A stack of abandoned cardboard boxes on a car parking lot
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Tainted good

Making someone else better off without making any other person worse off, that can only be a good thing, right? Well, not quite, it seems.

Koen Smets
6 min readMar 10, 2023

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Was Robin Hood, the English folk hero, the noble bandit who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor” a good guy? Being generous to the less well-off would certainly appear to be a good thing. But stealing someone’s possessions, even if you question their legitimate ownership and if it is to distribute them to the destitute, is definitely open to moral challenge. We might therefore be a little reluctant to give Mr Hood or modern-day equivalents our unconditional support. But if we don’t resort to robbery, is being generous then sufficient to be judged a good person?

As social beings, we need to be able to evaluate the people we interact with, so we can predict with some confidence how they are likely to behave in future situations. In particular, we need a good idea whether they will act in a way that is beneficial, or detrimental to us. They may tell a good story, but the best way to judge them is to look at the choices they make, and how these might affect us.

Something of special interest is whether people tend to make selfish choices, with their own gain as the primary driver, or generous choices, where they have the benefit of others in mind. Many decisions fall squarely on one or other side of this divide, and people who put their own gains first, even if it means someone else loses out, are not judged very highly, while people who tend to make sacrifices to benefit others are held in higher esteem.

Don’t look at my deeds, look at whether I benefit

But do we tend to look only at people’s actions and their outcomes, or is there more to it? It seems there is at least one other aspect that we tend to attach considerable importance to. We appear to take a dim view of people who profit from their own generous acts — even if it is not at the expense of someone else. George Newman and Daylian Cain, both cognitive scientists, coined the term tainted altruism in a 2014 paper, for generous acts from which the benefactors themselves derive benefit.

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius