Research News

It’s not always dog-eat-dog: Sometimes not having enough makes us more generous

Not having enough of what we need or want is stressful, but it doesn’t always make us competitive jerks like you see on Survivor, said Kelly Goldsmith, associate professor of marketing, in a recent talk at TEDx Nashville. And Goldsmith would know: Before she was a behavioral scientist at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management specializing in the impact of scarcity on decision-making, she was a contestant on the third season of the show.

“I’d watched seasons one and two. I expected all the competition and the deprivation. What I didn’t expect, and what I found the most surprising, is that in the game of Survivor people are almost painfully nice to each other,” she said. “When you’re watching it, it doesn’t always seem like everyone is being so kind—but trust me, when you’re there…It’s a total love fest.”

That surprising discovery was borne out in her subsequent research. It turns out that when we’re confronted with scarcity, we don’t always default to the Black Friday stampede mentality. When we believe we’re more likely to get what we want if we cooperate, we’re actually more likely to share resources and trade favors. That’s an important finding, and one that hadn’t been documented before.

While enlightened self-interest may not be pure altruism, Goldsmith said, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, because by helping ourselves we’re still helping others along the way.

“These frustrations don’t have to be limitations. They can increase generosity, and facilitate improvements in culture,” she said. “They can lead to our making choices to take care of ourselves. And these are positive outcomes, both individually and collectively.”