When I was turning ten a family friend, who had moved to Colorado, came to Pennsylvania to visit us. The friend offered to buy me something for my birthday, and what I wanted the most was Super Mario Brothers 3 for Nintendo. When we got to the store and found the game, the friend insisted that she was going to pay for the game herself. My mother told her, no, that she would not allow her to buy it for me unless she, too, contributed something. This silly argument went on for a couple minutes. I began to notice yet another absurdity in adult interaction.
At this past year's Christmas party, my mother insisted on giving the guests food to take home. The guests kept saying things like, "I don't want it," and "You don't have to," but my mother kept insisting they take it. Eventually, the guests took the food. While this exchange was not nearly as protracted as the "Super Mario Brothers 3" one, it still reeked of ritual: social ritual.
Now, to be fair, my mother probably did not want the food because she is trying to watch her weight. But what about the episode involving Super Mario Brothers 3? Throughout my childhood, I watched my my mother participate in lengthy exchanges involving phrases such as "You don't have to," "I can't let you do that," and so forth. Despite having Asperger's Syndrome, even as a kid I knew that this was some kind of social ritual to make oneself look selfless. I thought it was ridiculous then, and I think it's ridiculous now.
Today I wonder if this is another example of reciprocal altruism. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert in evolutionary psychology, but to me the protracted, "You don't have to" and "I can't let you do that" exchanges reek of reciprocal altruism. This is an evolutionary strategy observed in social species: If one being does something else for another member of his species-- usually a genetic relative or (in the case of humans) a close friend-- then that other being will eventually reciprocate. If someone tells their friend, "You don't have to do that," I suspect it translates into, "I am showing you how selfless I am so that when I desperately need help, you will offer it." The more protracted version of this exchange, perhaps, translates into, "I'm less selfish than you."/"No, I'm less selfish than you."
Whatever the case, I think it's a silly ritual and an example of how absurd certain social rituals are. Additionally, from what I've observed, women do it more than men. Why? Possibly because women evolved to be more social beings in order to form close-knit groups to protect their offspring from predators. Either way, it's a ritual I don't participate in. If I had a child and my friend offered to buy her a video game, I might say, "Are you sure you can afford that?" ONCE and then when the person said, "Yes," I would accept their offer and thank them. This is just about to the extent I've seen men do it, incidentally.
By the way, on a recent episode of The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa asked Marge why they were flying clear across the country to a wedding. Marge explained, "Cousin Cathy invited us so our feelings wouldn't be hurt, and we're going so her feelings won't be hurt." Homer even said, "I just don't understand the world of grownups."
In the end, it comes back to what I said in "I'm Honest and Your Baby Is Ugly": There is no such thing as true altruism.