Ever since the ice-bucket challenge swept the Internet this summer, raising more than $115 million for A.L.S. research, a legion of imitators has sprung up to try and cash in themselves. In the approaching holiday season, as fund-raising appeals swell, we can now smash a pie in our faces, snap selfies first thing in the morning or take a photo of ourselves grabbing our crotches, among other tasteful gestures, to express solidarity with various worthy causes. But the failure of these newer gimmicks to enjoy anywhere near the same popularity as the frigid original demonstrates the peculiar and finicky nature of our altruism — a psychological puzzle that both scientists and economists are trying to decipher.
Researchers have consistently demonstrated — to absolutely no one’s surprise — that we are prone to doling out cash for reasons that are indeed self-interested. We like to enhance our reputations, for instance, or avoid the social stigma of falling behind others in our peer group. Thankfully, though, we’re not quite as selfish as classical economists assume. In lab experiments, in which people are given dictatorlike abilities to split a jackpot between themselves and strangers, a surprising number choose to split the cash equally, despite the lack of any incentive to do so. Other experiments have turned up evidence of our strong capacity for empathy, too. In general, numerous tests also show a natural — if guarded — inclination toward charity.