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Charitable and Reciprocal Motivations


Explanations > Motivation > Charitable and Reciprocal Motivations


What is the difference between charity and reciprocity in our motivations? Reciprocity expects repayment. Charity does not.

Reciprocity is a norm when dealing with others. When we help them, we expect them to do something for us in return. This may not be immediate, but overall we keep count.

We flip to charity when people seem incapable of reciprocity and when we feel obligation, love it other motivation to help without expectation.

Sometimes expectation changes, such as when we do not expect material return but still expect gratitude, loyalty or other non-material return. This is typical when we help vulnerable people such as children or the elderly.

Morality often drives charity, with its attendant obligation to help others, especially the vulnerable. There are more powerful forces here for supporting family. A hierarchy then stretches out to friends, people with who we have something in common, complete strangers and even enemies.

Our charity increases when we are reminded of morals, through such as seeing others be charitable or discussion of morals. We may also have strong personal values about our own morality. We may also excuse ourselves when we are feeling less charitable.

Morals allow us to gain reciprocal compensation from sources other than the recipient of our charity. Admiration from other people often serves well for this as our charity is rewarded with a boost to our social status. We may also reward ourselves, feeling good about our moral actions.

Negative emotions can also be significant motivations around charity. We may be charitable due to guilt about previous meal transgressions. We may feel trapped by obligation and only grudgingly help. We may help only because we fear criticism if we did not.

Charity starts when we help others beyond immediate reciprocal obligation. It may fade if we get insufficient return. This can happen as we feel those we help are taking advantage of us or where higher priority actions are calling us away. A way we extricate ourselves from this dilemma is by blaming the recipients of our support, accusing them of taking advantage of our kindness. We may even revise our moral stance, reducing our obligation to help and becoming colder and less caring in the process.

So what?

When you are acting to help others, wonder about your motivations. When others help you, especially unexpectedly, think about their reasons for doing so. Beware of becoming cynical, but do be cautious. Sometimes people just help without realizing what is motivating them. A good rule of thumb is to assume people are being charitable until they indicate otherwise. If they act to help and then ask you for something, they they are using reciprocity. Do not feel obliged to return the help -- doing so may just be what they sought in the first place.

See also

Exchange principle, Reciprocity Norm, Altruism, Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis,


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