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Saturday, October 30, 2021

Psychological barriers to effective altruism: An evolutionary perspective

Bastian, J. & van Vugt, M.
Current Opinion in Psychology
Available online 17 September 2021


People usually engage in (or at least profess to engage in) altruistic acts to benefit others. Yet, they routinely fail to maximize how much good is achieved with their donated money and time. An accumulating body of research has uncovered various psychological factors that can explain why people’s altruism tends to be ineffective. These prior studies have mostly focused on proximate explanations (e.g., emotions, preferences, lay beliefs). Here, we adopt an evolutionary perspective and highlight how three fundamental motives—parochialism, status, and conformity—can explain many seemingly disparate failures to do good effectively. Our approach outlines ultimate explanations for ineffective altruism and we illustrate how fundamental motives can be leveraged to promote more effective giving.

Summary and Implications

Even though donors and charities often highlight their desire to make a difference in the lives of others, an accumulating body of research demonstrates that altruistic acts are surprisingly ineffective in maximizing others’ welfare. To explain ineffective altruism, previous investigations have largely focused on the role of emotions, beliefs, preferences, and other proximate causes. Here, we adopted an evolutionary perspective to understand why these proximate mechanisms evolved in the first place. We outlined how three fundamental motives that likely evolved because they helped solve key challenges in humans’ ancestral past—parochialism, status, and conformity—can create psychological barriers to effective giving. Our framework not only provides a parsimonious explanation for many proximate causes of ineffective giving, it also provides an ultimate explanation for why these mechanisms exist.

Although parochialism, status concerns, and conformity can explain many forms of ineffective giving, there are additional causes that we did not address here. For example, many people focus too much on overhead costs when deciding where to donate. Everyday altruism is multi-faceted: People donate to charity, volunteer, give in church, and engage in a various random acts of kindness. These diverse acts of altruism likely require diverse explanations and more research is needed to understand the relative importance of different psychological factors for explaining different forms of altruism. Moreover, of the three fundamental motives reviewed here, conformity to social norms has probably received the least attention when it comes to explaining ineffective altruism. While there is ample evidence showing that social norms affect the decision of whether and how much to donate, more research is needed to understand how social norms influence the decision of where to donate and how they can lead to ineffective giving.