Gift giving's hidden strings

Good deeds do help a Scrooge - even when the motives are mixed

Materialism run amok - or the sweet spirit of giving? Every year the holidays tend to raise the same questions about gifts. Does the traditional year's end exchange of presents and charitable offerings bring out the best in humanity - or simply hide other forms of self-interest?

In recent years, Americans have become a more giving people, according to data from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Charitable donations more than doubled from $119 billion in 1994 to $241 billion in 2002. But the main reason for the increase, says Eugene Tempel, executive director of the center, is a selfish one: new tax benefits for donors.

Givers of all things from cards to parties, from a treat for a colleague to a check for charity, expect some measure of reward in return for doing good deeds, according to behavioral experts and spiritual leaders alike. And yet, some add, even selfish giving can be a force for good - especially because motives tend to represent at least a bit of both the good and the bad.

"There's a lot of evidence to say Ebenezer Scrooge is healthier and happier as a result of his generosity," says Stephen Post, a bioethics professor at Case Western Reserve University and executive director of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. "There's a different kind of self that is benefiting in Scrooge's case, a deeper self. Most motivations [for giving] are mixed, but the deeper self still benefits when the giving is prudential, but not crass."

"People give because it makes them feel good. That's a very selfish motivator for giving," says Dr. Tempel. "When you give, you feel good about yourself."

But that's not all bad, says Julie Salamon, author of the new book "Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give." Like most psychologists and ethicists, she holds no illusions about the possibility of pure altruism. What matters more is to climb from the lowest type of giving (begrudging) to the highest types - anonymous gifts to strangers and gifts that enable others to attain self-sufficiency (see story, right).

There are, however, some dismaying signs of the state of charitable giving in the United States. For all of America's heightened giving, more and more gifts to institutions come with restrictions, Tempel says, which suggests a diminished level of trust and a mounting desire to control how donations are used.

For example, United Methodists next year will debate a proposal to enable member churches to specify how their gifts to the denomination are used. According to the Rev. Scott Campbell, pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., the proposal tells a larger story of individual control eclipsing the communal decisionmaking processes of yesteryear.

Donors increasingly "want to be assured that their own particular agenda is being served by anything they support," Mr. Campbell says. "This is something fairly new with regard to how widespread the practice has become."

And if politics were not sufficient to corrupt giving motives, what anthropologists term "the reciprocity principle" just might be. Give a gift and the recipient, no matter the culture or the era, feels obliged to respond in kind. This type of giving is meant to induce guilt, shame, and indebtedness, and therefore ranks high in the hierarchy of types of giving.

"To receive an unexpected gift is more a bane than a blessing," says Prof. Martin Bolt, a social psychologist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "The experts at this are the Hare Krishnas, who give away flowers and then ask for donations. Are you going to take the flower and not give a donation? What kind of a Scrooge are you?"

Yet upon a sea of mixed motives and corrupting temptations in the giving season, behavioral experts say they see reasons for hope. Personal gain in a crass sense is hardly the sole reason for giving, according to new research on empathy. Professor Bolt says the findings show people can transcend their own primary self-interest when they see what another person sees and feel what another feels. They think, "I want to relieve their suffering," and act on that basis.

Of course, even the most compassionate gift is apt to be given with hopes of feeling what's known as the "helper's high." But that type of personal gain raises few concerns.

"I don't think we should look into every corner of our hearts for unselfish motivations," Professor Post says. "No one acts from absolute selflessness or absolute selfishness."

Even without motives that are entirely pure, Post suggests, giving can have a powerfully positive impact both on those who give and those who receive.

"The major motivation and wise goal of gift giving should be elevation of the human spirit, to develop [in the receiver and giver alike] profound virtues of gratitude, generosity, and kindness," says Post.

"This is what puts gift giving more on the side of the angels."

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