Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

The puzzle that is being altruistic and cooperative when it does not serve our self-interest. Why do humans over-tip to a waiter they’ll never see again? Why are people nice to strangers?

Because life is about succeeding in the “repeated games” that are interactions with friends, family, and co-workers. In those games, altruism pays. It pays to be generous, to do favors, to go out of our way–we will see those people again, and the altruism may come back to help us. So, when we are in a “single shot game” — for example, deciding on how much to tip the waiter at the diner on the side of the road in a city far away from home — this cooperative instinct spills over. Our moral intuitions spring from the repeated games that matter most and we inadvertently channel them to all games/situations. We forget when we’re in a one shot game; we forget we could get away with leaving no tip and it not harming us in the slightest. We forget, that is, until we start to think hard about what the tip should be. In one study, people who start reflecting actively on an appropriate level of altruism (say, the size of the tip) tend to end up less altruistic in single shot games, because they take the time to realize their self-interest calls for them to be…selfish.

This is the argument advanced by David G. Rand, who helped conduct the studies, in this excellent Bloggingheads episode with Joshua Knobe. They cover why humans are selfish or cooperative, among other topics in the annals of human psychology and evolution.

9 Responses to Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

  1. Dave Carlson says:

    Don’t have the time to watch the debate right now, but a few thoughts:

    – The idea of truly anonymous interactions is a fairly new development. Evolutionarily we may not have caught up. Until about 200 years ago, rail transport wasn’t even available.
    – Tipping well is a custom. In cases where a law or ingrained custom would be violated if one were to make the “rational decision,” the evidence must be compellingly against the law or custom to justify that degree of brazenness. A lot of things – waiting at an empty intersection until a red light turns green in the middle of the night, stopping at a stop sign in a high-visibility intersection, not answering an important phone call because you’re in a vehicle in California – may seem irrational, but until we’re certain of our actions, it’s a helpful heuristic to follow protocol.
    – Are people ever truly “anonymous” anymore? The risk (however remote) of publicly being exposed probably outweighs the risk of losing a buck or two.
    – We still have a desire to reward people whose actions we approve of. While in Nevada campaigning this cycle, I met a waiter who had voted early for my candidate. I tipped 30% and said “Thanks for your support. Get a few friends to vote and you will have paid off your tip :)” This is an extreme example, but the principle could hold through for more simple matters like manners, a friendly demeanor, being well-spoken, etc.
    – I’ll just say this (although it might not align with some philosophical schools of thought and I don’t want to get into debating the merits of it:): there are some things more important than minor demonstrations of self-interest, such as not being an asshole.

  2. Dave Carlson says:

    Another thought: could the fact that people know they are being studied contribute to their decision to tip less after reflecting on the “one shot game”? There is a reputation component in following most social protocol. Perhaps the simple act of being studied could tip the scales toward trying to uphold one’s reputation as an intelligent and rational actor (which is usually desirable in scientific studies) as compared to upholding one’s reputation as an obedient and kind citizen (which is usually desirable in day-to-day life)?

  3. Shefaly says:

    There is another possible explanation, which does not fit economic logic. As that explanation is – we may never see that person again but we shall see ourselves again and again. For many of us living with ourselves knowing we have been an arsehole to someone is pretty difficult. So we do it purely for self interest — to be able to respect ourselves after the transaction is over.

  4. Dave Carlson says:

    I agree with Shefaly. A clear conscience is a very valuable thing.

  5. Chris L says:

    An irrational belief in karma has to explain some of it. I leave it to other to debate the percentage it explains.

  6. midnightsnack says:

    I think kindness to strangers is cultural and varies depending on situation. The stereotype of French rudeness? On the other hand, those same stereotyped French may tell you that they are only being honest about how they feel and that their honesty is better than a fake or unearned friendliness. Trolling or anonymous online bullying is a good example of an unkind stranger existing in a very specific environment. If you were to poll people who are likely to be kind to others, they probably feel this behaviour serves a common good. Those who are tougher on strangers are the type who believe that everyone should only focus on looking out for themselves.

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