Want to know a sure way to be seen as immoral, unethical and unlikable? Raise $1 million for charity. Want to know how to have people think a lot more favorably of you? Raise nothing at all. If you think that’s entirely irrational, you’re right. Welcome to the human condition.
The key to being thought of as a louse for helping the sick or the poor is not the act of giving by itself, but the act of benefiting from it. That million dollars looks a little less princely if, for your troubles, you kept 10% of it—even if you made that intention clear from the start and even if $900,000 still went to the folks who need it most. Fork it all over or don’t expect any applause.
The idea that a good act doesn’t count if the actor benefits as well is known as “tainted altruism,” and it not only makes little sense, it can also cause real harm, as professors of organizational behavior George Newman and Daylian Cain of Yale University prove in a study in this month’s issue of Psychological Science. But there are ways around the problem, the investigators show, ones that reflect a subtler understanding of just what morality is—and which may help boost charitable giving too.