). In both cases, the individual in the story volunteered their time for a selfish reason; they were trying to impress a girl who worked at the homeless shelter or the coffee shop. Despite the fact that participants thought volunteering time at the homeless shelter was more beneficial than volunteering time at the coffee shop, they thought the person who volunteered his time at the homeless shelter was less moral than the person who volunteered his time at the coffee shop. The authors found this same pattern across several studies: people think others are less moral when they perform a socially beneficial altruistic behavior for selfish reasons (e.g. a person raises more money for a charity than someone else, but takes a percentage of the profits) than if they perform a socially neutral action for selfish reasons.  The authors argue that this occurs because people dislike “tainted altruism”—when people perform seemingly altruistic deeds for selfish reasons.

It is certainly bad when charitable organizations are not as charitable as we are led to believe. For example, people were rightly outraged when they discovered how little of the money collected during the NFL’s breast cancer awareness month actually goes toward breast cancer research.  However, as long as you’re not deceiving anyone, helping oneself need not conflict with a desire to help others, and it would be silly to pass up an opportunity to help others just because it also helped yourself. After all, isn’t tainted altruism better than no altruism?  Helping others is obviously good, and if  helping others also helps yourself, this benefit might make you more likely to keep helping in the future. Hopefully, when other people see the fruit of your help, they will also realize that help isn’t a zero-sum-game. By helping others you can often “increase the pie,” making everyone better off while getting closer to your purpose.


Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being

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