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Wednesday, December 9, 2020

An evolutionary explanation for ineffective altruism

Burum, B., Nowak, M.A. & Hoffman, M. 
Nat Hum Behav (2020). 


We donate billions to charities each year, yet much of our giving is ineffective. Why are we motivated to give but not to give effectively? Building on evolutionary game theory, we argue that donors evolved (genetically or culturally) to be insensitive to efficacy because people tend not to reward efficacy, as social rewards tend to depend on well-defined and highly observable behaviours. We present five experiments testing key predictions of this account that are difficult to reconcile with alternative accounts based on cognitive or emotional limitations. Namely, we show that donors are more sensitive to efficacy when helping themselves or their families. Moreover, social rewarders don’t condition on efficacy or other difficult-to-observe behaviours, such as the amount donated.

From the Conclusion

This paper has argued that altruism in a behavioural sense is an act that benefits another person, while it is altruistically motivated when the ultimate goal of such act is the welfare of that other. In evolutionary sense, altruism means the sacrifice of fitness for the benefit of other organisms. 

According to the evolutionary theories of altruism, behaviour which promotes the reproductive success of the receiver at the cost of the altruist is favoured by natural selection, because it is either beneficial for the altruist in the long run, or for his genes, or for the group he belongs to. Thus, in line with Trivers, it can be argued that “models that attempt to explain altruistic behaviour in terms of natural selection are models designed to take the altruism out of altruism” (Trivers 1971: 35).