The Dark Psychology of Giving


You are out on a hike and you spot a stranger.

He is covered in sweat and visibly exhausted. You hear him say under his breath ‘If only I had thought to bring some more water’.

You immediately think of the water bottle in your backpack. You approach the man and you hear yourself say ‘I’ve got water, you can have some of mine’.


Why do you go out of your way to do this?

Why do you give?

Okay, I grant you this is a very general question. So, let’s narrow it down a bit.

Why do you give to others when there is nothing you expect in return? When there’s absolutely no practical gain for you, why do you make the effort? Being kind to strangers, giving change to beggars, helping an old lady cross the street…

Why do you do it?

The simplest answer is that it feels good.

But why?                                  

What could it possibly be that makes you feel good when you take something of yours, be it time, money, or some other resource – and you give it to someone else at no charge?

(You can watch the video version of this essay on YouTube.)


There’s many possible interpretations of this. However, there is one highly influential theory of giving that deserves our attention.

It is a theory we find in Ernest Becker’s last book – Escape From Evil. We can draw from this short masterpiece some profound insights about why we humans not only love, but need to give.

To understand giving, we should take a step back. A step way back to pre-historic mankind.



For a long time, anthropologists assumed that before the invention of money, people used to barter. Bartering involves the exchange of one product or service for another.

If I am a dairy farmer who needs a haircut and you are a hairdresser who wants some milk – we can barter. We agree on how many buckets of milk a haircut is worth, we shake hands and we make the exchange. In the end of the day, I’ve got my haircut, you’re enjoying your cup of milk – and we are supposedly both happy.

However, during Europe’s colonial expansion, when scholars first studied isolated primitive societies, they were shocked to find that an altogether different system of exchange existed there. Scholars discovered the main system of exchange to be gift-making.

To pick up on our last example, if you are a hairdresser who feels a strong craving for milk, according to the system of gift-making, you can just come up to me and ask for some. I am a dairy farmer and I have plenty of milk. I will certainly not go bankrupt if I give you some. And so, I do. At no charge.

But I do this with the unspoken agreement between us that when I feel like I need a haircut I can come to you and just ask for one. And I’ll get it as a gift.

On the pragmatic level, there seems to hardly be a difference between bartering and gift-making. In both cases, I end up with a new haircut and you with milk.

However, on the psychological level, the two systems can hardly be further apart.

In the case of bartering, I feel I need something from you and I begrudgingly sacrifice something of my own so you may agree to give me what I need.

In the case of gift-making, I am happy to give you anything you ask for. In fact, I may even go out of my way to give you more than you need.


Because this act maintains the social agreement of gift-making. By making a gift to you, I know I am free to ask you for anything I may need in the future. And I know you will not only give it to me, but you’ll do so gladly!

Because the more I give, the more you give – the more everyone gets. Every member of the tribe produces more than he or she needs and shares the surplus. We all share in abundance. We sacrifice what is best to the gods. And life in the community flourishes.



So far, so good. But there are really much deeper reasons why gift-making arose as the first system of exchange.

These are psychological reasons.

As Becker points out, there are two basic forces that define the human condition which push us toward gift-making.

The first is heroism.

The second is guilt.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

To get to the root causes of giving, we need to go even further back than the first human societies. We must go back to the first humans. To the first beings on planet Earth who had that bone-chilling thought which set them apart from all other animals.

The thought ‘I am’.



Ernest Becker often remarks that Homo Sapiens has the most tragic fate of all animal species.


Well, because we are, as he says, ‘part angels, part food for worms’.

We have the divine spark within us. That is the human mind – the most spectacular thing in the universe. The mind is timeless, allowing us to contemplate the past and predict the future. It is also unlimited in space, allowing us to study the tiniest of particles and at the same time map the course of the stars. Our mind is the birthplace of the arts, of culture, philosophy, music, religion. It possesses reason and it can know not only how things are, but also why they are the way they are. The mind is the spring of all passions, of deep reflection, of mystical union with life.

And yet, this divine gift has come to us at a heavy price. Perhaps the heaviest of prices.

The mind allows us to understand the terrifying truth of our situation. That we are, as Sheldon Solomon puts it, breathing, eating, defecating pieces of flesh. That for all the unlimited vistas of our spirit, our bodies can barely make it past a few decades before they begin to fall apart.

In short, we are the only animal that has been cursed with knowing it is going to die.

What an absolute nightmare, what an offense this is to the human spirit!

I mean, how could John Lennon, the man who wrote Imagine, how could such a magnificent creation of the universe end up shot in the street like a dog?

If anything constitutes the central problem of the human condition, this is it.

I know that I exist. But only at the cost that I know I will not exist forever. And for all the magnificence of my spirit, my body can be destroyed, my life can be snuffed out at any moment in the most absurd ways.

Following in the footsteps of thinkers such as Otto Rank and Norman O. Brown, Becker concluded that knowledge of death is the root of the most powerful human drive.

In a dark twist of fate, our denial of death gives birth to the most life-affirming human impulse.

The impulse to self-transcendence, to more life, to immortality.

The impulse to heroism.



What is a hero?

A hero is literally a ‘super-man’, a ‘wonder woman’. Hero equals power. It equals victory of good over evil, of life over death. A hero is exceptional. A hero matters.

But most of all, a hero is remembered.

And because he is remembered, a hero lives on. His name is carved on monuments of stone. His likeness appears on banknotes and food-chain logos, his great deeds live on in the history books.

We worship the hero – in songs, in movies, in bedtime stories we tell our children. If man is part nature, part culture – then the hero is man’s escape from nature. A hero is pure culture.

What does this mean?

It means that a hero transcends the animal body to become a symbol. Because as a symbol, the hero can achieve in culture what no man can achieve in nature.


No matter whether it’s Greta Thunberg, Shakespeare, or Hercules, a hero is ultimately a religious symbol.

He is 100% angel and 0% food for worms. A hero never defecates.



Now, you may be thinking ‘But wait, what does this have to do with giving and gift-making?’ Well, think about what it means, psychologically, to make a gift. To give something out at no charge means you are not dependent on it. That you transcend it. To return to our previous example, I will give you a few buckets of milk for free, because I am a dairy farmer. Because I have more milk than I know what to do with. Because, look at me, I am a powerful, accomplished man. I have milk in abundance; I therefore have life in abundance.

Clearly, the more I am able to give – the more I must have.

He is a great man who can make great gifts.

And if every gift is a step toward the hero, it is also a step toward immortality. I give you milk, but I gain a sense of immortality. I feel I gain life.



Think about the greatest hero figure in Western culture – the figure of Christ.

Christ’s story has had such an overpowering effect the West, it has ingrained itself so profoundly in our thinking, that we cannot escape it even if we wished to. We can safely argue that every hero story in the West produced in the last 2000 years has been, purposefully or not, based on Christ.

And what makes Christ the hero of heroes?

Well, to become the hero of heroes, Christ had to make the gift of gifts. He had to give away the most a man can possibly give and he had to give it to the greatest possible amount of people.

So what did he do?

Christ gave up his very life in an act of cosmic sacrifice for the benefit of every human being that lives, has lived, and will ever live.

Clearly, I am now not arguing for or against Christian doctrine. Whether you are a Christian, an atheist, or otherwise, we can all agree that as far as gift-making is concerned, Christ is the absolute king of the game.

And by making this ultimate gift, Christ, this ‘Lord’, this ‘King of kings’ became the ultimate hero. He became pure spirit, pure symbol, pure culture.

We can argue Christ is much more alive today than he ever was in his physical body. And we have no reason to doubt that he will continue to live on in human culture for as long as human culture continues to lives on.

All this is to show one simple fact. If you give, you are great. The more you give, the greater you are. By giving, you become a hero.

And he who is a hero is immortal.

You can see now how when you make a gift it is not in fact true that you get nothing in return. What is it to me to give away a few buckets of milk when in return I get in on immortality?

I get to see how powerful I am, how generous, how much I transcend petty possessions.

And if you remember me for my gifts, then all the better! My name will get to live on, I will have extended my life beyond the physical confines of my defecating body. I will become the brilliant memory of a great man. A hero.

Clearly, I do get something, I do get much in return for my giving.

Okay, now we’ve made full circle and returned to our initial question: ‘Why do you give’?

But Becker says there is one more reason together with heroism that compels us to make gifts. This second reason appears to be the exact opposite of our need to be heroes, to transcend death by making a dent in the universe.

This second reason is guilt.



Now, guilt is a word we don’t like a lot in modern culture. Our global ideology tells us to be proud of who we are. Proud of our bodies, proud of our sexuality, our skin colour, our ethnicity.

(That is, of course, unless you are a straight white man, but let’s not go there for now.)

My point is, all of this is okay and it has nothing to do with what Becker meant by guilt.

So what did he mean?

Well, we saw how Homo Sapiens is part animal, part divine.

If heroism is man’s reaction against his animal side, guilt is his compensation for the divine spark within him.

Have you ever had that feeling when something really, really good happens to you that it might… actually be too good?

Or how about that widespread custom to knock on wood when something good happens so you keep bad luck away? Why do you think people do it all around the world?

You know, in Bulgaria, where I’m from, there’s this custom in rural areas. Whenever a long-awaited child is born, her parents give her a name with a negative connotation on purpose. Sometimes the name might mean ‘ugly’, or ‘sick’, or ‘crippled’. What could possibly be the reason for this?

And then there’s the common Jewish expression ‘Kein Ayin-Hara’ which you say every time after you compliment somebody. The phrase translates as ‘no Evil eye’, meaning ‘may no evil notice this man lest it take his fortune away’.

The common root of all these things is one and the same. It is the feeling that says ‘What I have is too good. I don’t deserve it and yet I don’t want to lose it!

It is the feeling of guilt.

All these examples of guilt are, so to speak, secondary. Becker points out that the primary form of guilt is existential guilt.

It is the guilt man feels for the very fact he is alive.



Here I am,’ says man, ‘The sun gives me light and warmth. The earth gives me food. The gods have given me a spirit to wander the heavens, and a body to wander the earth. I have received all these things though I am a breathing, eating, defecating piece of flesh.

If man is the only animal who can think ‘I am’, he is also the only animal who can feel guilt for being. Guilt and shame for sticking out too much in nature the way he does. For standing at the top of the food chain.

This, Becker writes, is the origin of all religious sacrifice and ritual. One feels guilty before the gods and wishes to give back to them, to repay a portion of his debt.

We often think of primitive societies as living in complete harmony with nature, never taking more than they can use. But this is not true. In primitive societies, it is the rule that the tribe produces more food, hunts more animals, produces more valuables than it needs – and then burns them as a sacrifice to the gods.

And yes, you guessed why. Guilt.

Guilt and the desire to keep the cycle of life flowing. The gods give to us, we give back and the sun gets to rise another day.

On the social level, this sacrificial impulse translates as the act of giving. To use Freudian language, you feel you have been mothered by the sun, the earth, the gods. The least you can do to reduce your guilt is to become a mother to your neighbour.

So you make gifts.

I give you milk not only because I need to stand out as a generous hero. I also have the exact opposite need. I need to share my guilt with you. My guilt for standing out far too much. My guilt for being an animal that can think. My guilt for having lunch while children around the world starve to death. My guilt for being alive while Lennon was shot like a dog.



Only now can we see how profoundly powerful the act of gift-making is on the psychological level.

On the one hand, man needs to gain. Gain a feeling of importance, of heroism, of immortality. On the other, man needs to lose. He needs to lose his existential guilt or he would collapse under the weight of his own existence.

Gift-making brilliantly satisfies both of these needs.

In simple words, when I give to you, deep down I feel I gain life and lose guilt. It is a deal hard to beat. No wonder gift-making came so naturally to primitive man.



So, let’s bring it all back home.

You are out on a hike and you spot a stranger who looks like he could use a sip of water. You offer him some of yours.

Why do you do it?

Well, because you are a helper, a friend, a little bit of a saviour even. You give because you have the strength to, the will to, the life-force to. Because you rise above that which you give – and above him who you give to. You become, even if just for a moment, a hero. And he who is close to the hero is not far from eternal life.

But there’s something else too.

You know what it is to lack, what it is to thirst. And yet here you are, feeling okay while this stranger suffers. Of course you’ll help him out! You need to make it up to life. Make it up for the injustice that you are well in a world where it is the norm to be unwell.

So you give.

You watch the stranger gulp down those few sips of water and it feels good. ‘Look, I’m important to this man,’ a voice inside you says.

‘Look, there’s some use to my existence after all,’ another voice adds.

And suddenly, in the act of giving, you receive more than you could’ve asked for. You feel the significance of your life and your conscience rests easy, perhaps for the first time in a long time.  

Yes… it sure does feel good to give.

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