What motivates us to be charitable? Is there always some self-interest involved, or is the (somewhat Christian) notion of a selfless giver a realistic goal for many people? Alternately, is it possible to convert our baser instincts into generosity? And are anonymous donors always viewed as more noble?
Despite the fact that discipline of behavioral science is thoroughly a product of modernity, the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides had a sophisticated schema that accounted for the myriad reasons people give, one that intuitively predicted the results of many studies on this topic today; it came to be known as Maimonides’ Ladder.
A scene in a 2007 episode of the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David’s character donates money for a wing of a nonprofit building, and then regrets attaching his identity to the donation, puts this line of inquiry into a relatable and funny contemporary context.
Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman spoke to Julian de Freitas, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, who was inspired by the scene (along with three other authors, including Steven Pinker) to run a study analyzing perceptions of charitable donors based on their anonymity and perceived motives – and how they related to Maimonides’ Ladder.
(Also worth noting: Sinai and Synapses fellow Brian Gallagher also wrote a piece on this scene and its implications last year, connecting it to a study in Nature Human Behavior about “signal-burying behavior”).
Here’s an excerpt:
Geoff Mitelman: Hi everyone, my name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I am the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, which is an organization that bridges the worlds of religion and science. And I’m very excited to be sitting here with Julian de Freitas, who is the author of a new paper, entitled – and I love this – “Maimonides’ ladder: States of mutual knowledge and the perception of charitability.” He is the lead author, Steven Pinker of Harvard University is the fourth author of this piece, but the four of you, you and two other people, wrote this amazing paper looking at some of the psychology behind Rambam’s eight ladders of tzedaka. I know that you are inspired by two great Jewish thinkers, Maimonides and Larry David. So Julian, I want to turn it over to you to share a little bit about your paper and its inspiration, and what you were trying to look at in this piece.
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, sure. And you know, thanks for inviting me, it’s a real pleasure to talk about this work. Yes, so, one day Steve, who was brought up culturally Jewish, told us about Maimonides’ ladder and how it was relevant to some of the work that we were doing at the time on how people are really sensitive to different kinds of states of knowledge, you know, mutual states, such as what you know about what I know, and also common knowledge – you know, whether we’re both aware that we both know something.
And what was really interesting to us about Maimonides’ ladders was that many of the rungs of the ladder concern exactly at this point. And when we sort of read through it, we thought to ourselves that there might really be a deep parallel between the prescriptions that he’s made and some theories from evolutionary psychology, which predict that exactly the kind of knowledge that you create could, in some sense, guarantee whether or not you receive either reciprocity from a person you give to – or indirect reciprocity – as a result of you gaining high reputation as a result of the gift that you give.
And so we thought that, you know, maybe Maimonides wasn’t just prescribing something that might be normatively true, but really, he was tapping into something deep about our psychology. And you know, in one of the Larry David episodes, he, too, sort of noticed this deep insight, because he donates a wing of, I think, a museum anonymously – no, he donates not anonymously, and his rival Ted Danson donates another wing, but does so anonymously. However, the fact that he [Ted] gave it anonymously also leaks out. So paradoxically, he reaps the benefits, not only of the gift but also the fact that he gave it anonymously. And of course Larry David is chagrined to find this out. So it was great to bring both of those two great thinkers into one paper, of course.
Geoff Mitelman: And what was interesting about Maimonides’ ladder – and if people don’t know, Maimonides was a great Jewish thinker. And he’d written many law codes, and he wrote in a piece about different levels of what tzedaka, what charity would be, from the lowest rung to the highest rung, although I think he actually starts from the top down to the bottom. And it really emphasizes a lot of the anonymity and how valuable that is in many ways – the more anonymous you are, the better a person you are. And yet, we as individuals, we want to reap the benefit, as you say, of “oh wow, look at how generous I am.”
So I’m curious as to – did you start by saying “oh, we want to look at Maimonides’ ladder to be able to see is this true” or was it more “Boy, this is actually a baked-in methodology that we can explore and use that to untangle some of these questions”?
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, I mean, I think that it was a little bit of both. I mean, I think that we had already been thinking that knowledge states and anonymity were sort of really deep factors in descriptions of charitability. And then we sort of came upon Maimonides’ ladder, and it sort of all clicked together. You know, not only was he talking about knowledge states, but he sort of already had, in some sense, a set of experimental manipulations laid out so beautifully for us to, you know, capitalize on. So I think it was the two things sort of coming together really nicely.
Geoff Mitelman: And if I remember that in your paper, you don’t look at all eight rungs, you select a few of them. Was that more of a methodological consideration to say “Look, we can’t do all eight, and we can’t do a double blind control study of helping somebody get out of poverty,” it sounds like, I remember, you selected four of them, if I remember.
Julian de Freitas: So we don’t look at the very first rung, which is, as you point out, to allow someone to escape poverty altogether. The reason we focused mostly on the next four rungs is because they have to do with mental states and creating different kinds of mutual knowledge, which fit most with theories of direct reciprocity. Now, in one of our later experiments, we do also look a little bit at rungs 7 and 8, which have to do, as you know, with whether someone gives grudgingly, whether they’re willing to give or not. And in those studies, you know, we look at this idea that aside from whether someone is giving anonymously, which could tell you about whether they’re interested in reciprocity, are people also sensitive to this idea that when someone gives, they’re also potentially signaling that they’re truly interested in engaging in a social relationship that will sort of exist past the first exchange? And do they see themselves as being sort of on an equal footing with the beneficiary, or do they see themselves as being in more of a dominance relationship, where it’s sort of flouting their status? So those experiments get more at those last two considerations, but yes, for the most part, we focus on the rungs 2-6, which concern knowledge states.
Geoff Mitelman: And I’m curious as to what did you find in the paper, what were some of the results that you discovered?
Julian de Freitas: Yeah. So you know, one thing that immediately struck us was that when we looked at people’s descriptions of charitability, they correlate really nicely with Maimonides’ ladder, up until the point where we looked at the difference between a donor who merely shares his or her identity, compared to a donor who both sheds his identity and finds out the identity of the beneficiary.
So on Maimonides’ ladder, and on the predictions that we initially had, we expected that that last level, in which are both identities are known, that that would be sort of seen as the least charitable of all. Because in that situation, the donor can really guarantee that he’ll be reciprocated, because both parties know what’s just happened. And not only that, the donor can definitely receive the reputational benefits, say, if the beneficiary told someone else.
But nonetheless, it was just the last level that didn’t fit the pattern. So what we found was that actually if you just look at what people think, in terms of their motives for reciprocity on the part of the donor, those fit Maimonides’ ladder perfectly. Even for these last two levels, people do think that if you create a situation where both parties know each other’s identity, that you’re probably interested in reciprocity. But what we found is that in addition to that, people not only care about reciprocity, but also a little of what I was telling you about, where they think that a donor who exchanges photos, you know, one who sort of puts himself out there, is also potentially interested in engaging in a long-lasting communal relationship, and also sees himself as a sort of being equal in status to the beneficiary. So we think that these additional sort of considerations might offset the initial sort of negative impression you might get, that the donor is solely interested in reciprocity.
Geoff Mitelman: It sounds like there are so many different mental states that are going on here, so it’s not just the “I’m giving,” but it’s “I’m giving so that I can increase my reputation” and “I’m giving so that I can be anonymous, and then I can give anonymously so that I can receive the knowledge there,” like what happened with Ted Danson and Larry David, and “do I view myself as more charitable because I am anonymous,” versus “how do I view other donors there.” And so much of our – I know that there’s a lot of research that suggests that one reason that our brains are so big is trying to keep track of all the different social relationships, and mutual benefits, and who’s cheating. And the reputational elements actually, looking at Maimonides’ ladder, helps illuminate how complicated this question is.
Julian de Freitas: Definitely, yes. So we think what you just said, about keeping track of whether people are cheating, or even as Robert Trivers called it, “subtly cheating” – so the idea that, you know, they reciprocate the bare minimum that they need to in order to sort of keep the relationship going – we think that this might provide a sort of explanation for why people are even sensitive to these different kinds of giving in the first place, which is that, you know, people seem to be really wired to find good cooperative partners. And when you think about it, you can see how this way of thinking, which falls out of evolutionary psychology, fits really well with the order of Maimonides’ Ladder.
So if someone gave anonymously, then by definition, they’re sort of removing the possibility that they could get anything from others in return. And so, you know, if you find out about such a person, you should expect that they would make for a really good cooperative partner, because you know, presumably they will do their part, not only because they’re selfishly motivated, it’s because they’re sort of genuinely altruistic. And if you apply the same reasoning to the other levels, then you sort of reach similar conclusions.
So to give just one example, you know, if the donor finds out who the recipient is, then you know, at a later stage, the donor could always reveal himself to the recipient and say “you know, by the way, I was the one who helped you,” and in that way sort of call in a favor. But otherwise, he doesn’t enjoy the reputational benefits until he does that. Whereas, if a donor actually creates common knowledge, he gives in person and and both people know each other’s identities, then in that case, you both sort of guarantee that there will be sort of some social pressure to receive a direct reciprocity, and also that he’ll get the reputational benefits of the charity.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, you know, what’s interesting too is you’re highlighting a difference in between Judaism and Christianity in a lot of ways, between what we might call tzedaka versus charity. And that’s something that gets talked about a lot, at least in Jewish circles, which is that charity is from the Latin karitas, and it’s about caring, and it’s from the heart, and it’s an expression of giving. Versus in Judaism, tzedaka is related to the word tzedek, meaning justice. You can even think about the way different religious institutions are supported, where in churches you pass a collection plate around, and in synagogues you pay your dues.
And so, it also sounded like this helps illuminate some of this difference between tzedaka, which is often focused more on the recipient, versus charity, which is a focus on the donor. And there’s a relationship there for sure. But it’s a question of “where’s the orientation?”. So I’m curious if your paper helps illuminate that a little bit.
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, perhaps a little bit. So I think that one thing we highlight in our papers, that what people are most sensitive to, might be what you’re calling “charity,” which is sort of – what kind of donor are we looking at? What are the dispositions of the donor? Is this person actually a terrible person? And we sort of contrast that with just the fact that, you know, when it comes down to it, what should matter is how much the beneficiary is receiving. And you know, if it’s the case that donors are motivated to help beneficiaries by, you know, let’s say, reputational benefits, then you know, maybe that’s a good thing. Because at least there’s something that’s leading to a net good. And maybe the experiment that makes this point most stark is one in which we deliberately contrast a donor who gives a small amount anonymously, so let’s say, you know $10,000, which I guess isn’t that small –
Geoff Mitelman: – That’s a good amount to me! (laughs)–
Julian de Freitas: – with the donor who gives publicly, and what we do is we, as they say in econ, we titrate different amounts. So the public donor could give 2x, 3x, 4x. And we actually go up to about 100x, so a donor who gives $1,000,000 publicly. And what we find is that a donor who merely shares his identity – there’s basically no amount that such a donor can give to be seen as significantly more charitable than an anonymous donor who gives only $10,000. So it’s almost as if how you give is just as important.
Now, there is a little bit of light in this tunnel, which is that there are ways in which the donor can still share his identity and then be viewed as more charitable than an anonymous donor. So we find that, if instead of merely sharing his photo, which sort of signals maybe pure self-interest, the donor exchanges photos, then if he gives four times as much as an anonymous donor, he will be viewed as more charitable. And then, even better than that, if the donor gives in person, then he only has to give two times as much in order to be viewed as more charitable.
And we think that this last finding might be because, again, giving in person sort of signals, you know, a sort of genuine down-to-earth interest in the beneficiary, whereas the other ones are sort of more removed and self-interested-seeming.
Geoff Mitelman: And it highlights, I think, it sounds like one of the things that Paul Bloom and Peter Singer and a lot of people have talked about, which is the relationship between empathy and compassion, and the spotlight effect, and that, you know, that we give much more to individuals and people that we have a specific clear concrete relationship with, we’re more focused there, than on actually the amount of money that we could give and how our donations can actually have a multiplier effect. But they’re not people that we’re connected to, and so they’re not as much on our radar screen.
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, I think that’s right. And, yeah, I think you’re right about that.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, I’m curious [about] – the Hebrew word is tachles, which is practical pieces – trying to engender, not just engender a general donation to charitable giving, but also engender a culture of philanthropy and a culture of donation – if there are practical pieces that that you might recommend out of your paper here.
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, I mean this is the challenging part, and one thing we do say in the paper is that you know, to some extent, the most efficient, well-known charities that already exist might be capitalizing on some of these quirks of psychology already. So even, you know really careful, efficient, charitable organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, often feature photos with the donors and the recipients. And I think that, you know, our findings at least suggest that that sort of practice is pretty wise, it suggests that the organization, in so doing, really signals that it has a genuine interest in the beneficiary and sort of bringing the rich donors down to the level of beneficiaries and sort of thinking about their interests on a level playing field in some sense.
So you know, that’s one thing in which we say, you know, this sort of parallels what they’re already seeing. I guess another general message here is that there are ways in which, if you want to incentivize donors to give, you could you could achieve this goal while still being smart. So you know, merely sending a photo is probably not going to do very good for the donor, and could even sort of backfire, but giving in person, or you know, showing in other ways that you’re sort of genuinely interested and see yourself as being on an equal footing, could both sort of make sure that the donor’s reputation gets shared while, you know, helping the beneficiary.
And that’s the challenge, which is trying to to meet all interests. One of the examples that we talk about in the paper is that of Dan Pallotta (I’m actually not sure if I’m pronouncing his last name correctly), but he started a bunch of fundraising events for cancer research, such as various running events and cycling events where people would get sponsored to do certain miles, I think. But because he was also making a profit from this, the whole sort of initiative got tainted. And people no longer were interested in it. So it’s all to say that you know, for better or for worse, people have a certain psychology that’s attuned to certain features. And so, at least if you’re trying to cater to that, there might be smart ways of doing that.
Now, of course is maybe a last thing you could say, which is a more meta point, which is that, you know, we should probably be changing the way that we think about these things. So maybe being attuned to dispositions, you know, matters and makes sense a lot in the sort of small scale, day-to-day social interactions that we have. And that were probably common in our ancestral environment. But when we’re talking about doing that good in a charitable scenario, maybe we need to learn how to somehow slough that off because those concerns are sort of much more secondary to the main one, which should be, you know, doing the most good.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, there’s a line from the Talmud, in the Shema, The Shema V’ahavta, which is the central prayer that Jews say twice a day, every day, says “you should love Adonai, your God with all your heart,” b’chol l’vav’cha. And the rabbis say “well, how do you love God with all your heart?” And the rabbis say that is not just all the good parts, what’s called your yetzer ha-tov, but also your yetzer ha-ra, your evil inclination, your selfish inclination, and be able to use that. If you need to use your ego to be able to do some good, you can use that. In fact, that’s a way – if you need to be able to say that the anonymous/Ted Danson is still going to be saving X number of lives in that kind of way.
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, definitely, I love that. I think that’s a message that, you know, if it becomes more palatable, would probably the most good. You know, I think in a lot of charitable contexts there’s this idea that it has to be completely self-serving, basically, you know, it has to be kind of anonymous. And you know, of course, we know that the most successful organizations attract smart thinkers, have a lot of research behind the scenes, and all of this takes money, and some sort of incentivized way of growing the organization. And so, you know, if people can can sort of focus on the factors that actually matter, like low overhead costs, but you know, but still maximum net benefit, then, you know, that’s the way to go. And there are people who are definitely interested, Peter Singer being one among many, Paul Bloom another, in how we sort of give efficiently, and sort of move people away from the factors that they’re sort of intuitively and automatically, that they intuitively glom on to, and get them to focus on the things that should actually matter, sort of rationally speaking.
Geoff Mitelman: So the last question I want to ask, and you mentioned this a little bit before – would you say that even though he was a scientist, he was a doctor at the time, but he didn’t have the tools of psychology – it sounds like Maimonides had a pretty good sense of intuitive psychology, and how to motivate giving. And so would you say that it sounds like his hypothesis, which has been, as you said normative, there actually may be some at least some intuitive science to his ideas?
Julian de Freitas: Yeah, definitely. We think that Maimonides was a man way ahead of his time, and for that reason, we want to give him due credit throughout the paper. And so with every experiment, we do we become back to the Latter.
And as you point out, he was making a normative theory, but I think, you know, in a lot of philosophy, for example, the argument often goes that if you have a theory that also explains most of people’s intuitions, that one will perhaps be the best and most long-standing theory. And we do think that much of the latter sort of captures people’s intuitions in the domain of ascribing charitability. And that might be for these really deep reasons which somehow, Maimonides was in touch with. And so yeah, we think that this Ladder will probably stand the test of time, and hopefully continue to engender, you know, more research into the kinds of factors that affect people’s descriptions of charitability.
Geoff Mitelman: Julian, thank you for taking the time to talk, and for this fascinating paper. We’ll link to the paper here as well so people can see that, and also the Ladder itself, so that people can see a little detail on this. But it’s such important and fascinating work, so thank you for your time, and the insights that you’re bringing to psychology and religion.
Julian de Freitas: Thanks for having me. It’s been a real pleasure chatting with you, and you know, hope to see more of you and the organization’s good work in the future.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you so much.