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Vestal: Random acts of kindness hard for many to stomach

What if the Little Red Hen – who did all the work and ate all the bread – had been a selfless chicken?

What if she did all the work and then shared the bread? Wouldn’t the rest of us – the loafers, the free-bread-eaters, the dogs, cats and pigs of the world – like her better?

Maybe not. New research from Washington State University professor Craig Parks and colleagues suggests that a lot of us dislike the very generous as much as the very greedy. Over the course of four studies in three years, Parks found that most people participating in a team exercise would rather dump a selfless teammate than reap the rewards of his or her generosity.

Why? Two major reasons cited by the haters: The unselfish make others look bad – even if they help the group disproportionately. And they are simply baffling, acting outside our expectations for how people ought to give and take. Parks summarizes that attitude as: “You just don’t do this.”

The research has had a twofold effect on Parks. On one hand, because the work is significant, the paper he co-authored was published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the top journal in his field.

On the other, since the story has an interesting hook – and lends itself to certain reality TV analogies regarding voting and islands – it’s gotten attention from the press as well. It’s always interesting to gauge the distance between sober academia and gee-whiz news articles – but it’s been strange for Parks, whose 17 years at WSU have not exposed him to the experience of reading about himself on blogs and in magazines or being interviewed by radio hosts from Canada or Australia.

“It’s a very different experience for me,” he said.

The twin poles of that experience can be summarized in two headlines.

The journal article’s title: “The Desire to Expel Unselfish Members from the Group.”

The headline on Toronto’s Globe and Mail website: “Stop being so damned selfless at work.”

As if confirming Parks’ research, the comment section at the Globe and Mail included this: “There is a fine line between being unselfish for the group and being a suck-up. Everyone hates a suck-up. If you start calling them selfless, they’re really going to be in trouble.”

Back in 2006, Parks set out to study a different angle on group dynamics: the reactions of people to a teammate who is selfish.

He created a study in which participants were told they were members of a five-person team; four of the “teammates” were fakes, making choices determined by the researchers. Players were given points, which they could choose to keep or donate to a group pool. Points donated to the pool were doubled; each player could take some back at the end of each round. But there was an incentive to let them accumulate, in order to qualify for a bonus after all the rounds.

Most of the fictitious teammates behaved in a very “white bread” way, Parks said – making modest, fair decisions about what to keep and what to contribute to the pool. But he also included teammates who were either very greedy or very selfless. The latter type he included only out of a sense of “scientific completeness,” he said.

As expected, the greedy teammates were unpopular, and the people in the survey wanted to vote them off the island. More surprising was the fact that most participants wanted to vote off the selfless people, too.

“That was not at all what I expected,” he said. “When it happened, my first thought was I must have done something wrong.”

He set up several follow-up studies. He thought that maybe people didn’t like the generous because they were assumed to be ignorant or confused about the rules of the game. So he made it clear that the unselfish teammates completely understood the task.

“Once again, people said we don’t want them to continue,” he said.

Finally, Parks ran a study examining the attitudes of the players toward the unselfish. Most commonly, they said the unselfish teammates were making them look bad or simply not following expected norms. Sometimes, they suspected an ulterior motive.

But time and again, the goody-two-shoes got the boot.

If you’ve got a negative view of humanity, this might simply confirm it: People are vain and selfish and inclined to punish the selfless out of petty concerns about their image.

Parks doesn’t see it that way.

A complicated set of priorities and values are tied into all our decisions, and concerns about the way we are perceived are just one of those. In a group situation, people can act selfishly, fairly or efficiently – if someone believes they have acted fairly, and then someone behaves in a dramatically unselfish way, it upsets the dynamic.

Though they feel they’ve done the right thing, they look bad compared to that guy.

“When people see the selfless individual, it really puts that conflict – do I act efficiently, selfishly or fairly? – into the forefront,” Parks said. “When people are deciding how to act, it’s complicated.”

That, plus everyone hates a suck-up.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or