As a giving person you may take into account the needs of another person—a partner, child, co-worker, or even a stranger—equal to, or greater than, your own. You may extend yourself in terms of time, gifts, emotional support, or the desires and needs that you perceive in someone else: giving, so to speak, out of the goodness of your heart. Although you do not expect anything in return, you may find repeatedly that you simply don’t receive anything close to what you give and you may wonder why it is that others in your network of relationships don’t seem to have an inclination similar to your own. What motivates giving behavior? Is it ultimately out of our own self-interest that we give, or might there be another possibility?
Love, compassion, and caring can motivate giving. However, selfless giving can be detrimental, the extreme illustrated by Oscar Wilde’s (1888) poignant fable, The Nightingale and the Rose. In this story, a student falls in love with a girl who claims that she will dance with him if he will bring her a red rose. He cannot find a red rose in the garden, but a little nightingale hears his lament and is compelled to provide what he needs. Singing all night to a rose tree that had been chilled by the winter frost, she presses her heart against one of its thorns, spilling warm blood over its cold branches to create a red rose. In the morning, the student discovers the rose and takes it to the girl he loves. But she is unimpressed, since she prefers the jewels given to her by another man. The rejected student tosses the rose into the street where it is run over by a carriage. He rationalizes his loss and returns to his studies. Meanwhile, beneath the rose tree, the selfless little nightingale is dead.
Naturally, the role of giving within a relationship is complex, and the motivations behind giving are often disguised. Social scientists have debated the issue of whether or not altruistic behavior, such as giving or doing something for another in need, is ever truly unselfish or if it is unconsciously egoistic; that is, self-serving, as my co-author and I discuss in our book, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others.An egoistic motivation might be the wish to avoid the pain of watching someone else suffer, to feel good about oneself, to avoid guilt resulting from inaction, to establish oneself as dominant, a response to childhood trauma, or to vicariously have one’s own needs met. The early psychoanalytic view of altruism posited that altruistic behavior contained a powerful but unconscious element of self-interest, and represented internal conflicts (A. Freud, 1936). Surrendering one’s needs, according to the theory, actually led to the vicarious fulfillment through identification with the person being helped. However, some contemporary researchers maintain that altruistic acts do not necessarily contain self-serving or egoistic motives. C. Daniel Batson (1991), for example, conducted research demonstrating that altruistic acts can exist with minimal to no egoistic motivations.
Empathy plays a significant role in behavior that is giving. Although the concept of empathy is generally defined as experiencing the feelings of someone else, various theorists and researchers emphasize different aspects, including the notion of thinking and feeling oneself into the inner life of another person (Kohut, 1984), an affective response that pertains more to another’s situation than one’s own (Hoffman, 2000), or a vicarious affective response based on the awareness of another’s emotional state (Eisenberg, Miller, Schaller, Fabes, Fultz, & Shell, 1989). Across all definitions is the notion that you can “feel” the emotional state of someone else. Although you may empathize with someone and understand how he feels, you may not necessarily be giving in response. For some people, feeling another person’s emotional pain is so stressful that a shame response may lead them to withdraw, use some mechanism of avoidance, or become angry with the person in pain or with themselves. Nevertheless, if you are inclined to give as a result of an empathic response to another person, the act of giving can activate the affect of enjoyment or joy and the ensuing pleasurable experience it creates.
We are primarily motivated by emotional experiences that result from triggered biological affects. Joyful and enjoyable feelings themselves will motivate you to give. Imagine a time when you were joyful; you were likely more disposed to give another person a compliment, gift, hug, or a witty comment—whatever it might have been, you were likely motivated to give. Parents of an otherwise surly adolescent comment that when their child is in a “great mood”—experiencing enjoyment, joy, or excitement—they are suddenly engaging, generous, and affectionate. If you are prone to experience joy there is an inclination to want to mutualize it, and to share it with another (Gary David, Ph.D., 2013, Personal communication). Complementary experiences where enjoyment and joy are shared often involve mutuality in terms of giving and receiving (Tomkins, 1963/2008). Unfortunately, when mutuality is absent, joy that is shared through giving may result in the activation of a negative affect and a resulting painful emotional experience.
For information about my current book, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website: http://www.marylamia.com
Batson, C. D. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Eisenberg, N., P. A. Miller, M. Schaller, R. A. Fabes, J. Fultz, R. Shell (1989). The role of sympathy and altruistic personality traits in helping: A reexamination. Journal of Personality 57(1):41-67.
Freud, A. (1996). The Writings of Anna Freud, Vol. II, 1936: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press.
Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Kohut, H. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Lamia, M. & Krieger, M. (2009). The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need To Rescue Others. Oakland: New Harbinger.
Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
Tomkins, S.S. (1963/2008). Affect, Imagery Consciousness, 2: The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.
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