Fake altruism? Thanks, but no thanks

Emma Teitel on the Feed the Deed phenomena

by Emma Teitel

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Youtube

In season six of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, famously grouchy Seinfeld creator Larry David commits a rare act of kindness when he donates a brand new wing to his local museum. Larry’s name is soon engraved at the entrance of the wing, which suits him just fine, until he realizes that his friend, the actor Ted Danson, has donated a wing in the same museum, anonymously. (Where Larry’s wing says “Donated by Larry David,” Danson’s says “Donated by Anonymous.”) What’s more, it appears as though Danson has discreetly told everyone he knows that his is the name behind the anonymous donation making him appear both enormously philanthropic and humble at the same time. Danson gets the best of both worlds: his ego is stroked continuously by people who think he is far too modest to enjoy a good ego stroking. And Larry David, being Larry David, charges his friend with “faux anonymity.” “Nobody told me that I could be anonymous and tell people,” he complains to his wife. “Next time I give money to anybody, I’ll be anonymous—and I’m gonna tell everybody.”

It’s a good thing Larry David doesn’t have Facebook. If he did he would very quickly come to whine about Feed the Deed, a new Canadian social media “kindness challenge” predicated on random and “faux anonymous” acts of kindness captured on video and uploaded online. Participants of Feed the Deed film themselves doing something nice for someone else before they challenge specific friends to pay it forward and “feed the deed” on camera, too. The original challenge began this year with Josh Stern, a University of Ottawa medical student who filmed himself handing out sandwiches to homeless people on a city street. (After some light convincing, Stern’s beneficiaries agreed to be in the video on the grounds that it would spread kindness to others when posted online.) Stern’s inspiration for Feed the Deed came from a South African student’s virtuous turn on a social media drinking ritual. When college student Brent Lindeque was given a “neknomination”—a challenge to film and post oneself drinking an ungodly amount of booze before calling on a friend to do the same—he decided to film himself doing a good deed instead. His video, and his call to public, real-time charity have since taken off tremendously.

“Neknomination is all about peer pressure,” Stern told the media recently. “You don’t want to look like a loser and end the chain. Here it’s still peer pressure, but it’s in a positive way. It pushes people to do good deeds.” Correction: it pushes people to do good deeds for an audience.

Like Ted Danson on Curb Your Enthusiasm, many Feed the Deed participants declare their anonymity in plain sight. A typical challenge video features a young-ish person talking into a cellphone camera explaining the good deed he or she has just committed or is about to commit, often in great detail. “I’ve just anonymously shovelled my neighbour’s driveway,” someone might say, into the camera, on a video that is about to be shared online with hundreds of people or more. “I’ve baked cookies and I’m about to place them anonymously at my co-worker’s desk,” another do-gooder would say, into a cellphone camera whose footage will be shared with everyone in its owner’s social circle. Every Feed the Deed challenge is undeniably good, but it is also undeniably exploitative, and, Immanuel Kant might argue, inferior—in that it likely would not occur were the promise of publicity and praise absent. From a theoretical standpoint Feed the Deed and projects like it appear morally suspect.

But from a real-life standpoint, they are brilliant. The moral of Larry David’s “faux anonymity” philanthropy parable isn’t that people like Ted Danson and Feed the Deed’s Josh Stern are secretly selfish phonies, but that pure selflessness is a human impossibility. Whatever happened to kindness for kindness sake? It never existed to begin with. If spreading good deeds at a rapid pace is only possible through the “faux anonymity” of a self-absorbed, social media age, then so be it. More power to us. Narcissism and generosity are not mutually exclusive. The world would be a much more honest, efficient, and yes—kinder—place without the myth of altruism.




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Fake altruism? Thanks, but no thanks

  1. Pure selflessness a human impossibility? You think too little of us humans. Very difficult, yes. Rare and improbable, yes. But not impossible. Kindness for kindess’ sake does exist.

  2. “Whatever happened to kindness for kindness sake? It never existed to begin with.”

    Dunno about that. I know lots of folks who volunteer at homeless shelters, work tirelessly on school parent council projects, shovel elderly neighbours’ driveways, donate time and money to countless good causes – all without ever sharing it on social media or talking much about it at all. Also, there are many societies where giving to the needy was or is a moral obligation (e.g., alms in India); only a failure to do so would be noteworthy.

    Be careful you don’t project your own beliefs and experiences onto all of humanity!

    • If you want to get really technical, however, it can be argued that the reason people do that is because it makes them feel good about themselves. There’s a bunch of biological and evolutionary reasons behind it, but at the end of the day people don’t do good deeds without gaining something out of it, even if it is just a temporary sense self-satisfaction/pride.

      The existence of a completely altruistic act is a myth.

      That said, so long as the good deed gets done, does it really matter if the person doing it gets something out of it as well?

      • http://psychology.about.com/od/socialpsychology/a/the-psychology-of-heroism.htm

        What of those who die in the act of doing a service for someone….a young person (passerby) who jumps in a lake to save a drowning child and in saving the child drowns themselves. There is no temporary sense of self-satisfaction or pride for that person. That act is truly altruistic. People who put their lives in danger to save strangers when it is not their job are altruistic.

        • You really should read what you link to.

          Since you apparently didn’t, I’ll quote the relevant section:

          “In an article that appeared in a 2004 issues of American Psychologist, researchers Selwyn Becker and Alice Eagly suggested that heroism might also have a more self-serving purpose as a means to ensure status. In other words, sometimes engaging in self-sacrificing behavior can lead to long-term rewards.

          In one small study conducted with 78 participants, researchers found that people who were willing to endure the pain of holding their hands in a tub of ice or being dunked in a tank of water were more likely to be judged as likable by the other participants. Not only did the others view these individuals more favorably, they also rewarded them by giving them much more of a pot of money amounting to $1,170 that the participants were allowed to divvy up in any way they wished.”

          • Hahaha! You “really should read” the whole article and then you will find THE RELEVANT SECTION.

            You didn’t even read the remainder that discussed what propels some people to act in a completely altruistic (heroic) manner when they are in the midst of a crisis, when they put their own life in danger and there is no time to think and no payback for them. What makes them act heroic v. others who don’t (‘bystander effect” which occurs when others wait around for someone else to act).

            You know Thwim, if you are going to be an arrogant a** and lecture someone on their reading skills perhaps you should hone your own skills first.

          • Unlike you, I did read the article. What you’re talking about doesn’t exist. Feel free to quote it to prove me wrong.

            The closest they come is suggesting some people have personality traits that allow them to overcome the bystander effect. Which is simply another way of saying exactly what I quoted above — you have the ability/mindset to be “heroic”– dunking your hands into ice water, say, which causes you to be valued by society more.

            That it’s not a conscious mindset in no way alters those facts, any more than saying “Ow!” when you get hurt isn’t a conscious action but is still an evolutionarily rewarded behavior. Those who call out when they get hurt get help. Those who don’t, don’t.

            And again, all of this is irrelevant, if the good deed is done, does it really matter if the person doing the deed gets something out of it?

          • An evolutionary rewarded behavior suggests some benefit to be derived to the hero ( a reciprocity of sorts). In the case of the man who jumped on the tracks to help the other man who fell, there was no benefit. In fact, he left his own children behind with a stranger and put his own life at risk. That is a kind of selfless-altruism, typical of people who risk their lives for strangers and then don’t understand why after the fact, they are treated like heroes (as described in the last two paragraphs of the article).

          • So if nobody’s in the house, you don’t yell ouch if you burn yourself? Once you understand what an evolutionary response is, you’ll understand how you didn’t know what you were talking about here.

          • http://www.ivy-rose.co.uk/HumanBody/Nerves/Nerve_Function.php

            I did study the “evolutionary response” but there is no explanation for why a person chances sacrificing their own life to save a stranger…someone who is not kin and not rich (able to pay them for the deed). Thus the only explanation is selfless altruism.
            As for your yelling ouch in an empty house, that is a “reflex”, the same way you straighten the right arm when you step on a sharp object with your left foot or you rub your limb when you bump into something. The same way you pull your hand away from a flame and say ouch or an expletive. It takes NO thought. Check out the reflex arc pathway…it has nothing to do with evolutionary behavior and everything to do with the nervous system of the body.

          • Think reaaaallly hard and you may understand how you just sucessfully defeated your own argument.

            Here’s a hint: Why do we say ouch?

  3. Whats the difference if it creates positive social change should we challenging each other to be doing good deeds or misdeeds? The point is we have to make it public to spread awareness and encourage others to keep doing random acts of kindness which is what the world is built on

  4. Kindness for kindess sake never existed? Wow, I thought I was a cynical basterd. Kindness for kindness’s sake not only exists, but it is the only true kindness. “Kindness” done for any other reason (recognition, status, wanting to be seen as kind) is not kindness at all. That’s what makes real kindness such a precious thing. Yes, it’s rare. But it exists.
    The author is right though, to point out that any attempt to capture one’s own kindness on video invalidates that act as kindness, regardless of how “generous” the act.

  5. There are actually people who feel good when do kind things for others and they don’t need external accolades. It isn’t a feeling of superiority that comes from doing kind things but rather just a quieting of conscience that they are somehow helping someone who isn’t as lucky as they are. Now if you think that makes their kindness selfish, then perhaps it is.

  6. I just tried several times to write out why I don’t like your article when I realized I have neither the time nor inclination to write a longer-worded review than the article written. I can easily provide the deeper analysis at your request.

    Essentially: you decided to call it altruism (a much narrower definition of doing good deeds) although the propagators of RAKnominations have the publicly stated mission of, ‘inspiring the world to practice and spread kindness’.

    They don’t say it needs to be altruistic in nature; they just want people to be kind to each other. You’re being way too harsh on an organization that’s actually getting boots on the streets doing good things.

    I found this article to be mostly fluff; a quarter of its content is explaining the Larry David/Ted Danson incident (fiction), another quarter goes into improperly articulating what the group is about, then another quarter of the article goes on to compare this false representation against a fictional event.

    I know this is an ‘Opinion’ piece and all, but it would seriously improve the quality of your content if you put more effort into your work. It should not be this easy for a tradesmen to both effortlessly and efficiently tear such holes in your writing.

    • She’s been trying to get work at The Onion for some time now.

  7. Who really cares if people take credit for doing a good deed as long as the deed is done? Many people have benefited from these deeds by receiving blood, food and warm clothes. No, one should not film someone without permission, but, if it is going to spread the word and help people in need, then why not? This is doing no harm, only good. There will always be the people who refuse to participate because “they always do good things anyways” or “they don’t need credit to do something nice” but thats not what matters here. What matters is that people around the world are benefiting from good deeds being done in an interesting and innovative way. I, for one, see absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  8. Emma you’re right, doing an act of kindness and posting it to social media is a lot worse than drinking excessive amounts of alcohol to show-off your ability to intake hard liquor. You clearly have never started an initiative close to what this man started and instead of looking at the incredible outreach of this initiative, you looked at the tiny little selfish aspect where you tell people that you are a good person and enjoy doing acts of kindness. Emma you are scum and a total shmuck.

    • oh for christ’s sake, get a job

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