Most of us are nice to people in part for selfish reasons. We compliment our bosses, make special dinners for our families, and give gifts to loved ones because we want to help and please others—and we also want our kind acts to reflect well on us. But when it comes to being nice, research offers a tip: don’t overdo it.

Professor Nicholas Epley and PhD student Nadav Klein wondered if our generosity impacts others’ impressions of us.

Epley and Klein point out that their research gets at an even more fundamental question about human behavior: If a person wants to maintain a positive reputation, how exactly should he or she behave?

The researchers’ first experiment looked at whether we perceive people as being more or less nice depending on whether they fall short of, meet, or exceed our expectations. Epley and Klein inserted surveys into the programs of classical music concerts for which a $10 donation was suggested and people were free to donate nothing, give this amount, or exceed it. The surveys asked the concertgoers to rate a fictional character depending on whether he donated nothing, $10, or $20.

It turns out that exceeding expectations didn’t much matter to respondents. “People didn’t like the character when he didn’t donate anything,” says Klein. “But $10 versus $20 didn’t matter. As long as you’re a little bit nice and prosocial, that’s what people care about.” The authors conclude that going above and beyond expectations will not make you seem any more generous to those around you.

In the second experiment, the pair wanted to see whether recipients and donors have different opinions of how generosity works. Epley and Klein gave some people jelly beans, with instructions to give away different amounts of that bean stash. The recipients and donors were asked to rate the donor’s generosity. The donors were also asked to rate how generous they thought the recipients would perceive them to be.

Once again, generosity didn’t pay after a point. Recipients who received the majority of the stash didn’t rate donors as being any more generous, even though the donors believed they would earn more credit for giving away more jelly beans. “People may mistakenly believe that their generosity will be rewarded above and beyond being fair,” says Klein, “but we find that often it is not.” In other words, though the level of generosity may not matter so much to the recipient, the giver thinks it will.

Klein says that gauging generosity can be tricky. It seems intuitive that we’d view a benefactor who donates $1 million as kinder than one who gives $100,000, but this may not be the case if the donors are evaluated in isolation. When there’s nothing to compare an action against, it’s hard to rate how good it is. On the other hand, “if you see two people who both do something nice,” says Klein, “then you can compare.”

The third experiment tested this hypothesis by looking at how people rate generosity in isolation versus with a frame of reference. Participants were asked to imagine a fictitious professor making a donation of up to $80,000, and to rate his generosity according to the portion of money he chose to donate. The researchers discovered that it didn’t make any difference to participants whether the professor donated $10,000 or the entire $80,000—unless they were asked to imagine the professor giving away various amounts, in which case the participants rated the greater monetary amounts as more generous.

Klein says this suggests that “when participants are forced to consider alternative actions, they do reward higher degrees of generosity.”

These findings have some real-world implications. For example, if you are looking to build a positive reputation with your clients or customers, think about whether your audience tends to actively compare your offering to your competitors’ offerings. If such comparisons are unlikely, then it’s cost-effective to perform at a minimally acceptable level because doing more is not likely to be appreciated more. However, if your clients are hearing many business pitches, and are frequently considering buying competing products, it may be better to try to exceed their expectations. The same is true if you’re trying to impress your current or a prospective boss.

Niceness is not only about how the people around us perceive us, says Klein. Our actions also affect our perceptions of ourselves. The researchers’ next project is to determine what effect falling short of or exceeding expectations has on oneself. While being liked by others is important, how much we give of ourselves may have at least as big an effect on the opinion that can matter the most: our own.

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