Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Generosity is good for you
Helpful people are more popular and powerful than their selfish peers.

New research by my University of Kent psychologist colleagues Charlie Hardy and Mark Van Vugt indicates that nice guys come first. Their study claims that individuals with a reputation for generosity and altruism turn out to be the most valued members of their group.

Consequently generous people possess more authority and status than their more self-oriented peers. They are also likely to be more often chosen as partners and mates. It seems that generosity is not only its own reward, it also provides individuals with greater social opportunities then those who display selfish behaviour.

Perversely the confirmation that altruistic behaviour is valued by normal human beings comes at a time when contemporary culture - in Britain, at least - finds it difficult to celebrate genuine acts of generosity.

We live in a world where psychologists dismiss altruistic behaviour with the diagnosis of "compulsive helping". And apparently too much altruism can lead to compassion fatigue. The act of looking after elderly parents or relatives now earns us the official title of a "carer" and some suggest that this role should be financially compensated.

Despite its reputation for greed, American society continues to uphold the virtues of philanthropy and altruism. The act of giving is culturally affirmed. Sadly, in Britain, news of philanthropy often invites the response of scepticism if not cynicism.

Sections of the media find it difficult to believe that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett genuinely want to do good with their billions. We tend to regard such acts of altruism as calculated attempts to purchase public recognition.

Yet generosity is a virtue through which a community comes to feel at ease with itself. Deep inside we all know this is why we are drawn to those displaying generous behaviour.

Published on The First Post, 28 October 2006