science of us

How to Seem More Generous Than You Really Are

Photo: artisteer/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I never thought of myself as ungenerous until I met my partner. If I ask her to make me something to eat, she’ll make it. If I ask for a bite of her food, she’ll hand it over without hesitation. If I ask her to pick up my favorite ice cream on the way home from work, she will. (What can I say? I’m hungry.) Some of these things I’ll do for her, too, but I’m not always happy about it — especially not when it comes to sharing a bite of food I’m currently eating. I would like to be thought of as generous, but I would like to eat my own food more.

Happily, there may be a solution to my conundrum, and those like it. If you’re the sort of person who’d prefer to get something out of your generosity, a group of psychologists has the research you’ve been waiting for. In their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked people (both online and in real-life settings) how they would handle the decision to choose between two items of uneven value, like a nice granola bar and a cheap one, like (I assume) one of those really chewy Nutri-Grain ones that get all soggy and crumbly as soon as you open them.

Rather than give themselves the better option, the researchers found that most people chose to abdicate the decision to the other person in the real or imagined scenario. And this is where it gets good: when most of those other people learned that their partners had given up first choice, they were apparently so touched that they gave away the better option. The researchers hypothesize that because abdication is seen as generous, the person to whom the choice is given feels that they too must also be generous. Even though both people presumably want the better granola bar (or whatever) for themselves, they’re too afraid of seeming selfish to actually take it.

Admittedly, this finding has somewhat limited practical application. It does not encourage me to become a dessert sharer — something tells me that preemptively offering my partner a bite so that she’ll say no wouldn’t have the desired effect. But it does, I’m realizing, explain what I’m doing every time I “let” her choose between two restaurants for dinner, one of which I clearly favor. Hopefully she doesn’t read this.

How to Seem More Generous Than You Really Are