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Being too generous may make you unpopular

June 27, 2013
Courtesy of Bay­lor Uni­vers­ity
and World Science staff

People ostracize those who are too ge­ner­ous—even when their giv­ing ben­e­fits ev­ery­one—be­cause the “big giv­ers” are non­con­formists, ac­cord­ing to a stu­dy.

Pub­lished in the jour­nal So­cial Sci­ence Re­search, the study found that be­sides re­ject­ing es­pe­cially gen­er­ous giv­ers, oth­ers even “paid” to pun­ish them through a points sys­tem.

“This is puz­zling be­hav­ior,” said re­search­er Kyle Ir­win, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Bay­lor Uni­vers­ity in Tex­as. “Why would you pun­ish the peo­ple who are do­ing the most—es­pe­cially when it ben­e­fits the group? It does­n’t seem to make sense on the sur­face, but it shows the pow­er of norms. It may be that group mem­bers think it’s more im­por­tant to con­form than for the group to do well.”

“Free-riders”—those who were stingy but ben­e­fit­ed from oth­ers’ con­tri­bu­tions—were also non­con­formists and os­tra­cized, ac­cord­ing to the find­ings.

Ir­win and co-re­search­er Chris­tine Horne, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Wash­ing­ton State Uni­vers­ity, con­ducted an ex­pe­ri­ment with 310 par­ti­ci­pants. Each was giv­en 100 points, which trans­lated in­to op­por­tun­i­ties to win a gift card, and had to de­cide how many to give to the group and how many to keep. Con­tri­bu­tions were dou­bled and di­vid­ed equally re­gard­less of how much peo­ple do­nat­ed. De­ci­sions were made via com­put­ers, and peo­ple did­n’t know or talk to oth­er group mem­bers be­fore mak­ing their de­ci­sions. Oth­er group mem­bers ac­tu­ally were sim­u­lat­ed, with pre-programmed be­hav­ior.

Each par­ti­ci­pant was told he or she would see the amounts of four oth­ers and be the fifth giv­er, with a sixth per­son end­ing the se­quence. The fi­nal giv­er al­ways was pre-programmed to be stin­gi­er or much more gen­er­ous than the oth­ers.

Each group mem­ber had the op­por­tun­ity to “pay” via the points sys­tem to pun­ish those who con­tri­but­ed the most. The “pun­isher” would have to give up one point for eve­ry three points he or she de­ducted from the most gen­er­ous mem­ber.

Each mem­ber al­so rat­ed on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they wanted each of the oth­ers to re­main in the group.

Group mem­bers’ dona­t­ions av­er­aged 50 per­cent of their re­sources. The “stingi­est” in­di­vid­ual gave only 10 per­cent, while the most gen­er­ous one gave 90 per­cent, the re­search­ers found.

Ir­win likened the pun­ishments to shun­ning or pok­ing fun at some­one who had done the bulk of work in a group proj­ect for a class—or even kick­ing the per­son out of the group.

“There could be a num­ber of rea­sons why the oth­ers pun­ish a gen­er­ous mem­ber,” he said. “It may be that the gen­er­ous giv­er made them look or feel bad. Or they may feel jeal­ous or like they’re not do­ing enough.” Ir­win sug­gested that at some point, if the con­tri­bu­tions be­came very large, group mem­bers’ wish to ben­e­fit might over­ride their de­sire to pun­ish.


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People punish generous individuals by rejecting them socially—even when the generosity benefits everyone—because the “big givers” are nonconformists, according to a study. The study, published in the journal Social Science Research, showed that besides socially rejecting especially generous givers, others even “paid” to punish them through a points system. “This is puzzling behavior,” said researcher Kyle Irwin, a sociologist at Baylor University in Texas. “Why would you punish the people who are doing the most—especially when it benefits the group? It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface, but it shows the power of norms. It may be that group members think it’s more important to conform than for the group to do well.” “Free-riders”—those who were stingy but benefited from others’ larger contributions—also were nonconformists and ostracized, according to the findings. Irwin and co-researcher Christine Horne, a sociologist at Washington State University, conducted an experiment with 310 participants. Each was given 100 points, which translated into opportunities to win a gift card, and had to decide how many to give to the group and how many to keep. Contributions were doubled and divided equally regardless of how much people donated. Decisions were made via computers, and people didn’t know or talk to other group members before making their decisions. Other group members actually were simulated, with pre-programmed behavior. Each participant was told he or she would see the amounts of four others and be the fifth giver, with a sixth person ending the sequence. The final giver always was pre-programmed to be stingier or much more generous than the others. Each group member had the opportunity to “pay” via the points system to punish those who contributed the most. The “punisher” would have to give up one point for every three points he or she deducted from the most generous member. Each member also rated on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they wanted each of the others to remain in the group. Group members’ donations averaged 50 percent of their resources. The “stingiest” individual gave only 10 percent, while the most generous one gave 90 percent, the researchers found. Irwin likened the punishments to shunning or poking fun at someone who had done the bulk of work in a group project for a class—or even kicking the person out of the group. “There could be a number of reasons why the others punish a generous member,” he said. “It may be that the generous giver made them look or feel bad. Or they may feel jealous or like they’re not doing enough.” Irwin suggested that at some point, if the contributions became very large, group members’ wish to benefit might override their desire to punish.