Helping strangers

There are many ways you could make life better for others even for a moment. You could offer your seat to an old lady in the bus or give directions to a tourist on the street. But where do you draw the line? It's fine when someone asks for directions or help to move something. But if a stranger asks for cash, the answer is no. It might be mean but the real world isn't exactly that nice either.

If it's an emergency where he needed to get something, I'll rather buy the item than giving cash directly to him. But either way it's a tough call and I don't the right answer.

Sometimes your decision to help a stranger can be a matter of life and death, yet more often than not, they are probably just preying on your altruism. Under what circumstances are you willing to help a stranger?


Are we inherently altruistic? Philanthropists donate millions of dollars every year to charity. To understand this behavior, economists designed an experimental game named Ultimatum to see how 2 parties interact when asked to divide a sum of money. There are also variations of the game called Dictator and Trust Game.

Ultimatum - Alice is given $10 to decide how much to split with Ben. Ben can either accept or reject the offer. If he rejects, neither of them get anything.

Dictator - Similar to ultimatum but this time Ben can't reject the offer. This is puts Alice in control hence the name.

Trust Game - Variation of Dictator game. An additional step is introduce before the 2 parties proceed with the Dictator game. Ben will offer an initial gift in hopes of getting more back.

All three games show that we consistently prefer fairness and mostly offer a portion of the initial sum to the other party. But things start to get confusing when an economist named John List tweaked the experiments a little.

Dictator 2.0 - Alice can additionally choose to take a dollar from Ben. This shouldn't matter since most of the time Alice decides to share some with Ben.

It turns out that in this variation, less dictator decide to share and one out of five took money from Ben. What John List has discovered is that, with a little variation to the game rules, he can influence the behavior of the participants.

He didn't stop there and did a bunch of other experiments to illustrate that the results of the experiment is affected by its set-up. You can read more about it in Superfreakonomics. I honestly do not know if we innately altruistic but I do hope you will donate to help the earthquake victims in Haiti.