Save the World, Make a Million Bucks

Greed vs Altruism

I just finished reading a really interesting book. It’s called Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. The authors are Ori and Rom Brafman, and I highly recommend it. These guys make some surprising points about the way our irrational sides undercut our rational decision making. One part of the book that really stayed with me was about how altruism and avarice compete for our attention. Almost all of us are sometimes giving and sometimes greedy, and it’s tough to be both at the same time.

They tell a great story about Switzerland, if I recall correctly. The government wanted to store nuclear waste near a certain town, and to find out the best way to present it to the townspeople. So they commissioned a study that asked half the people a question designed to appeal to their altruistic side, and half the people a question designed to appeal to their avaricious side.

Radiation – It’s Not Just for Altruists Anymore

The first question was something like this: your country needs a place to store nuclear waste, and we want you to help. Would you be willing to support your country by agreeing to let us store the waste near your town?

The second question was something like this: your country needs a place to store nuclear waste, and we want you to help. Would you be willing to agree to let us store the waste near your town in return for a payment of $2,500?

You might think a lot more people would want to get paid for the “privilege” of having nuclear waste stored nearby. But the truth is, the percentage of people who agreed when they were asked to volunteer in order to help their country was a lot higher than the percentage of people who agreed when they were offered money.

People are Basically Good …. Unless They’re Greedy

The authors pointed out that this kind of thing happens a lot. They talked about studies showing that when people make altruistic decisions, one part of their brains activate, and when they make decisions based on personal gain, a different part of their brains activate. They also explained that it’s almost impossible for both the altruism center and the avarice center to activate at the same time. And what’s really surprising is that altruism may be a better motivator than greed!

Would You Buy a Used Car to Save the Planet?

If this is true, it could have a profound effect on marketing strategies. Maybe if you’re a marketing expert you already know this, but based on what the Brafmans said, it’s going to be critical to make sure your marketing and sales materials appeal only to one side of your customers’ minds – either the giving side or the greedy side. And if I’m right about this, your advertising dollar might be a lot better spent appealing to the giving side. I’m planning to do a lot more research on this idea, and I’ll try to write a column about it when I find out what data is available.

But here’s a point that’s critical if you’re into personal development. You may be a lot “better” person than you think you are. Do you know if you’re motivated more by a good cause than by a good paycheck? Would an appeal to your inner St. Vincent de Paul be more likely to succeed than an offer to your inner Gordon Gecko?

When you Absolutely, Positively Have to Get Something Done

Here’s one way you might be able to find out – take some time to imagine a high-stakes situation similar to the nuclear waste example I pointed out earlier. Would you, really, truly, be more likely to agree to accept a risky or difficult situation if you thought you were helping out your country, your church, your family, or your company? When you put yourself in the shoes of the Swiss townspeople in the story who were offered money, did you do a mental calculation like I did… “Jeez, they want me to put myself, my family, and my neighbors at risk for a lousy $2,500. They’re gonna have to do a lot better than that!”

If you can figure out what approach works better for you, you’ve got a very powerful leverage tool for following through on personal development challenges. If there’s something you want to do or you’ve been meaning to do but just can’t get yourself started, why not take some time to figure out what would motivate you better to get started – personal gain or some benefit to your community?

Take some time to write out a list of the reasons to do it and put the altruistic reasons in one column and the avaricious reasons in another column. When you can clearly see which column motivates you better, re-read that column several times. For each entry, visualize how it’s going to feel to attain the reward when you succeed. Make the visualization part of your daily routine, and I bet in a few weeks your desire is going to be very strong! I bet almost nothing will stand in the way of you taking the steps you need to reach your goal!

“Very usually, altruism is only the sublimest form of selfishness.” ~ Sri Aurobindo