Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Psychology of the Big Give

When I first heard about Oprah's show The Big Give I was a bit skeptical. I thought it might exploit the act of giving, but I have changed my mind. There are the obvious upsides to this show, commercials and product placement probably create more money to give to people, money that would not have been there before. Here was the kicker, the people on the show aren't expecting anything except to give big. Oprah is secretly planning to give 1 million dollars to the winner of the show, but the contestants don't know that, they all do it out of the goodness of their hearts. That, and their defense mechanism that is 'altruism'.

What? Defense mechanism? Okay, so Oprah isn't exactly thinking about this, but I am. Back in December I read a book by a psychologist Vaillant called The Wisdom of the Ego. He talks about some defense mechanisms as healthy. One of these is 'altruism', people give back in order to make themselves feel better. By giving back these contestants are strengthening their ego and making themselves stronger more capable people. Now, lots of people do this, Anna Freud is Vaillant's example. Giving back makes these contestants feel better, and in the end it's infectious. I watch this show now believing that people will want to give back to feel just as good as the contestants do.

I remember an episode of Friends from probably a good 10 years ago. In the episode the character of Joey argues that it isn't possible to do a good deed that doesn't make you feel good. Phoebe tries continually through out the episode to do something good with out making herself feel good, and inevitably fails. The way I see it, who cares if the person giving something good feels good in return. Defense mechanism or no, two people feel good.

So, if watching Oprah's primetime show makes me feel like giving back and then boosters my ego, so be it.

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