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Read between September 06 - October 08, 2019
As the primatologist Frans de Waal writes in The Age of Empathy, “The selfish/unselfish divide may be a red herring. Why try to extract the self from the other, or the other from the self, if the merging of the two is the secret behind our cooperative nature?”
The first distinction lies in the terms of the exchange. In direct matching, the exchange is an economic transaction. When members buy an item on Craigslist, they know that sellers are typically trying to maximize their own gains with little concern for buyers’ interests. In contrast, in generalized giving, givers aren’t getting anything tangible back from the recipients. When members receive an item on Freecycle, they’re accepting a gift from a giver with no strings attached. According to Willer’s team, this “suggests that the giver is motivated to act in the interest of the recipient rather ...more
When you buy on Craigslist, if you receive an item at a good price, you can chalk it up to your savvy as a negotiator or the kindness (or naïveté) of an individual seller. You’re exchanging back and forth with another individual; you’re not getting anything from the Craigslist community. “As a result, participants in direct exchange will be less inclined to identify with the group because they will be less likely to derive the emotional experience of group membership,” Willer’s team writes. In generalized giving, on the other hand, the community is the source of the gifts you receive. An ...more
Instead of buying an item from another person, people feel that they’re receiving gifts from a community. The gratitude and goodwill generated means that they begin to identify with the community, seeing themselves as Freecycle members.
There were 257 dentists in the United States named Walter. How many dentists were named Dennis? Statistically, there should have been somewhere between 257 and 270. In reality, there were 482.
To explain why uncommon commonalities are so transformative, the psychologist Marilynn Brewer developed an influential theory. On the one hand, we want to fit in: we strive for connection, cohesiveness, community, belonging, inclusion, and affiliation with others. On the other hand, we want to stand out: we search for uniqueness, differentiation, and individuality. As we navigate the social world, these two motives are often in conflict. The more strongly we affiliate with a group, the greater our risk of losing our sense of uniqueness. The more we work to distinguish ourselves from others, ...more
Brewer calls it the principle of optimal distinctiveness: we look for ways to fit in and stand out. A popular way to achieve optimal distinctiveness is to join a unique group. Being part of a group with shared interests, identities, goals, values, skills, characteristics, or experiences gives us a sense of connection and belonging.
The more rare a group, value, interest, skill, or experience is, the more likely it is to facilitate a bond. And research indicates that people are happier in groups that provide optimal distinctiveness, giving a sense of both inclusion and uniqueness. These are the groups in which we take the most pride, and feel the most cohesive and valued.
But Willer’s team finds that there’s a catch: such a system depends on a “critical mass of exchange benefits,” which “creates positive sentiments toward the group, sentiments that help fuel further contributions.” In other words, people only identify with a generalized giving group after they receive enough benefits to feel like the group is helping them. With Freecycle, this outcome was by no means guaranteed; after all, if the givers on the site had been overwhelmed by takers looking for a free ride, the whole thing might never have gotten off the ground. How did Freecycle accumulate that ...more