I've noticed a phenomenon in our culture whereby altruistic actions face much more scrutiny than selfish actions. I think we should be aware of this bias effect, especially when discussing incentivizing people to e.g. work on AI alignment instead of ML research.

When I say 'our culture', I mean modern WEIRD culture, especially the English-speaking world. Here's what I notice: when I declare that I'm doing something selfishly and avowedly, I get praised. When I do something out of altruism, or do something that is coded as altruistic, my motives and true values get heavily scrutinized. The assumption is that I'm doing good in order to accrue praise and social status, which is called 'ulterior motives.' The thing is, people aren't necessarily misreading my motivations: I do want praise and social status. (Doesn't everyone?)

Given the direction of praise and status (selfish ambition is high-status, selfless do-gooding is questionable), my incentives are clear. Personally, I never, ever do anything out of altruism. (Honestly! I don't. Okay, maybe I give change to a homeless person once in a while...) I do have a heart, so I would like to do the right thing, but I don't, because I'd rather not get attacked all the time. I'm sick of the psycho-Kremlinology that we all get subjected to. I'm just not moral enough for that. Sorry.

I have a few theories about why this happens:

  1. Because modern WEIRD culture is actually an amalgamation of many subcultures, and individuals have leeway to select their subculture, people who are genuinely doing harm with their selfishness are not easy to attack directly. Charles Koch is hated by the political left, but he doesn't care because he's a conservative and only associates with other conservatives.

  2. Attacking someone who is transparently doing wrong is boring, and doesn't lead to sustained dialogue. Therefore due to the dynamics of social media, people can't sustain their outrage. However, a person who is a mix of good and bad traits (Elon?) invites endless controversy. That is a sustainable hate train which runs on renewable energy.

  3. This is a problem we inherited from Christianity. Christianity was weirdly obsessed with getting people to have the right motives, and didn't care as much about right action. Doing good things, but being rewarded for them, would not get you into heaven. Only sacrifice counted. (This is, by the way, why I personally can't stand Christianity.)

  4. Modern culture has a weird obsession with misbegotten social status. Selfishness does not aim at attaining status, and is therefore 'based'; altruism (at least sometimes) aims at attaining status, and is therefore 'cringe'. A Randian individualist is actually hard to criticize, because they've renounced doing good as a way of attaining status. Desiring status is the lowest status thing in our culture. (In my opinion, this is a great sickness that would ultimately doom our society, except that the singularity will happen first.)

I don't know if any of these four theories are correct or insightful. I'm not too concerned about the etiology of this problem, to be honest. (I'm worried that discussing the etiology will result in a fruitless political debate in the comments of this post; maybe I should have omitted these theories.) I just want people to be aware of this phenomenon so that real positive behavior gets incentivized again.

If you want to encourage people to do good things, consider the following: actually encouraging. We hardly ever celebrate anyone anymore. Yes, there is also the issue of punishing wrongdoing: avowed selfishness strangely avoids criticism, and is in fact praised (i.e. by libertarians). So you might think the solution is to redirect criticism to the right people. But I think that, as the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey.

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I don't think I agree with the premise - that there is a bias/backlash against altruism.  There is certainly criticism of almost any concentrated action, altruistic or not.  And there's a lot of criticism for some acts that the actor publicly wants altruistic credit for, but isn't clearly helping the causes that the critics care about.  

But there's a lot of public support for some kinds of altruism.  It's worth being specific in your thinking about what effects you're hoping to have, and from whom you're hoping to gain status.

Two other guesses:

  1. Social allergy. Everyone is only ever acting in self-interest. That's just a fact. Altruism is an outgrowth of this. But because there's this fiction of selfless altruism, there's a social lever people can pull, amounting to weaponizing Good Guy™ badges. What we're observing is the social allergy to that weaponization. Sadly, what it attacks are attempts to be altruistic that aren't explained in recognizably selfish terms. So when someone, say, shifts their sense of self so that "self-interest" really does lean altruistic, and that shift isn't transparent or easy to explain… well, clearly they have ulterior motives, right? (And sadly, many folk who claim this really are just claiming it to weaponize the Good Guy™ thing, so it's not immediately obvious what the better alternative is.)
  2. Postmodernism. Nothing can be what it seems anymore. In modern stories like in movies, the benevolent rich folk always (okay, just really stupidly often) turn out to be the supervillains in disguise, and it's the marginalized or ordinary folk who can do real good by banding together and overcoming the Narrative™ that gives the good bad guys power and asserts the irrelevance of the marginalized pure of heart. It's honestly hard for me to think of any recent popular storyline where someone started out with the power to be altruistic and acted on it without them turning out to be seriously misguided or outright villainous. But the single mom struggling to pay the bills and just get by, who has no room for "selfless altruism" (except in her sacrificial love for her child(ren))? Either she or her kid(s) will turn out to be the hero of the story that topples the corrupt empire making her situation so unfair. These are just the stories of our times.

I dispute that it's "just a fact" that "everyone is only ever acting in self-interest" -- unless the latter is defined so as to make that vacuously true, in which case it's a fact but a boring one.

Some people, to some extent, genuinely do prefer other people to have better lives, sufficiently so to motivate them to do things that benefit those other people at cost to themselves.

In so acting, of course they are in some sense acting according to their own preferences: that's just another way of saying that they are acting rather than someone else acting on them. But their preferences are, in these cases, about the welfare of others rather than their own, and to me it seems that if "self-interest" actually means anything at all then it should exclude that.

Am I using that term eccentrically? I don't think so. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary (which I cite not as an authority on how words must be used but as evidence of how they actually have been and are used) gives these definitions for "self-interest": 1. Personal benefit, advantage, or profit. 2. Preoccupation with, or pursuit of, one's own advantage or welfare, esp. to the exclusion of consideration for others; an instance or example of this. (It gives a third sense too, but it is marked as "obsolete" and is not relevant here.) If someone e.g. gives money to the Against Malaria Foundation that they could otherwise have used to buy books or save for their retirement, they are not pursuing personal benefit, advantage, or profit, and they are not being preoccupied with or pursuing their own advantage or welfare, especially not to the exclusion of consideration for others. So they are not, at least according to how the OED says the term "self-interest" is used, acting in self-interest.

Of course they might be making the donation only in order to boast about it, or something. But I claim not everyone who does such things does it with such purposes in view. And of course there may be selfish-geney explanations for why such altruism exists, where (1) genes that make such altruism happen more somehow end up getting more copies of themselves into existence or (2) that sort of altruism is an evolutionary misfire like masturbation or stuffing oneself with ice cream, an action that arises from evolutionarily-adaptive underlying drives but isn't adaptive itself. None of that seems to me like it's what "acting in self-interest" means, any more than a person is "acting so as to have more descendants" when they masturbate or "pursuing better health and nutrition" when they eat a pint of ice cream.

I'm sorry, but this is an absurd objection. It's pedantry.

I was pointing at the discord between (a) the "vacuously true" fact that people only do things they have some incentive to do and (b) the paradoxical cultural image of altruism being good only if it's truly selfless.

You might even be right. Maybe I was sloppy with my precise use of words here.

I do not care.

It doesn't affect the point whatsoever.

And it's definitely not worth a blow-by-blow essay reply to a five paragraph comment detailing an argument against my use of one goddamned word.

I'm not going to play this game.


I'm surprised by the vehemence of your response; if something I wrote was particularly annoying to you, I'm sorry about that. I wasn't trying to be annoying! (In particular, I wrote five paragraphs rather than just e.g. the first sentence) because I thought it would save both of us some back-and-forth about exactly what terms like "self-interest" mean.)

If I'm understanding right, you're annoyed at least in part because you reckon I'm just saying the same thing you already said/implied and trying to make it look like a disagreement. I don't think we're just saying the same thing in different words (e.g., I think some altruism is "selfless" in a useful sense; I don't think "shifting one's sense of self" is how genuinely-other-regarding altruism generally comes about). Of course I could have misunderstood you, in which case again I'm sorry about that.

I wasn't attempting to play any game.

You simply hit a hot button for me in terms of LW culture. It's a spot I just haven't really integrated yet.

So, I'm sorry I don't yet have the skill to both draw a boundary and also be kind & socially smooth here. Thank you for your grace.

I don't think we're just saying the same thing in different words

I agree. I don't think we're saying the same thing at all.

I do think it entirely amounts to an objection to how I use the words "self-interest" and "selfless" though. Nothing you've said gives me any sense that you're even orienting to the main point I was making.

(That's the hot button, by the way. The way LW culture fixates on every tiny detail with the eye of a programmer looking for typos, even when said details absolutely do not fucking matter in the given context. It triggers the hell out of me to have my point ignored for the sake of zooming in on some tiny irrelevant detail. That's my bullshit though. You're doing LW culture right, and you're just getting caught in the blast of my emotional limitations on this issue. I stand by my anger, but you don't deserve to get hit with it.)

I don't think "shifting one's sense of self" is how genuinely-other-regarding altruism generally comes about

I wasn't trying to say that shifting one's sense of self was how one generally comes to that kind of altruism. It was an example. Hence the word "say" in the relevant sentence: "So when someone, say, shifts their sense of self…"


I agree that I was not responding to the main point you were making. I was responding to a peripheral issue that I think also matters. Sometimes when I do that I preface it with something like "Nitpick:" or "I know this is a side issue, but"; this time I didn't; maybe I should have.

Why didn't I respond to your main point? Well, honestly, largely because I'm not sure I understand it. When you talk about "weaponizing Good Guy (tm) badges" I get the impression that you expect your intended audience to recognize the exact phenomenon you have in mind, and to know exactly what the "(tm)" and the "badges" are sneering at; apparently I am not part of that intended audience, because I have to puzzle it out by hand.

I am fairly sure you mean something along these lines:

  • we imagine that there is (or, that there is supposed to be) purely selfless altruism
  • this somehow makes it possible for fakers to gain social status by looking as if they are being impressively selflessly-altruistic
  • since social status is zero-sum, by doing that they are hurting everyone else, hence "weaponizing Good Guy (tm) badges" (the badges are worn, unironically, by the fakers, and it's them that the "(tm)" and "badges" are sneering at)
  • having seen this happen, people develop an allergy to things that look like "trying to look impressively selfishly-altruistic" and this is one cause of what OP is describing

The last bit certainly seems reasonable; my only objection is that it seems to be basically a restatement of what OP already said, namely that altruistic actions are treated as status-grabs and attacked as such, rather than an explanation.

The first bit puzzles me because it seems to blame the fakery on the "fiction of selfless altruism" and I don't see how that's supposed to work. If no one believed in "selfless altruism" then the things fakers would have to do would be a little different -- they'd have to put more effort into looking extra-altruistic rather than into looking selfless -- but if it's meant to be obvious that fakery would be much more difficult or more costly in that scenario, I don't see why.

("Weaponizing" feels waaay overstated to me, too. Even when apparent altruism is pure fakery and aimed entirely at making the fake-altruist look good, I'm pretty sure it's almost always for the sake of making them look better rather than of making others look worse, and I think it's wrong to call something a weapon when its primary use is not harming others. If I earn money I am not "weaponizing cash" even though every penny I have effectively makes everyone else a tiny bit poorer. If I learn things that make me better at my job I am not "weaponizing knowledge" even though improving my own promotion prospects reduces others' a bit. Even if instead of actually getting better at my job I just get better at flattering my managers, I think "weaponizing" is quite the wrong term. I have similar feelings about the "(tm)" and the "badges" and the "social lever", though not so strongly. I guess I have a personal trigger that's somewhat the inverse of yours: I don't like it when it seems like most of the argument someone's making is not actually being made but, so to speak, smuggled in in the connotations or presuppositions of their words, and I think this makes me more inclined to pick nits. That's part of what is happening here.)

Ironically, I agree with your top-level comment, but this response of yours is rather silly… gjm, it seems to me, has a substantive disagreement with you. What’s more, there is both a difference of substance, and a sloppy and imprecise use of language. Both of those are well worth remarking on, and resolving/rectifying (respectively)! By no means is it absurd to comment on such things.

Because modern WEIRD culture is actually an amalgamation of many subcultures, and individuals have leeway to select their subculture, people who are genuinely doing harm with their selfishness are not easy to attack directly.


I think I experience the reverse effect of this.  I introspected if what you were saying was true in my own experience, and I found the opposite - I tend to get praised for altruism and derided for egoism (especially if it harms other.)

There's a type of egoism I do tend to get praised for, which is like "following my dreams", but again, only if its not at the expense of others. 

Anyways, I think this is because I select to be around people who love altruism.

I'd rather not get attacked all the time. I'm sick of the psycho-Kremlinology that we all get subjected to. I'm just not moral enough for that. Sorry.

Have you thought about changing your peer group?

Good post! You definitely point out a real phenomenon. (And I appreciate the tastefully crafted metaphors, like “psycho-Kremlinology”, or “a sustainable hate train which runs on renewable energy”.)

However, your explanatory theories seem to take as a premise that the “bias against altruism” that you describe is a bad thing. But might it not actually be… a good thing? I think that (especially in our current social environment) it rather is a good thing.

The fundamental problem with altruism is unbounded scope combined with lack of feedback.

If you do something for selfish reasons, there are natural limits to the scope of your actions; most of the world does not affect you or concern you, and while there do exist the occasional megalomaniacs who won’t be satisfied until they’ve carved their name into the surface of the Moon, most people—even most ambitious, driven, egotistical people—have no such grand ambitions. They want personal benefit, and simply don’t care about the rest.

And, likewise, if you act out of selfishness, and your actions harm the person they’re intended to help—you—generally speaking, it is not hard to notice this, and alter your behavior. The harm is naturally limited—in the extremity, by your own demise! And if you harm others in the process of benefiting yourself—those others will seek to punish you, and prevent you from repeating the harm. (There are exceptions, of course, but, by and large, we do a fair job at preventing one another from doing harm to our fellow humans—especially when compared with the alternative.)

How different are alruistic actions!

There is no limit to the scope of what you could do to help others, should you find within yourself that motivation. There are always more people to be helped! The world is teeming with potential beneficiaries of your altruism! And if you run out of existing humans to help, then there are always future humans (and not only the already-expected future humans, but all the potential ones whom your actions might bring into existence!).

And if you harm those whom you intend to help? If they are far away from you, or unfamiliar, or the situation is sufficiently complicated (and when isn’t it, in life, in our modern world?)… then you may well never even know it.

On every scale, from the interpersonal to the cosmic, it is extremely easy to think that you are helping, but instead inflict harm. And that’s if you take pains to be honest, and careful! It’s even easier to tell yourself that you’re helping, but be doing harm; just as easy to tell others that you’re helping, but be doing harm.

Our society already has many mechanisms for preventing you from wreaking havoc by selfish actions. If you act selfishly, then we can celebrate you for it, trusting that if your actions do harm, then you will suffer the appropriate consequences for it. But altruistic actions do not have nearly so many time-tested safety measures to hold them back from bringing disaster of unbounded scope. They must be held to a higher standard.

Yes, the altruist must be scrutinized, much more heavily than the egoist. Does this have a chilling effect on altruistic acts? Good! Does it make people think twice about undertaking projects aimed at helping others? Well that it should do so! Do we hold back status from those who merely attempt to help (as quite distinct from those who actually have helped)? We do, and rightly so.

You say:

I just want people to be aware of this phenomenon so that real positive behavior gets incentivized again.

Yet also:

Here’s what I notice: when I declare that I’m doing something selfishly and avowedly, I get praised. When I do something out of altruism, or do something that is coded as altruistic, my motives and true values get heavily scrutinized.

My advice: ignore the scrutiny, and forge ahead, secure in the knowledge that when your altruistic actions have succeeded, you will have your (at that point, well-deserved) status.

You are not sure that your actions will succeed, and so the status you will gain does not, in expectation, suffice to motivate you? You therefore abstain from your altruistic efforts?

Working as intended.


Is it so hard to understand that an altruistic act can be a status grab,and a status grab can be a power grab?


No, but that doesn't really affect OP's take. Amoral wealth accummulation is also a status grab and people who do that aren't criticized nearly as much as people who visibly make sacrifices for others, in my personal experience. An exception is the wealthiest people in the world, i.e. billionaires, by political activists, and I think there's an SSC post about this. But people don't generally make such criticisms of e.g. bob the ambitious Big Tech programmer.

People sometimes seem to act like unsolved problems are exasperating, aesthetically offensive, or somehow unappealing, so they have no choice but to roll up their sleeves and try to help fix them, because it's just so irritating to see the problem go unsolved. So one can do purely altruistic stuff, but with this selfish posture (which also shifts focus away from motivation and psychology) it won't trip the hypocrisy alarms. It may also genuinely be a better attitude to cultivate, if it helps deflate one's ego a little bit -- I'm not quite sure.

TBH this is how I feel about the alignment problem.


There are incentives against saying you're doing altruistic things, but I don't see how that makes there be incentives against just doing them. So I don't quite follow how the psycho-Kremlinology makes you "never, ever do anything out of altruism". Can't you just do altruistic things, if you find in yourself some wish to do so, and then not talk to other people about them?

(Perhaps you don't find any such wish in yourself, except in so far as you would like to raise your status through visible altruism. I agree that it might be better if that worked more effectively than it does.)

Feedback is useful. For example, if I contributed to a charity that you would happen to know is a scam, I would want you to tell me. If I donate secretly, I cannot learn.


Christianity was weirdly obsessed with getting people to have the right motive

If the purpose of morality is to shape behaviour, then it's pretty relevant whether an act is intentional and reflective of character.

This isn't from Christianity, but actually goes back to hunter-gatherers and had a useful function. See this description of "insulting the meat". https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201105/how-hunter-gatherers-maintained-their-egalitarian-ways

(to be clear, I'm not sure whether this still has a useful function or not)

When I say ‘our culture’, I mean modern WEIRD culture, especially the English-speaking world. Here’s what I notice: when I declare that I’m doing something selfishly and avowedly, I get praised. When I do something out of altruism, or do something that is coded as altruistic, my motives and true values get heavily scrutinized. The assumption is that I’m doing good in order to accrue praise and social status, which is called ‘ulterior motives.’

Are you sure you're describing WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) culture? Because, my anecdotal evidence, as a resident of the United States, has been the diametric opposite. Actions taken for altruistic motives get very little scrutiny, even when it turns out that they have little benefit (or actively cause harm).

Indeed, the very existence of the Effective Altruism movement is designed to correct for this bias, by applying the same standards for effectiveness and efficiency to actions carried for altruistic ends that we normally apply to "selfish" actions.

What does "modern WEIRD culture" actually mean?

At first I thought you were just emphasizing how weird modern culture was by using capital letters, but then it was repeated. I can't find this in an acronym search, and a general web search just turns up results like "10 weird cultures from around the world" even when I quote it with capital letters.

WEIRD = Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic 

It's from this paper.

Abstract: Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges. 

Thanks, that's very helpful as well as being an interesting read.

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When I say 'our culture', I mean modern WEIRD culture, especially the English-speaking world.

I've noticed this effect too and have been surprised at how viciously some people criticize altruistic endeavors. I often see this directed against the EA movement, for instance.

Since your post is oriented towards a more narrow community than WEIRD culture (Lesswrong, which has overlap with EA), I want to comment that I feel like there are additional factors at play within EA. Sometimes the goal of "trying to do the most good" implies that there's more to gain from correcting bad beliefs about (e.g.) AI alignment risks than from correcting bad beliefs about how to pursue (self-proclaimed) selfish aims. Belief-forming processes are influenced by underlying motivations and by the self-image (or public image) we want to convey. Someone who's conveying an altruistic image is at a bigger risk of biasing themselves and/or others and causing "view distortions." (I say "and/or" to highlight that there's not always a clearcut distinction between self-deception and lying – sometimes people are semi-aware that they probably don't believe something as confidently as they make it sound, but they go on talking despite that and then others nod along and they start to believe it more. By "view distortions," I mean confidently voicing opinions that are off in a predictable direction but also – because of the status-seeking – optimized at being persuasive to influencable members of the audience.)

So, in some contexts at least, it would be misleading to describe caring about others' underlying motivations as "people want to police others' motivation." Instead, the real driver is concern for group epistemics – the motivations are just instrumentally relevant because of their link to view distortion.

That said, it's easy/cheap to question others' motives or wonder about various biases, and discussions often (if not to say always?) tend to get worse when they shift away from the object level. Also, as your example indicates, a culture where people frequently question others' motivations can quickly become toxic and hostile. My take is that discussions like that are sometimes a necessary evil but it's very hard to get the balance right.

I've noticed a phenomenon in our culture whereby altruistic actions face much more scrutiny than selfish actions. [...] When I say 'our culture', I mean modern WEIRD culture, especially the English-speaking world.

I think you probably generalize too much here. The thing you describe is real, but it is only a "bubble" within the WEIRD population. Or maybe several "bubbles" sharing this specific trait, but not the entire population.

Specifically I think that you would probably get a different reaction from a group of e.g. teachers.

The assumption is that I'm doing good in order to accrue praise and social status, which is called 'ulterior motives.'

This is a part of it. But the other part is that in some groups, doing good will indeed bring you the praise and status, and in some other groups it will not. You will face a certain degree of suspicion in both, but the latter will also laugh at you, because you are (from their perspective) trying to win the wrong game.

In other words, if you had a magic wand that allowed you to convince people that you are a 100% saint with zero "ulterior motives"... some groups would consider you a hero, but other groups would consider you an idiot.

Your point 4 is close to truth, in my opinion, also as an explanation of how these subcultures interact. If you have a place where 10% of people want to reward doing good, 10% want to laugh at doing good, and 80% just want to do whatever happens to be most popular... well, laughing at someone is easier than being laughed at, so the result is a culture of hipsters who never admit having any value, except ironically (irony is an ego-defense mechanism). The exception to this is political "virtue signaling", because that brings you allies.

The 10% that wanted to do good will not disappear, but they will learn to hide their values when they are outside their bubble. This sucks for those who are isolated and cannot find the right bubble they could join. Some of them may never even realize that such bubbles exist.

There may be a measurement challenge here: How can the sentiment (pro/contra altruism) be tracked?

Once we figure that out, I'd be interested in seeing if the sentiment is cyclical over time (particularly decades). 

Maybe it's an apple of discord thing? You claim to devote resources to a good cause, and all the other causes take it as an insult?

Curb Your Enthusiasm - I didn't know you could be anonymous and tell people! I would've taken that option!

This is a good chance for me to interrogate my priors because I share (although not very strongly) the same intuitions that you criticize in this post. There's tension between the following and my desire not to live in a bland tall-poppy-syndrome dystopia where nobody ever wants to accomplish great things; I don't really know how I'd resolve it.

Intuition 1: Social praise is a superstimulus which titillates the senses and disturbs mental tranquility. When I tell a joke that lands well, or get a lot of upvotes on a post, or someone tells me that something I did years ago affected them in a good way and they still remember it, I feel a big boost to my ego and I'm often tempted to mentally replay those moments over and over. However, too much of this is a distraction from what's really important. If I were a talented stock trader I'd be spending my time doing that rather than lying in bed obsessively refreshing my portfolio valuation; analogously, if I did actually possess the traits for which I received praise, I wouldn't be so preoccupied with others' affirmations.

More generally, we don't want people to get addicted to social status, because then they'll start chasing highs to the point where their motivation diverges from actual altruism. It's better to nip this tendency in the bud.

Intuition 2: Social status is zero-sum, which means that if I spend money to gain status, I am necessarily making it more costly for others to do so. Therefore, telling people about your altruism is a "public bad" which we try to discourage through teasing/shaming. Now, some altruistic acts inherently cannot be done in a status-indifferent way (e.g. working full-time for a charity), but for something like donating money, which can easily be kept private, the reaction against doing it publicly is proportionally harsh.

I think you make a good point, but I also think fear of being attacked is not a good excuse for failing to be altruistic, at least if the altruism is through financial means. After all it is easy ( and very common) to give anonymously.

That’s not to say anonymous altruistic acts are entirely sacrificial. Usually there is some significant payback in terms of well-being (assuagement of guilt for the good fortune of one’s own relative affluence, for instance).