Why overly kind and moral people can rub you in the wrong direction

In classical economic theory, one might expect the stingy free riders to receive these penalties – and indeed they did. Amazingly, however, the most altruistic participants were also targeted – even though they contributed more than their fair share to the wealth of the others.

The finding has since been replicated in many other experiments. For example, in a similar public goods game, participants were asked if they wanted to kick members out of their group. Amazingly, they drove out the extreme altruists as often as the worst free riders. Somehow, selfishness and selflessness were seen as morally equivalent.

Remarkably, this tendency seems to show up early in life – around the age of eight. And while the size of the effect can vary depending on context, it seems to exist to some degree in most cultures – suggesting that it might be a universal trend.

Reciprocity and Reputation

To understand the origins of this seemingly irrational behavior, we must first consider how human altruism came about.

According to evolutionary psychology, hardwired human behaviors should have evolved to improve our survival and our ability to pass our genes on to another generation. In the case of altruism, generous actions could help us foster good group relationships that, over time, help build social capital and status.

“Gaining a good reputation can lead to benefits such as a more central position on the social network,” says Nichola Raihani, professor of evolution and behavior at University College London and author of The Social Instinct. This could mean that we have more help ourselves when we need it. “And it’s also linked to reproductive success.”

It is important, however, that reputation is “positional” – when one person rises, the other falls. This can lead to a strong sense of competition, which means that we always watch out for the possibility of other people overtaking us, even if they achieve their status through altruism. We will be especially annoyed if we think the other person was just looking for these reputation benefits rather than acting out of genuine interest in others, as this can generally indicate a cunning and manipulative personality.

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