Friendly or Phony? My Experience with American Generosity

Me at the entrance to ASU campus

On February 1, I arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to start my three-month internship at The Human Generosity Project. I chose to do my internship here because I wanted to learn more about human prosocial behavior and because I really liked the interdisciplinary nature of the project. At the Human Generosity Project I was going to work with psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, and computational modelers, making for some interesting and diverse perspectives on human generosity. In addition, I was keen to live in the United States for a while and to experience first hand the American lifestyle I have seen in so many TV shows and Hollywood movies. In particular, I wanted to find out whether Americans really conform to the stereotype of being friendly, generous, and kind. In fact, you could say that my study of generosity here wasn’t restricted to the lab, but would continue in the stores, bars, and streets of Arizona. And to be fair, I did not have to wait long to encounter my first instance of American kindness.

After settling in to my Airbnb place in Tempe I decided to explore the surrounding area a little. Having biked all my life in Amsterdam, I chose to do that by bike. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the Tempe area then as well as I do know, so after a while I found myself lost and checking Google Maps on my phone like a proper modern-day tourist. Apparently, I ventured farther from from home than I thought, as Google Maps indicated a 45 minute ride back. More worrisome, however, was that my phone indicated only little battery left – probably not enough to make it back to an area I knew. While darkness was setting in and I began to get slightly worried, a car pulled over. A kind 40-something year old lady named Beth rolled down her window and asked me if I had lost my way. After confirming this she tried to steer me in the directions of my newly acquired residence in Tempe. I guess Beth still saw a look of distress in my eyes after she was done, so after a small moment of hesitation she offered to take me with her and drive me back to my place. As a bonus I could even fit my bike in her huge, American-sized car. A sigh of relief and some sincere thank you’s later, I was comfortably on my way back home.

Examples like this have proven to be no exception and I found most of the people here friendly, forthcoming and kind. Being used to the direct and sometimes surly way of communicating in Amsterdam, I have to say I quite enjoyed this new paradigm. Furthermore, I noticed that several instances of American generosity are actually interesting illustrations of the concepts we grapple with at The Human Generosity Project. I will describe some of my observations in the next few sections.

The Tipping System

As famously referred to by Mr. Pink in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, the American tipping system is an interesting phenomenon. Tips are common in The Netherlands too, but tips are often limited to restaurants and taxis. In America, tipping is way more ingrained into society. From bell boys to parking valets, and from housekeeping to ski instructors – almost all people who provide some kind of service expect a tip. Moreover, the tipping percentages (15-20%) are much higher here than they are in Amsterdam and many other places in Europe (usually around 10% although it varies immensely). I have to say that finding out who to tip and how much to tip them was a challenging part of living in America. A general rule I followed was that the more single dollar bills I got back as change, the higher the tip was expected to be. I am still unsure whether that was a good strategy because I did get some angry looks and spiteful comments thrown at me. Especially bar servers that were extraordinarily nice before their payday had a knack for that kind of behavior.

This sudden transformation of them being very kind to being very angry struck me as rather curious and even a little frightening. Moreover, it actually led me to doubt the sincerity of the American kindness I had experienced earlier. Maybe all these smiles and kind words were simply an outcome of the American tipping infrastructure. Were servers only being kind because I had money burning in my pockets? Or were they actually quite friendly and did I just violate the tipping norms in this country? In scientific terms, are people’s motivations for kindness extrinsic or intrinsic?

Charity and Volunteering

Besides the salient kindness of bar servers, I also noticed that a lot of people around me were involved in some kind of charity. People were doing all sorts of things on a voluntary basis: working for the community, organizing cultural events, and running non-profit organizations. This benevolence struck me, and I became curious as to whether this held for the whole of America or whether this was just an artifact of the particular group I happened to find myself in. I decided to find out.

Being a researcher, the obvious way forward was to look for scientific and institutional publications with data on American generosity. I came across a couple of interesting statistics. In total, Americans gave $258.51 billion to various charities in 2014 (Giving USA, 2015). That is a lot of money, also compared to other countries like Canada ($12.8 billion, Turcotte, 2012), Russia (about $4 billion, CAF Russia, 2014), and The Netherlands (€4.4 billion, Bekkers, Schuyt, & Gouwenberg, 2015). However, the United States has a significantly larger population than all of those countries, so comparing generosity per capita would be a fairer measure. But also using this measure, the United States fares well. Even though some Northern European countries surpass the States in most rankings, the United States finds itself structurally in the global top 10. In the Giving Index, an index ranking that measures a wide variety of different acts of generosity, the United States even gets a second place (after Myanmar, CAF, 2015). In all, I think it is safe to say that Americans are a generous people.

During my little study I also looked at the beneficiaries of all the American dollars and I found out that most of the money goes to religious institutions (about 35%). Of course this has everything to do with the United States being a very religious country. Nonetheless, it is an interesting finding because, assuming that people tend to give to the religious organizations they are adhering to, it indicates that Americans tend to be most generous towards their in-group. I guess that makes sense to a certain extent because the people and organizations belonging to your in-group are the people you are familiar with and that you are more eager to support. However, there may also be a selfish reasons at play here. Being generous in a familiar group also means that the people around you see you being generous. And with that in mind, people’s motivation to be generous might simply be showing off, trying to gain a nice prosocial reputation. In addition, showing off your generosity to the members of your in-group could be used to signal your commitment to the group. It is likely that this would make other people be more generous to you at a later stage, because generous people like to assort themselves with other generous people (Hardy & Van Vugt, 2006). So, regarding charity the question remains: are people charitable because they care for the well-being of others or do people behave generous because they are merely concerned with their own status?

The Effect of the Environment

During my time here, I experienced a lot of small acts of kindness. From people giving me rides to people holding the door, and from people lending me camping supplies to people buying me drinks. Of course, all these things also happen in other countries but I do have a feeling that the prevalence of these small acts of kindness is quite high here compared to Europe. So what can explain this trans-atlantic difference in kindness? We already looked at some individual motives, but it could also be that the histories of both Europe and America play a role. Many European countries have had hierarchically structured societies for quite some time. In these so-called class societies some people (e.g. the nobles) were perceived to be intrinsically better than other people (e.g. the peasants), an idea you can still see in modern societies like India, where the population is divided into so-called castes.

It is important to note that this hierarchy may have had an influence on how people interacted with each other in daily life. Persons of higher classes had power over persons of lower classes. This meant that each time a lower-class person communicated with a higher class person he was at risk of doing something wrong and being punished. This may have caused the majority of the population to be reserved in making contact with others as you never know when you are speaking with a malevolent higher-class individual. America, however, was the land of the free, where everybody could make it, no matter their class. Of course, this is a romanticized picture, but it could hold a certain truth. It would certainly explain why people are more open and forward in their social behaviors: there simply was no big risk of accidentally socializing with someone from a higher (thus risky) class.

Another reason for American friendliness may be found in the sheer size of the country. Even the state of Arizona alone is almost eight(!) times as big as The Netherlands, and the country USA is comparable in size to Europe, which holds approximately fifty countries (it depends on which countries you do and do not include in Europe). As previous research has shown, the United States has a significantly higher labor mobility than the European Union (Gill & Raiser, 2012), possibly because states in the US differ less culturally than countries do in Europe. And of course, when you are traveling a lot you come across a lot of new people. And what better way to make new friends than to be friendly and kind? In this way, kindness could have been a survival strategy for the frequently migrating Americans.

In summary, the history and size of America have possibly had a major role in shaping American friendliness. So how important are ecological factors for the friendliness of a culture? And how do these factors tap into the selfish and altruistic motives people may have?

The Human Generosity Project

You might have noticed that all sections above ended with a question mark. That was done on purpose. It reflects the fact that many of the questions surrounding generosity are not yet answered. We are making progress though, and The Human Generosity Project is one of the institutions that is working hard to find answers. Some of the questions we would like to resolve is whether humans are generous by nature, and whether people are motivated to be generous by intrinsic or extrinsic motives. I will take these questions with me back to Amsterdam and will pursue them further at the university there. My answers will hopefully follow in several publications in scientific journals. Even so, there is one conclusion about generosity I can already draw. I liked the American friendliness and generosity, and I really don’t care whether it was sincere or not. The main thing I have learned is that friendliness trumps rudeness everyday of the week, no matter how sincere that rudeness may be.


Bekkers, R. H. F. P., Schuyt, T. N. M., & Gouwenberg, B.M. (Eds.). (2015). Giving in the Netherlands: Donations, bequests, sponsoring and volunteering. Amsterdam: Reed Business.

CAF. (2015). CAF World Giving Index 2015.

CAF Russia. (2014). Russia giving: Research on individual giving in Russia.

Gill, I. S., & Raiser, M. (2012). Golden growth: Restoring the lustre of the European economic model. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications.

Giving USA. (2015). Giving USA 2015: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2014.

Hardy, C. L., & Van Vugt, M. (2006). Nice guys finish first: The competitive altruism hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(10), 1402-1413.

Turcotte, M. (2012). Charitable giving by individuals. In Spotlight on Canadians: Results from the General Social Survey. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Olmo van den Akker
Olmo van den Akker

Olmo van den Akker is a PhD-student at the Meta-Research center at Tilburg University, where he is currently studying the efficacy of preregistration and the way researchers interpret statistical results.