Sharing: How giving to others returns wealth and creates friendships

Bloggers get a lot of conflicting advice about monetizing the opinions and advise they cast into the internet ether.

“Give away your thoughts, build a following, and then charge for content”

“No, anything given away for free is by definition worthless; don’t establish yourself as worthless.”

“It’s not worthless if people are reading it, but would they pay for it if asked?”

“Just share your passion; your goal is to make the world a better place. But throw up links to what your readers might want to buy to help pay the bills and keep the train rolling.”

All this conflicting advice got me thinking about sharing.

Jordan Peterson has written a wonderful book called 12 Rules for Life that is making quite a splash in the online world. The book has twelve chapters, each one containing one of the twleve rules in the title. Chapter 7, “Pursue what is meaningful, (not what is expedient)”, says a lot about sharing.

Peterson shares an interesting story about a monkey hunter in the jungle. He constructs a jar with an opening just big enough for a monkey to insert its open hand, but too small to accommodate a closed fist full of food. He fills the bottom of the jar with heavy rocks, and then puts a delicious treat easily seen on top of the rocks. A monkey comes along, sees the treat, easily puts its hand into the jar and grabs a fistful of treats, but cannot remove its hand without letting go of the treats. The monkey wants the treats so badly that continues to clutch them even as the hunter walks up and easily dispatches him.

This is an inability to delay gratification.

Ever try to teach a young child about sharing? Until about the age of three or four kids do not have the ability to predict future events based on present occurrences. Sometimes bloggers don’t either.

“Why should I give this brat of a brother? I like it — it has value to me. And you want me to — what, just give it to my insufferable little brother?”

For the child there is no sense in giving things to another. Being able to see only to the immediate future, young children have no idea they might eventually get something back.

Scientists call sharing “reciprocal altruism” — the idea that giving freely to someone results in them sharing back. This deeply a seated predictably interactive behavior in human beings. Today it’s part of the “social contract,” those unspoken rules so basic to social order that we barely take notice of them.

Consider a small band of human beings living on the African savannah 75,000 years ago. One member of the band receives food from the others, but does little to return the favor. He or she lives on the largesse of the rest of the band. Eventually the group faces a shortage of food. Maybe winter comes, or climate changes and game disappears and edible plants don’t grow.

How long until the non-sharing member, has nothing offered to him or her? Not very long.

In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright tells us about an early computer program called “Tit for Tat” that shook up the world of anthropology and psychology in the late 1970’s. Political scientist George Axelrod popularized a contest among computer savvy social scientists. He invited academics to submit programs that automated the game theory known as prisoners’ dilemma.

Imagine the police interrogating two suspected felons in separate rooms.

They give the two prisoners these choices:

· Rat on your partner and he gets ten years and you get off scot-free.

· If he rats on you first, you get ten years in the slammer.

· If you rat on each other, you both get three years.

What to do?

The problem is that the suspects have little information, only one chance and no time. There is no waiting to see what the other suspect does before deciding on the best choice.

The most generous of the suspects keeps his mouth shut while the most selfish and self-centered spills his guts to the cops.

Ratting on the other guy is kind of like one person in a prehistoric tribe benefitting from the largesse of others without giving back.

Axelrod was interested in what would happen if he repeated the prisoners’ dilemma many times. Doing this would create a history of how generous or self-centered each suspect is, and previous behaviors would provide information on the trustworthiness of the two suspects. Is the best strategy mutual altruism or to look out for ones interests at the expense of others?

Axelrod collected programs using different strategies for maximizing individual benefit from interested academics and set them upon one another. The winning program, Tit for Tat, had only five lines of code encapsulating a very simple algorithm:

On the first exchange, cooperate, and on all subsequent encounters do whatever the other program did last time.

The results were both predictable and breathtaking.

After repeated iterations, involving multiple interactions with the other programs Tit for Tat concentrated its interactions to programs that were the most honest and reliable.

Interesting, but not breathtaking.

Keep in mind that these were interactions among computer programs — machines with no morality, feelings, or moral expectations. In a completely objective manner, Tit for Tat was self-serving, advancing its own interests.

What’s breathtaking is that even though Tit for Tat was advancing its own interests, it was also sharing. In the world of Tit for Tat everyone comes out ahead.

Even though Tit for Tat had no understanding of reciprocal altruism, it illustrates the concept perfectly.

“He who has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

That is how Ben Franklin said it, but what he really means is that asking a favor of someone puts you under obligation, and that is the start of a social relationship.

Back to our band of pre-historic humans on the savannah.

It is not in anyone’s interests to be selfish because selfishness comes back to haunt them. Sharing information is in everyone’s best interests because doing so generates results for all. If everyone in the band shares knowledge of food and danger, they are aggregating their knowledge about survival, and that serves everyone’s needs because everyone feels an obligation to everyone else.

That is how highly cohesive social networks are formed.

Do highly cohesive social networks share only information about food and danger? We modern human live highly cohesive social networks. Do we share information about things other than food and danger?

Of course!

One of our most common social pastimes is exchanging information about altruism of others.

From office assessments of most and least productive co-workers, to celebrity gossip about the biggest real life jerks, to hate speech about those with different political affiliations than ours, we trade information about who shares, who they share with and if they will share with us.

It doesn’t matter if we talk about who received invitations to the latest royal wedding, which celebrities are jerks or whether the Republican’s or Democrats are the most selfish and self-centered. It’s a topic we all share in across a range of settings.

Hoarding knowledge might be to some limited and immediate benefit to an individual, but delaying gratification by sharing knowledge will pay off in the end, for the individual doing the sharing as well as the entire tribe.

In Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade, Robert Cialdini gives dozens of examples of how markets apply this principle in everyday life. If you are old enough to remember Easter Seals, you grew up watching this. Easter Seals was a charity funding research into Muscular Dystrophy that sent solicitations for donations to just about everyone.

The Easter Seal Society found that when they included gummed address lables with the name of the prospective donor on them donations increase dramatically.

Simply by giving something the potential donor found valuable increased the chances of donating.

(Everyone ought to read Influence if for no other reason to be a step ahead of the marketers)

Think about bloggers. The content they generate is cheap for them — it costs them nothing to pound out an essay that readers might find interesting, but not quite interesting enough to exchange for money. Bloggers can give away content in exchange for clicks linking readers to valuable goods and services. The more the reader values information in the article, the more likely they are to buy a book related to the information the blogger is writing about, and the more likely they are to visit the bloggers page in the future. The reader gets a book full of interesting ideas and the bloggers gets a few cents towards their DSL or cable bill.

Everyone is happy.

If you want to read more about this I highly recommend the books mentioned in this article:

Cialdini, R. B. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade (First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition. ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Peterson, J. B., Doidge, N., & Van Sciver, E. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Toronto: Random House Canada.

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