Friday, September 28, 2012

The Privileged Have a Greater Duty to Initiate Positive Reciprocity

Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, says that reciprocity is the currency of society. Giving and getting help bind our group together. Some of this reciprocity comes in direct tit-for-tat,  contract-like exchanges.  More comes from longer term gift exchanges - I give a gift to you or the group now, you give a gift to me or the group later. 

Economists and others who emphasize self-interested choices as the measure of rational action note that it is hard to explain why anyone would initiate a cycle of reciprocal trust and gift giving - even though all can see the benefits of being in such a social group.

As part of our "Happy Society" class, I assigned students to perform random acts of kindness for other people each day for a time, recording and reflecting on the results.  All students found the assignment interesting and nearly all reported that it increased their happiness (as happiness research predicts).

I have been thinking about a hidden element of this assignment: it was easy for my students, and me, to initiate a beneficial cycle of gift giving because we are privileged relative to nearly everyone else we interact with. 

This leads me to a general insight: the privileged risk less by giving the gift of trust and service.  Therefore, it is more incumbent on the privileged to take that risk and start the virtuous cycle of reciprocity.


Bill said...

Are not the privileged exactly who do initiate Positive Reciprocity already?

gruntled said...

That is an empirical question. I suspect so, just because it is riskier the other way. On the other hand, the less privileged benefit more, so perhaps they take the risk.

Bill said...

Also the less privileged should be encouraged to say thank you.

Diane M said...

I am not sure exactly how you define random acts of kindness, but my impression is that the privileged are worse at them.

It is not usually a well-to-do person who stops to help you change a tire or offers to jump start your car. (Anyhow, it has never happened to me - the well-to-do part.)

I have noticed back in the days of post offices, that in a wealthy neighborhood, nobody wanted to wait on line. And it is not the well-to-do person who lets me go ahead at the grocery store.

I also suspect that if you are down and out, a wealthy friend is less likely to think they have space to take you in than a poorer one.

Bill said...

Poor people need people give charity. Why demonize the wealthy?

gruntled said...

The acts of kindness that my students started with were usually picking up litter and holding the door open for their peers. They also returned many lost objects. These were not acts of charity, exactly, at least, not for the less privileged, but they did contribute to the cycle of positive reciprocity.

Several of them did have bigger acts for others who were in some respect worse off - including a young man who helped an old couple change a tire.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where "less privileged" and "poor" fit on your scale, but I just like to point out that "poor folks" are often some of the most generous and that generosity of the priveleged can sometimes appear condescending.

Thomas said...

The literature is unambiguous that it is the poor who are most generous, both with their time and help and their money.

Bill said...

Really Thomas?