Monday, January 16, 2012

More Selfish Altrusim

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 altruismI'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. 


  1. Very true. I dont do them either..mostly because Im bad at it, but at my daughters birthday party, and my wedding, I was told I had to write thank you letters. Why? I thanked them in person. So I began to tell everyone I will NOT be sending thank you's in the mail, one's where I have to memorize every gift given and by whom and come up with a million different ways/phrases of saying thank you, stamp each one, write each address, only for you to throw them away in within 30 seconds of glancing at it.
    The looks I got from some, were quite funny actually lol! I think the fact that some actually took offense to this, offended me. I gave you a personal heartfelt thank you. You need more? Get over yourselves.

    1. I agree. If somebody thanked me in person, I really couldn't care less if I got a note in the mail or not unless it was for helping in some unusual way (like donating a kidney, perhaps?). I hated writing all the "thank you" notes when I had my Bat-Mitzvah. Whenever my uncle sends me a gift card for Christmas, I send him an email that says something to the effect of, "Hey, thanks so much!" and then tell him what I bought with it. But I think my mother wants me to write something more... mature? Dunno. Either way, he's my uncle, so I'll write a note to him that's more genuine.

  2. The "You shouldn't haves" and the "I can't accept this" or the "it was nothings" of the world baffle me too. Hilarious. It's like a well choreographed dance that I am just slightly out of step with. When I give a gift, I give it because I want to and when I say thank you, I really mean it (even if I don't like the gift).

  3. I often respond to 'you didn't have to do this' with 'I wanted to'. That usually stops the ritual (or, at least, it's never gone further with me). And also another thing that comes to mind is that when people offer me something multiple times when I've already turned them down once I tend to get nasty, not take whatever-it-is.

  4. Part of the problem I have with this kind of thing, is that I still get nervous when someone say "you shouldn't have" - I immediately wonder why I shouldn't have and did I do something wrong again? Doesn't help when you take stuff so literally. I so wish people would just accept things gracefully and be honest and straightforward when they talk to you.