When does doing good make you look bad?
A standard evolutionary explanation for why individuals help others is that it allows them to improve their reputation by doing so. Gaining a good reputation is advantageous because it signals to others the kind of person you are: kind, cooperative, trustworthy - in short, the kind of person that would be good to have as a friend or partner.
But is it possible that doing good sometimes makes you look bad? It seems it might be.
Humans are meta-cognitive. That means we think about how others think - we infer intentions based on observed actions.
Very few, if any, other animals on earth have such sophisticated cognitive machinery. This ability comes with a cost, however. Rather than simply accepting good deeds at face value, we typically go one step further and attempt to second guess the 'real' reason for the action. The slightest hint of self-interest behind an ostensibly charitable deed can often be more damaging to an individual's reputation than if they had simply done nothing at all.
This 'tainted altruism' effect can help us to explain why we balk at for-profit, for-good companies, but are (more or less) fine with for-profit, for-bad. A recent experiment showed that when raising money for a charity, people were willing to forego over $100,000 in earnings for the charity by choosing a not-for-profit fundraising company over a more effective but for-profit alternative. The same avoidance of the for-profit fundraiser was not manifest when considering the gains for a corporate entity. Why do people feel this way? Why do we hold the for-good companies to higher moral standards than those who do bad?
In my view, the explanation lies in our evolved psychology. Historically and in the modern day world, mutually beneficial interactions rely to a large extent on being able to trust your partner. Interacting with an untrustworthy type leaves you open to being suckered. There is an obvious need to discriminate between people who simply play the part of the Good Samaritan when others are looking (but who might screw you over given half the chance) - and those who seem to do this without concern for their own appearance. Indeed, we instinctively downgrade our moral evaluation of people - and companies - who brag about their good deeds to others. This can even result in the phenomenon of do-gooder derogation - targeting morally superior others. Poor old vegans seem to be a popular target.
From an evolutionary perspective, we might expect people to be aware that publicising good deeds can sometimes backfire. And they do seem to be. Publicising donations - something that should result in reputation benefits - can cause donors to feel less happy. Most, if not all, fundraising websites nowadays offer donors the option to give anonymously, thereby eschewing reputation consequences of giving. As expected if excessive generosity can be interpreted as showing off, anonymous donors tend to be those whose gift is very large when compared with others that have been made to that cause. This results in something of a quandry: JustGiving, an online fundraising company, noted that sharing a donation to Facebook raises an extra £4.50 (on average) for the cause in question - but donors were reticent to publicise their good deeds to their social network in this way. By tapping into our evolved psychology, and reframing the message from one of self-presentation ("You're an amazing person! Share your donation.") to one of helping a friend raise more money ("Help your friend raise even more money by sharing their page."), JustGiving were able to make sharing more palatable to donors, increasing compliance by over 20 %.
According to Oscar Wilde, "The nicest feeling in the world is to do a good deed anonymously - and have somebody find out". I think that we can go one step further and argue that it doesn't just feel nice. Doing good deeds anonymously is perhaps the most reliable signal we can send to others about our moral integrity. The reputation benefits of being found out occasionally might more than offset the costs of the other truly anonymous actions, allowing a general proclivity for anonymous and unconditional generosity to come under positive selection. The implications for brands and corporations with respect to reputation management are profound: money spent on advertising CSR may well undermine the brand's reputation rather than improving it. Somewhat counter-intuitively, trying to ensure that CSR activities are not promoted or advertised to others might often yield net positive effects, even when some of these activities go undetected.