In the course of our lives, we come across countless opportunities to help others. The occasional homeless person or charity asks for a donation, or the Red Cross is collecting blood across the street. But most of the time, these opportunities present themselves through our social networks — simply because we interact most often with our friends. One important difference between helping friends and helping strangers is that we know our friends can pay us back in the future, whereas strangers can usually only pay it forward. Of course, all people are not able to help others to the same degree; some people have a lot to spare while others get by on a tighter budget.
My friend Sevgi and I wondered whether people are more generous when others have the opportunity to help them back in the future, and whether people reciprocate based on the value of the gift they received. Our main questions were:
1) Do people give more when they know they may get something in return?
2) Do receivers care whether their gift is more valuable in an absolute or relative sense?
To look at these questions, we had people play a simple game as one of two players: lets call them player A and player B. We give $1 to player A and $100 to player B (they both see how much the other gets). Player A can send any amount (of his $1) to player B, and then player B decides how much (of his $100) to send back. In another version of the game, player B cannot give anything back.
Does player A send more money to player B when he knows that B can send money back? How much money does player B send back when player A sends nothing, some of his money, or even his entire dollar?
Looking at the results, we see that people are a) strategic when they offer money initially and b) reciprocating after they have been given money. On average, player A sends more to player B if he knows that B can send something back. And the more that player A sends to player B, the more he receives.
However, the amount sent back by player B does not depend on the absolute value of player A’s initial offer, but on the proportion of player A’s wealth that was offered. What does this mean? If player A has $50 instead of $1 and sends half of it to B ($25), he gets back almost the same amount of money from B as he gets after sending half of $1 (50 cents!).
So, what is the lesson du jour? It turns out that people with limited resources can gain just as much from acting altrustically as those who are well-endowed. Don’t get discouraged by a thin wallet when given the chance to help others — after all, it is your generosity that counts.