What Maimonides – and Larry David – Knew About the Psychology of Giving

What Maimonides – and Larry David – Knew About the Psychology of Giving

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:

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