Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

When it Comes to Being Nice, It May not Pay to Go the Extra Mile

By Alex Shaw, Haotian Zhou


The holiday season is not always just about receiving and giving gifts. The holiday season is also a time when we think about how we can help those less fortunate than us. Acts of charity and generosity can often warm our heart on these cold winter days and provide our lives with a deeper sense of purpose. Aside from making us feel better, being prosocial can also make us look better in the eyes of others, which is something many of us strive for. Does this mean that the more generous we are to others the better we will appear?  Recent research from Nadav Klein and Professor Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business provides a surprising answer to this question: that being nice and extra nice are often viewed equally positively by others. .

Although many of us might intuitively think of the relationship between generosity and being viewed positively by others as monotonic—the more generous one is the more positively one will be viewed by others—Klein and Epley begged to differ. These researchers hypothesized that the relationship between generosity and positive social evaluations by others might actually be asymptotic —being generous helps to a point, but after that there is little to no additional benefit to being more generous. These researchers argued that this asymptotic relationship would occur because people would fail to compare acts of generosity against other forms of generosity and they would instead just compare the act of generosity against the act of being selfish.

Image ©: Tax Credits 2012

To test this hypothesis the researchers had people judge three types of people, those who were selfish, those who were nice, and those who were extra nice. In one representative experiment, participants were randomly assigned to read about a man who went to a concert at a local orchestra where the suggested donation for attending the concert was $10. Participants read that the man either donated$0 (selfish), $10 (nice), or $20 (extra nice). They were then asked to report their impression of this man. The researchers found when the man either gave the Nice or the Extra Nice donation, the participants judged him as more positive (more warm) than when he refused to donate a single penny.. However, participants failed to distinguish between a nice act and an extra-nice one. Specifically, whether the man gave the Nice or the Extra Nice donation, he was viewed equally positive by the participants. The authors replicated this pattern in several different scenarios including one where a person attempted to divide some goodies between himself and another person, finding that people think Nice and Extra Nice behaviors are positive when these behaviors are considered in isolation.

These researchers then moved on to test their hypothesis that this counterintuitive result was being driven by the fact that people were not spontaneously comparing Nice and Extra Nice behaviors. To do this, the researchers asked participants to evaluate both the Nice and Extra Nice behaviors at the same time (rather than in isolation) and here they found that those who performed the extra nice behavior were seen as more positive than those who were just nice. Thus, people can be sensitive to the magnitude of our generosity, but they must be asked to explicitly compare these things. However, since most naturalistic acts of generosity do not entail these explicit comparisons, these results suggest that being nicer (or extra nice) rather than nice will often not make you look better to others.  

Does this research mean that we should try to be only minimally generous to others? If reputation is your only concern when contemplating giving to others, then giving the minimum might just be sufficient. However, we get quite a number of extra benefits from being generous toward others, including an increased sense of happiness and purpose. Indeed, NPP member Liz Dunn has previously found that people are happier when they spend money on others than when they spend money on themselves. Although spending larger amounts of money on others might not make you look any better to others, perhaps such donations can still make you happier if you can reflect on the fact that your increased donation will help more people. So give to others and you’ll receive the gift of purpose this holiday season.


Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Haotian Zhou 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 in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

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