Altruism is supposed to be a selfless act. So why did helping a stranger leave me feeling so foolish? | Martin Love

What’s the most money you’ve ever given a complete stranger? £20, £30, £50… maybe more? I’ve always been free and easy when it comes to handing out small change on the street, but a couple of months ago I found myself in a different league altogether. I gave a man I had never met before £200. I drove to a cashpoint at 10pm, got out 10 shiny new £20 notes and handed them over without any real idea if I’d ever see the man or the money again.

Since then, this “good deed” has been polished up into a hilarious family anecdote in which “gullible old Martin” is taken advantage of once again by a smooth-talking huckster. My radar for a far-fetched sob story or bargain often lets me down. Let’s not dwell on the endless timeshare opportunities, rug purchases, sick puppies, random muggings, punctures, pregnancies, rare antiques and fake tickets that I’ve refused to let pass me by.

It’s not just that they see me coming, it’s more as if I have a neon sign hovering above me that flashes at passing hustlers so that they zero in on me like cash-seeking missiles – and I cough up every single time…

Anyway, let me tell you about Brendan.

I had stopped at the Swindon services while on my way back to London. As I drove up the slip road and back on to the M4, I spotted a man with a rucksack and his thumb out. I pulled over and lowered the window.

“Which way are you heading?” I asked. “I’m going back to London.”

“Ah, that would be grand,” came his immediate reply. He opened the door and hefted his backpack on to the back seat. “I’m Brendan,” he said with an easy smile and a rich Irish brogue. “I was getting a bit desperate. I’ve had my thumb out for a day and half. Nobody seems to stop these days.”

I’ve always enjoyed picking up hitchhikers. I used to be a motoring journalist and crisscrossed the country in various test cars. Picking up a hiker always made me feel a little less guilty about all the miles I was doing.

As we headed east along the motorway, Brendan told me how he came to be waiting for a lift on that particular evening, and also about the two recent family tragedies that had devastated him and pushed him out of his old life and on to the road. “But,” he said, “I don’t feel sorry for myself. Looking back I realise how lucky I was. I’ll always know what it feels like to be truly loved.”

Brendan told me that he was 52. He had a calm and wise way about him. He laughed a lot and relished his off-grid lifestyle. Until last week, that is, when he’d been mugged.

“These three lads in Birmingham took my other pack and it had all my money and paperwork in it. I’ve been sleeping out since then. I haven’t eaten in days. I’m hoping to get some casual work in London, so I can then get myself home to Ireland.”

It must have been the notion of home that got me, and helping a man who’d clearly had a tough time seemed like the right thing to do. As we were approaching the Heathrow turn-off, I had an idea. “Why don’t I just drop you at the airport now?” I said. “I’ll buy you a ticket and you can fly home.”

“That’s so kind of you,” came his smooth reply, “but they took my ID as well.”

“Ah! And how much will a new one be?”

“It’s £92,” he said without hesitation.

I drove on towards Victoria station. It’s a 24-hour place and Brendan thought he’d be safe there while waiting for the Irish embassy to open in the morning. I stopped at a cashpoint. I’d already offered to buy him a plane ticket and now he needed his ID as well. To my astonishment I heard myself say: “Well, I’ll get you £200, Brendan.”

“Grand,” he replied, without a blink. Then, after a pause, “and please don’t worry. I’ll definitely wire you the money when I get home.” He took my phone number and said he’d call as soon as he could to arrange the transfer. In that moment, I honestly believed he would. But not a single person I have told since has agreed. Everyone has said with a knowing laugh: “Well, you’ll never see that money again!”

When Brendan got out of the car he gave me a huge hug. It had been a good night for him. As I drove the final miles to my own house in south London, I thought about what I’d done and what I’d tell my wife. A small part of me started to feel the cool wind of queasy realisation. Had I just been conned, again? Was Brendan genuine? I would certainly tell her about picking him up, but maybe I’d omit the part about the money – after all, it is hers, too. But she knows what I’m like, she’d only guess soon enough, so I took a deep breath and told her the whole tale.

She knew the punchline was coming… even so, £200 made her gasp. After marvelling at my credulousness, she laughed and said: “Well, I hope Brendan gets home.”

That was eight weeks ago and you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve heard nothing. My soaring sense of altruism has been replaced with the nagging feeling that after Brendan was mugged in Birmingham, he then mugged me in Victoria.

It’s often said that altruism benefits both the giver and the receiver, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence proving that acts of altruism are good for your emotional wellbeing and can measurably enhance your peace of mind. Having said that, evolutionary biologists have a hard time explaining it. An exhaustive paper published in 2020 by the Department of Philosophy at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, concluded: “The evolution of altruistic co-operative behaviour – in which an organism’s action reduces its fitness and increases the fitness of another organism – only makes sense when it is directed at genetically related organisms (kin selection) or when one can expect the favour to be returned (reciprocal altruism).”

Does this mean I have somehow reduced my “fitness” and increased Brendan’s? I certainly reduced the fitness of our bank account and I can’t say that my action as an “organism” has burnished my emotional wellbeing or given me peace of mind. I can’t pretend it’s boosted anything except my sense of being a hoodwinked shmuck.

It sounds deluded, but for at least a week after I gave the money to Brendan, I genuinely kept thinking that he would get in touch – and pay me back. That’s what I wanted to happen so that I could then be the good guy who’d helped someone out, but at no cost to myself. I also think – and, again, maybe this sounds stupid – that Brendan believed, in the moment, that he was going to at least try to repay me. But these are financially fraught times, the cost of living is spiralling and so many people are finding themselves living like they never imagined.

Equally, these are highly altruistic times. People are helping each other in so many different ways, from donating to food banks to giving refugees a place to live. Brendan may well have hoped he would pay me back and then found he couldn’t. If that’s the case, I can rest on my altruistic laurels – it’s the part about being such a credulous doofus I can’t stand.

After a few weeks, I spoke to a friend, Trevor, who happens to be a psychoanalyst. He pointed me in the direction of Dr Sanxing Sun of the University of Chicago. Dr Sun has found that for some people, altruism can unwittingly become pathological. He argues that people “mistake their underlying self-serving motivation for true altruistic intention. As a result, they are less likely to restrain themselves from being carried away by their self-serving generosity.” So it turns out – and thank you Trevor for spelling this out to me – I was “simply feeding my own overweening sense of self-worth”.

Another month has now passed and, of course, there is still no word from Brendan. I’ve actually picked up another hitchhiker since then – a Dutch photographer coming back from Stansted airport who I dropped outside his hotel in north London. He then offered to contribute to the cost of the petrol. I’ve also carried on handing out coins that I have in my pocket, and I’m happy to do it.

I now feel happier thinking about Brendan. If I were more cynical, I would not have stopped in the first place… but I did. He asked for help, for a lift, for money to get home, and in good faith I gave them to him. That’s got to be a good thing. If he conned me, then that’s a matter for him and not me.

And anyway, isn’t that the whole point of altruism? The word derives from the French autrui, meaning “other people”; Psychology Today defines it as “acting to help someone else at some cost to oneself”. It wasn’t a loan; I gave the money to Brendan. The cost to myself was £200. That evening, and at that point in his life, Brendan needed it more than I did. Maybe the real question should be: did I give him enough?

Some identifying features have been changed

Email Martin at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter@MartinLove166

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