Are we generous by default?

Given the right situation, most humans act altruistically. Here’s why we like giving more than receiving and the collaborative economy brings out the best in us.

When I heard it at OuiShare for the first time, I couldn’t believe it: it turns out that at skill banks, people prefer to do favors instead of receiving them; at time banks people are more likely to offer their time instead of asking for it; and when dealing with local currencies citizens prefer to have others owe them credits than have a debt themselves. Not very rational, right?

It would be more rational to first ask for something (favors, time, money) and then decide if you would like to give. A prize without any effort? No doubt: go for it. But it turns out that reality and our own experiences tell a different story. It´s rather human to feel pride in having a skill that is useful to others as much as it is very human to experience satisfaction in lending something to someone or accumulating social credits in case they are needed at some point.

After doing all types of research and behavioral experiments, Yochai Benkler concluded in The Penguin and the Leviathan, that humans are distributed as follows: 30% always cooperate, another 30% will always do their own thing and – great news – for 40%, it depends. What does it depend on?

It depends on the context. If you are told that a group is very cooperative, you will act in a cooperative way. If you are told that you are surrounded by sharks, you will try not to look anyone in the eye. It depends, therefore, on what we think about ourselves. It depends largely on how our public and private spaces are designed as well as the systems we use to interact. It depends on the default configuration. Settings by default?

Many collaborative economy platforms help us express mutual support freely and reveal an unexpected side of the homo economicus. Maybe we are not the profit maximizers we are thought to be, and now that we know ourselves better, can start behaving as we truly are.

This article was originally published in Spanish in the magazine Yorokobu