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Simple Jury Persuasion: The “tainted altruism effect”

Friday, February 21, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

shady_characterPeople will actually see you more positively when you raise no money for charity at all than they will when you raise $1,000,000 (but skim $100,000 for yourself). Even if you said you were going to keep 10% up front and the charity really did get the $900,000! When you benefit (in any way) from your charitable activities, your altruistic acts are likely to be seen as somehow tainted by your self-interest. 

There is a really nice write-up of this article at Time Magazine and therefore, we won’t focus on what the researchers did, but rather on the reason they thought tainted altruism worth investigating. It’s all about access to counter-factual information!

Counter-factual thinking is the label used to describe what happens when we think about ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ alternatives to a regrettable situation. When jurors employ counter-factual thinking in response to litigation, they often think things like:

“If only she hadn’t driven a different way to work that day…”

“What if he had sought out a third opinion?”

“If only they hadn’t decided to have a second child…”

“What if the company had trained their employees differently…”

Often the presumed answers to these questions are that the negative event that is central to the case would not have happened. In this particular article, the researchers say the idea of “tainted altruism” stems from the lack of available counterfactual information in making decisions.

To explain, these researchers believe that when we see both charitable acts and personal benefit, we see inconsistency between charitable behaviors and personal benefit– and we presume selfishness. Thus, we are more likely to rate the charitable person (who benefitted from those charitable acts) negatively.

On the other hand, when we see only self-interested behavior, we are not automatically drawn to wondering whether that person could have been more altruistic. The person never tried to pretend any lofty motive, so the judgment about the person is not negative.

This, say the researchers, is the essence of the “tainted altruism effect”. Actions that produce both charitable and personal benefits will be assessed more negatively than those that are self-interested and result in no charitable benefit. The existence of the effect was supported across all four experiments conducted.

The researchers summarize past research findings in this area (and we make a few comments of our own):

People react negatively toward for-profit organizations doing religious or health-oriented work. (On the other hand, few people realize that the non-profit organizations who do religious or health-related work are often enormously profitable. When this is presented, it can alienate jurors.)

People question the motivations of wealthy philanthropists. (Which can be counter-balanced by the admission that the wealth was created by pure capitalistic fervor, and the philanthropy is a separate matter.)

People seem to believe that if your prosocial behavior is truly genuine, you will not receive even unrelated personal benefits. (But, as in the examples above, if the benefit is abstract or does not diminish the benefit to others– by skimming off a percentage, for example– the effect can be minimized.)

Charitable donors with a personal connection to the charitable cause are given less credit for their good works. (This is a highly circumstantial finding that is certainly variable from case to case.)

You might see the results of past research as reflecting a tendency to assume the worst when there is money or glamour (or litigation) involved. Your goal is to supply the missing counterfactual information–or, to get jurors to consider the opposite end of the spectrum.

“My client could have made a modest personal donation to the worthwhile efforts of the charity. [Client] is in the business of raising funds for deserving charities. S/he chose to raise money for [deserving charity] while retaining 10% of the proceeds, as was understood and agreed to from the start. The charity could have received 100% of [client’s] modest donation, or 90% of the fruits of his/her enormous fund raising talents. As it ended up, my client should be thanked, not vilified.

Give jurors the information on the other end of the spectrum so they can weigh the “real issue”–no charitable benefit versus most of the charitable gains. It’s one of those odd times when the counterfactual, presented correctly, can work for you rather than against you.

Newman GE, & Cain DM (2014). Tainted Altruism: When Doing Some Good Is Evaluated as Worse Than Doing No Good at All. Psychological Science PMID: 24403396

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