Yale School of Management

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The Better, Coercive Angels

Despite decades of inquiry from both social and natural scientists, has a central insight about the origin of altruism been systematically overlooked? And is this making firms less effective?

November 17, 2014

Altruistic behavior is essential to any organization. Firms depend on the inherent goodness of employees to make decisions that benefit the firm. Workers rely on the beneficence of colleagues to cover a shift here, lend a hand there. Charities, non-profits, and community organizations stake their livelihoods on others’ generosity. And yet, as essential as this behavior is, its origins remain elusive.

“Theorists across the social and natural sciences have offered a litany of possible explanations for altruism,” wrote Daylian Cain, Jason Dana, and George Newman of the Yale School of Management. Evolutionary biologists claim the impetus arose in small tribal settings. Economists rationalize the behavior through self-interest—it’s a quid pro quo, a gesture of reciprocity, a way of securing a good reputation, or getting a good night’s sleep. Though the specific motivations differ, almost every theory seeks to justify why people might want to give.

But writing in The Academy of the Management Annals, Cain, Dana, and Newman argued “that a surprising amount of prosocial behavior is a compulsory response to a request for help, either implicit or explicit. Sometimes people behave prosocially not because of the benefit of saying ‘yes,’ but rather because they feel they cannot say ‘no.’” In short, sometimes people aren’t giving, but instead are giving in.

Take the recent trend of charitable fund-raising that occurs at the checkout line. Cashiers ask customers, for example, if they would like to donate to a charity. The classic thinking is that this is a win-win: customers who don’t want to donate can say no; otherwise, the customer gets to give at no cost to the retailer. But perhaps some customers give reluctantly (or give in) and find this “option to give” akin to arm-twisting; they would rather not be asked to donate. 

Sometimes people aren’t giving, but instead are giving in.

In fact, a growing body of empirical literature consistently demonstrates that about 50 percent of altruistic action seen in experiments on the topic is driven by giving in. While some groups are proactively generous and others proactively not, a vast middle ground exists that is willing help when pressured.

The effects of this distinction are not immediately obvious. Regardless of what sparks altruistic behavior, the outcome is the same: both “giving” and “giving in” lead individuals to offer help. But if giving in is what drives people toward altruism—a begrudging sense of obligation—then people may actively avoid contexts where pressure to help will likely arise, or they may strive to remain ignorant of requests that occur.

This new understanding of what drives altruistic behavior presents interesting managerial opportunity, shifting the focus from finding those few who help unconditionally to creating the conditions in which the vast majority of people might be turned into helpers.

Requesting help, for instance, is known to be a powerful mechanism for soliciting assistance, and one that is difficult to refuse. Both direct requests, like asking for aid in person, and indirect requests, which might suggest the value of altruistic action, can powerfully influence behavior. To capitalize on the value of requests, however, managers must not only make them, but also limit the opportunities for people to avoid, or plead ignorance of, these requests. Avoidance cannot be an option.

Scrutiny is another important tool for encouraging altruistic behavior among people prone to giving in. Consider a recent charity drive managed by graduate students that ramped-up scrutiny: pictures of the entire class, initially posted on a main board in the middle of a common hallway, were each moved to a donor board when the student made a donation. As more and more students donated, fewer students remained pictured on the main board. Initially, it seemed as if donors were being rewarded. When it got down to just a handful of non-donors on the main board, however, it seemed as if non-donors were being punished. This strategy was tremendously effective in garnering donations. Establishing transparency in how one is scrutinized, and by whom, can be a powerful determinant of helping behavior.

That said, a delicate balance is necessary to create conditions that lead people to give in without too aggressively twisting arms. Frequently or heavily applying social pressure can lead to backlash. The managerial challenge thus arises in pressuring people to give in without creating negative long-term consequences. For instance, in taxi cabs with credit card machines, higher default tip suggestions lead to higher average tip amounts, but they also cause significantly more patrons to leave $0. The overall effect remains unknown.

There is undeniable cynicism in this idea. We are likely not as generous as we think, nor are others as generous as we might hope. To our credit, though, in the right situation, under the right pressures, we’ll be driven—not touched—by the better angels of our nature.