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Altruistic individuals: hapless suckers, all of them

By Fariya Naz
On April 13, 2012

A couple weeks ago when I was waiting for my psychology lecture to begin, I ran into one of my friends and started talking. I then went to my lecture. Afterward, I decided I wanted to get some breakfast at the Union. When I reached down for my wallet, which contained my license, debit card, dorm keys, id card, insurance card and my cell phone, I realized it was nowhere to be seen. I began to panic and started searching in the place where I sat before I went into lecture. Nothing was there.

As I was freaking out, I was able to ask the main desk if they had a brown wallet. Lo and behold, there it was. The contents of the wallet were secure - I even found some cash that I forgot was still in there.

For the rest of that day, I was in a really good mood. I held doors a little longer and smiled at strangers knowing that any one of them could be the person who returned my wallet. Someone did something good for me and I wanted to return the favor. Each small action had the potential to help someone in some small way and after each kind gesture, I felt a little bit better. Having eaten at all of the dining halls on campus without having anything stolen has not convinced me to leave my bag at a table. On that day, however, I felt I could trust my UConn peers a little more. I felt a sense of unity and I wanted to convey it in some way to others. Feeling good made me want to do good, which in turn made me feel good again - it was an endless cycle.

I once was an optimist who believed that people are innately good. They do good things for the simple reason of making others happy. With time, I have learned more about motivations and admittedly have grown cynical in regards to the concept of pure altruism. Was the person who returned my wallet actually just a genuinely good person? Or did that person return my wallet to feel good about him or herself? Is an individual selfish if he does something in the hopes of making him or herself feel good?

These questions reminded me of something I read a while ago. In "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, many kinds of birds fly in groups. They take turns keeping watch for predators. Why do birds do that? The danger of domain decreases on an individual level if there are more birds. If the look-out sees a predator and runs without signaling, there would only be one bird flying, increasing its domain and inevitably becoming prey. In that instance, all of the birds might be able to get away if they all fly together. Almost all living things are social creatures that work better in groups. Group interactions are so important that we have an entire field of study devoted to them.

For the social psychology section of my class, we discussed how companies donate to charities and how they usually have an ulterior motive. Although they may not be donating solely to be helpful, some people who deserve to be helped ultimately receive it. Do motivations really matter when the outcome is positive?

Dawkins used a theoretical model consisting of a class of people called Grudgers, who partake in reciprocal altruism and rose to the top by holding grudges against the Cheaters, who never returned favors. Suckers, another class of people, helped others indiscriminately and were therefore, exploited. Suckers would end up dying out because no one ever helped them, cheaters would be out of luck once the Grudgers realized they were being cheated. In this model, the Grudgers would have the most successful genes. Evolutionarily speaking, they would survive longer than both Cheaters and Suckers.

Dawkins might have been right in the animal world, but in our world, I can see some people choose to only be useful when someone is useful to them. Some people also receive help from everyone, but do not return a favor, either out of choice or circumstance. These kinds of people can get through life, but they will not have the satisfaction of doing good for the sake of doing good. Lastly, the suckers, who in my mind make real friends and are successful because they help everyone. If nothing works out, at least they know they did the right thing.

Overall, I am thankful that the suckers of our world will not die out. People can have all sorts of reasons for doing the things they do - whether it is to feel good about themselves or to get something out of it later. I just hope that for every Grudger or Cheater, we have a Sucker, because without them, this world would only have insincere people. Lastly, if the person who returned my wallet is reading this, thank you so much for being a Sucker.  

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