02/12/2013 09:00 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Competitive Kindness: How Our Desires Make Us More Generous

Long before Kison Patel was a benefactor, he was a failed real estate agent. Six months without a single home sale convinced him to try selling hotels and restaurant franchises instead. A few million dollars later, his desire for more robust and secure deal-making software inspired him to launch, a website designed to help startups and other businesses find trustworthy investors.

In other words, one small group's desire for profit can help turn garage businesses into publicly traded companies, underdogs into corporate players, small-town success into mass marketability, all while lining the investors' pockets. As hard as it may be to defend a national economy built on this setup, Patel's success is just the latest in a long line of similarly motivated projects, from the British East India Company to the modern Dubai skyline.

And according to a recent study, there's a surprising evolutionary reason for this trend: Generosity helps powerful people keep each other in check.

As the journal Evolution reports, a team led by Omar Tonsi Eldakar and Andrew C. Gallup constructed a mathematical simulation of a community composed of both selfish and generous individuals who compete over limited resources. The researchers discovered an interesting pattern as the community grew: Population and resource levels stayed most stable over time in communities where the most powerful and selfish individuals focused their aggression on one another instead of on weaker, poorer individuals. By keeping each others' selfishness in check, these "aristocrats" actually freed up more resources for the larger community.

On the flip side, when a "have-not" punishes a fellow pauper or steals some resources from a powerful individual, the net benefit to the whole community isn't very significant. Generosity therefore seems to emerge when selfish impulses compete until they cap each other off. And although Fortune 500 companies don't literally enact punishments on each other, they and many other firms compete daily for accolades in philanthropy, in fiscal efficiency and in positive public perception. As the study puts it, "a little hypocrisy may go a long way in the evolution and maintenance of altruism."

Not only do the researchers believe that this model may account for capitalistic philanthropy, but they point to other examples at all sorts of biological levels:

Tree wasps that police hives to make sure that no mem­ber other than the queen lays eggs will often lay illicit eggs them­selves. Can­cer cells will pre­vent other tumors from form­ing. Medieval knights would pil­lage the same civil­ians they read­ily defended from invaders, while neigh­bor­hoods ruled by the Ital­ian Mafia tra­di­tion­ally had the low­est lev­els of crime.

Of course, this line of argument makes it easy to wonder if the authors might go on to defend laissez-faire governments or even trickle-down economics. However, the paper and press release don't even seem to hint at condoning (or condemning) any particular economic system. In fact, the above quotation about hypocrisy sounds a little tongue-in-cheek, as if the most rational way to view generosity is through a lens of semi-ironic distance.

On the one hand, it's hard to deny the conclusion that even our most selfless acts are ultimately motivated by our desires to feel good, to be known as kind and generous, to be needed. And this isn't the first study to find that generous behavior evolves naturally from selfishness in certain mathematical models.

But unless you're a company owner making a deal with a faceless banking corporation, it's pretty hard to be generous and cynical at the same time. Empathy helps our generous acts strengthen our social bonds, and though that might not make society-wide waves, it makes our day-to-day interactions a lot more enjoyable. Investors can help keep us solvent, but it's our close companions who keep us sane.

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