Category Archives: altruism

Altruism the key to worker productivity and advancement?

The New York Times Sunday magazine (3/31/13) has an interesting long read by Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” focusing on research by Wharton (U. Penn) workplace organization psychologist Adam Grant who believes, originally based on personal experience and later supported by hard-headed quant studies that altruism both motivates workers to work harder and helps them to advance.


“For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity. In some sense, he has built a career in professional motivation by trying to unpack the puzzle of his own success. He has always helped; he has always been productive. How, he has wondered for most of his professional life, does the interplay of those two factors work for everyone else?

“Organizational psychology has long concerned itself with how to design work so that people will enjoy it and want to keep doing it. Traditionally the thinking has been that employers should appeal to workers’ more obvious forms of self-interest: financial incentives, yes, but also work that is inherently interesting or offers the possibility for career advancement. Grant’s research, which has generated broad interest in the study of relationships at work and will be published for the first time for a popular audience in his new book, “Give and Take,” starts with a premise that turns the thinking behind those theories on its head. The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

At a university call center, Grant tried reinforcing the ties to needy students to motivate callers and tested its effectiveness.  He found in 6 repeated tests that even a 5 minute speech by a scholarship recipient now working for Teach for America and testifying how the scholarship had changed his life, on average meant that even a month later fundraisers spent 2.5x as much time on the phone, nearly doubled the number of calls made per hour, and average caller brought in 5x as much money per week.  These results were achieved even though workers used the same script and consciously discounted the impact of the student’s talk.   He and others have found other productivity benefits from “gratitude journals” or “thank you notes.”

“Over the years, Grant has followed up that study with other experiments testing his theories about prosocial motivation — the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback. In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.”

Grant in his forthcoming book divides the world of workers “divides the world into three categories: givers, matchers and takers. Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders.”

Grant says that the key to successful givers is being strategic about doing nice things for others — what he calls the “5 minute favor” and asking if you can add unique value to the person requesting your time, and if not, strategically connecting the asker with other givers or with matchers for whom you have done past favors.  One can easily imagine that if one is strategic about doing favors for others, social capital theory would suggest that one builds up an informal “favor bank” that as the askers move up in the world, put you in a much stronger position to request favors of others.  It increases his pool of willing collaborators and puts him in a larger web of information flows in an era where expertise and knowledge is often distributed.  It is interesting that the motivation for Grant at least in being a giver is not at all about advancement — for him it is the key to doing what he can to conquer mortality.  He endorses William James’ view that  ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’

Grant also notes that takers succeed in the short-term but don’t do as well over the long-term perhaps because others use online social networks to punish takers [see e.g., Matthew Feinberg, Joey T. Cheng and Robb Willer, “Gossip as an Effective and Low-Cost Form of Punishment“, Behavioral and Brain Science 25(1), Feb 2012.]

He talks about his experience with the University of Michigan fundraising call center about 4 minutes into the following video. One person had a depressing sign on his desk saying “Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit.  You get a warm feeling but no one else notices.”:

I wonder whether his strategy is equally effective for all social strata. Jean Rhodes and others found that post-Katrina low SES survivors  who were more connected with others suffered mental health losses in short-term because all their friends were making demands of them [discussed towards bottom of this blog post].  The workers, like Adam Grant, himself may be less surrounded by needy individuals and more likely to be providing favors to students who will go on to higher stations in life, but very interesting food for thought…

Read Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

Read Adam Grant’s new book, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” (April 2013)


People for Good aims to spur acts of kindness

Flickr photo by baloozer

The Canadian “People for Good” effort has tried to encourage Canadians to do good deeds.

One bus ran a PSA with the slogan: “Need a lift?”  And below it said “You look great today.”  Here are some suggestions they make:

  1. Smile at a stranger – or wave at your fellow subway passenger
  2. Open and hold the door for someone
  3. Give up your seat on the subway, bus or streetcar
  4. Buy a coffee for your co-worker
  5. Surprise your colleagues with freshly baked brownies
  6. Cut grass or shovel snow for your neighbor
  7. Help a stranger change a tire on the road – or put in a coin in expiring parking meter for someone you don’t know
  8. Return a grocery cart after someone has used it or let a stranger ahead of you in a store line
  9. While  on Facebook, just pick up the phone and give your friend a call
  10. Simply say ‘‘Thank you’’ to someone who helped you – and really mean it
  11. Mow your neighbor’s lawn
  12. Instead of an email, send a handwritten note.
  13. Call your mother
  14. Bring home flowers.
  15. Make cookies for your neighbors
  16. Do a chore, even if it’s not your turn.
  17. Give up the remote
  18. Make breakfast for the household
  19. Go say hello to your neighbor.
  20. Tell someone you love them.
  21. Unload the dishwasher.
  22. Have dinner at the table with the whole family.
  23. Wake up in a good mood.
  24. Give someone first dibs on the morning paper.
  25. Clean out your closet and donate your old clothes.
  26. Say good morning to a stranger.
  27. Help someone cross the street.
  28. Offer to give someone directions
  29. Pick up a piece of litter.

For more suggestions, visit here. is the brainchild of Mark Sherman, Exec. Chair, Media Experts (a media strategy firm), and Zak Mroueh, President, Zula Alpha Kilo (advertising agency).

Add your own ideas by posting comments.

See also our list of 150 things you can do to build social capital.

Japan’s catastrophy, social capital and order

Fukushima Daiichi Plant – Flickr photo by digitalglobe-imagery

My heart and thoughts are with the Japanese people.  Dealing with either of the menaces facing the country — the horrific aftermath of the tsunami or the gradual meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant — would be more than enough, to say nothing of dealing with both simultaneously, and with a disaster that may leave hundreds or thousands of square miles of a crowded Japan uninhabitable for decades.

There have been some interesting articles on how Japanese society, Japanese cultural group values social capital, and reciprocity, are or will aid Japan’s effort to rebuild.  As the conservative Financial Times‘ Lex column noted, despite the continued weakness of Japanese government leaders, “Japan’s hidden strengths are being under-appreciated, not least by its own public….In Nietzsche’s formulation, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This disaster will not kill Japan, and it could emerge psychologically stronger if the aftermath of the quake is handled well. Everyone knows there’s no god to put the stone back on the catfish [the Japanese folk wisdom that earthquakes are the thrashings of a giant catfish below the earth]. People have to do it themselves. The greatest cause for optimism about Japan is the reservoir of social capital that has sustained it through two tough decades.” And the FT Lex column wrote: “The social capital of a well-organised government and solidarity among the people is priceless.”

Where does this Japanese solidarity come from?  Slate has a column pointing to several factors:”

Honesty, with incentives. Japanese people may well be more honest than most. But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most. In a 2003 study on Japan’s famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that incentivizes people to return property they find rather than keep it. For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder’s fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don’t pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child’s first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously. At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst….

Even Japan’s organized crime (the yakuza) has their rules and culture.  As Slate observes, “They make their money off extortion, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But they consider theft grounds for expulsion….

“That’s not to say that a culture of reciprocity and community doesn’t play a role in the relatively calm response to the quake. It’s just that these characteristics are reinforced by systems and institutions. Adelstein quotes an old Japanese saying that explains the reciprocal mindset: “Your kindness will be rewarded in the end. Charity is a good investment.” But there’s a flipside, too: Unkindness will be punished.”  [Slate, “Why so little looting in Japan“, 3/17/11, Christoper Beam.]

Contrast this report of high levels of Japanese trustworthiness with this AP report of a coziness between the nuclear power industry executives and the government: ” ‘Everything is a secret,’ said Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan who now lives in California. ‘There’s not enough transparency in the industry.’ Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following Friday’s 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami. In 1989 Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in the Tokyo Electric Power Co., but nothing happened – for years. He decided to go public in 2000. Three Tepco executives lost their jobs.” [AP, “Nuclear Power Industry has History of Scandals“, 3/17/11]

Nevertheless, assuming that the Japanese are more honest or trusting, these are not monolithic concepts. If one graphed average Japanese levels of trust of various out-groups (say trust of family, trust of kin, trust of co-workers, trust of neighbors, trust of strangers) you get at what sociologists refer to as the “radius of trust”.  The Japanese have very high levels of trust of family and kin, much higher than Americans, for example.  But the slope of this trust line trails off much more steeply towards distrust as one gets towards more distal groups.  The same line plotted for an average American would look much flatter, with more similar levels (than in Japan) for closer in and more distal groups.  As a result, trust of family is much higher in Japan, but trust in strangers is, on average, higher for Americans. It will thus be important for the Japanese to use approaches, like the emperor’s recent remarks, to help build a stronger sense of communal trust with more distant groups.

Solidarity: although the Japanese do have a strong sense of solidarity, this has often been built off of high levels of distrust or a social shunning of outsiders:  for example, the ainu (indigenous Japanese) are treated quite poorly, in the same way as Americans treat Native Americans.  The strong sense of social solidarity makes it far more difficult for westerners (gaijin) to be truly accepted into Japanese society.  Moreover, the relative low levels of diversity in Japan, make it easier to have this sense of solidarity than in a far more diverse place than the US.

In addition, it is extremely important to differentiate short-term from longer-term social capital and altruism in a post-disaster situation.  High social capital in the immediate aftermath of disasters is nothing unique to the Japanese.  As my colleague Bob Putnam has written, almost all disasters produce initial high levels of social capital as people work to help stricken neighbors or countrymen.  The $64,000 question is the staying power of these impulses.  America saw a quick wave of civicness and altruism post 9/11 that fizzled within 6 months (as our polling showed).  [See Putnam’s “A Better Society in a Time of War“] The real litmus test for Japan’s recovery will be their level of co-operation andaltruism a year or two from now.  Along these lines, some sort of continual brownouts for the rest of the country, as bad as they may be for the economy, may help all of them to have a sense of participation in the pain and suffering of those in the Northeast of Honshu who have suffered the most.

See also, “Why the Japanese Aren’t Looting” (Thomas Lifson, American Thinker, 3/15/11) and “Why the Japanese behave better than Westerners” (The Telegraph, Ed West, 3/18/11)

You in? (UPDATED 4/12/12)

Flickr photo by Timothy Hamilton

Yahoo is trying to spark random acts of kindness around the world through the 600 million people who are part of the Yahoo “community.”

They ask people to visit and post online status messages describing their good deeds, inspiring others to reciprocate and amplify their actions.

They call their effort “You In?” since they encourage those doing good deeds to add this to the end of their posts.  For example, “I just dropped off a coat from my closet at a homeless shelter, You In?” or “I paid the toll fee for the car behind me, You In?” The messages appear in that poster’s Yahoo! status and can be shared via social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Visitors can also see an interactive global map on the campaign’s website at

Given that the effort encourages altruism, it is ironic that Yahoo! seeded the program by giving $100 to early participants.

The program builds on the “Pay It Forward” concept (serial reciprocity); and there was already an on-line version of Pay it Forward developed called The Giving Game.

Nick Christakis and James Fowler in their book Connected have an interesting experiment to test altruism and the “pay it forward” concept.  But for example, in an experiment they conducted of “paying it forward”, 120 individuals who didn’t know each other were paired off for five rounds of cooperation games involving groups of 4 people each. They never encountered the same individuals.  Individuals could decide how how much to share of an initial pile of money and then all groups were told what others had done, the individuals were reshuffled into new groups 4 more times and this process was repeated.  They found that for every extra dollar that a person (call him/her A) gave in round one to members of A’s group (call them B), those Bs gave twenty cents more in round 2 to their new groups (we’ll call these individuals C).  Then the C individuals each gave five cents more in round three.  This was true even though it was not reciprocity since B’s generosity was to new strangers as was C’s, since the groups were reshuffled.  Since each B individual and C joined three new individuals in the next round, there was a multiplicative impact of A’s generosity of $1.00 to generate an additional $1.05 of generosity in future rounds.  Here the multiplier was restrained by the survey design that had groups of 4, but in principle it is possible that a higher multiplier might be found depending on the group size.

Notable Acts of Kindness under the Yahoo! effort:

– “I traded in a $100 bill for 100 one-dollar bills and wrote a note on each that read: ‘Please take this dollar bill, add one dollar bill, and pass it on.’”

– “I helped an 85-year-old neighbor bring her Xmas decorations down from the rafters — all 12 boxes!”

– “I helped an elderly lady carry her groceries to her car.”

– “I am baking Christmas cakes to share with friends in need of help.”

– “I dropped off supplies at the local Humane Society and at the local women’s shelter.”

Wired to cooperate?

An interesting article in the Science Times section of the NY Times discusses research by developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello (appearing in Why We Cooperate).

At 18 months of age, Tomasello finds that toddlers almost universally immediately help out an adult who needs assistance because his/her arms are full.  What Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, doesn’t know if altruism is innate; 18 months is typically an age before toddlers are taught how to behave.

Not so fast.  As the Times points out: “It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

But Tomasello observes these same helping behaviors across cultures, despite the fact that they teach social behavior on different schedules and may have different beliefs about appropriate social rules.  Moreover, the helping that infants observe is not enhanced by rewards, causing Tomasello to doubt that it has been strongly reinforced.

In some cases Tomasello observes helping behavior with regard to information in infants 12 months old, and even chimpanzees under certain conditions exhibit helping behavior at a young age.

More specifically related to “social capital”, Tomasello finds that age 3, children become less indiscriminately helpful and are more likely to reciprocate earlier helpful behavior from another person.  In addition, they start to develop social norms, like the reciprocity at the heart of social capital.  Parents can help foster these norms through “inductive parenting”, helping children to learn the consequences of their actions.

As the Times points out:  “The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.” [See discussion of dictator games and ultimatum games in this blog post.]

Read the very interesting article “We May Be Born With An Urge To Help” (NYT, Nicholas Wade, 12/1/09) about how humans try to sort out whether to behave selfishly or altruistically.