Why do we Give?

This is a fundamental question in psychology. What compels us to give our resources to others? Is it an innate behavior? Or a learned behavior? Why do we give to individuals outside of our “tribe”? Ultimately, the answers to those questions may have no bearing on the reality of your day to day life. I happen to believe that reasons that Americans give are pretty straightforward:

  1. We are asked to by others
  2. We believe it is a moral imperative
  3. We are deeply invested in a cause
  4. We stand to personally gain

Which of these reasons is the best? Reason 1 is not my fave (What You Spend on is What You Value). I would say that 2-4 are equally valid reasons for giving. What? Personal gain is a good reason to give? Who thinks that? Well, I do.

And the reason why is twofold: 1) our tax system is set up to incentivize a moral imperative by rewarding those who give. The option is there – take it! 2) There is a well known, proven psychological boost from giving to others. Time and money both count. The fuzzy feelings that arise from sharing your wealth and knowledge are key to a happy, contented life. Does it matter whether you give to get the “helper’s high” or if you give out of moral obligation? Science says no. Nonprofits say “who cares?” Obviously there is more to it than that, and this blog will explore the topic more over time. But for the purposes of this initial article, I think it is fair to say that your motivation for giving is irrelevant. The actual act of giving – in line with your values – is what is important.

Interestingly, Americans give far more to charitable organizations than those in socialized countries. I experienced this first hand when I lived in the UK. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when you consider the tax burden, the more straightforward tax system (fewer deductions), and the higher level of government services, you can see that reasons 2 and 4 for giving are greatly reduced. (Note that religious participation is also lower in those countries). Whether or not you believe this is good is purely a matter of opinion. I, however, think a happy medium would be the best of both worlds (always gray!!) The American system is significantly more reliant on private donations that socialist systems. While that is a shame for social services, it is a boon to the arts, to animal rights groups, and to medical research. I will write more on this in future posts as I find it quite fascinating.

What do you think? Did I miss any major reasons for giving? What about reasons for not giving? Let’s talk about those.

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4 thoughts on “Why do we Give?

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