Nov 6, 2015

Givers, Matchers, and Takers

Thanks to Rev. David Williamson of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, IN    

Imagine that you and a stranger will both receive some money. You have three choices about what you and the stranger will receive, and you’ll never see or meet the stranger. If you have only one of the three options below to choose from, which would you choose?

a. You get $5, and the stranger gets $5.
b. You get $8, and the stranger gets $4.
c. You get $5, and the stranger gets $7.

How you answer that question may say a lot about you. The question comes from a test developed by Adam Grant. Each of the possible answers correlates to a different personality type-what Adam calls “Givers,” “Matchers,” and “Takers.”

These categories describe how we view reciprocity in relationship with others. If you are a taker, you might help others only when the benefits to you outweigh the costs. A giver, however, uses a different cost-benefit analysis, measuring when the benefits to others outweigh the personal costs. A matcher falls somewhere in between, operating out of a strong sense of fairness and working to keep an equal balance.

A number of years ago there was a movie called Instinct starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays the role of a biologist who has lived in the wild with gorillas, and is struggling to return to society; Gooding Jr. role is as the psychologist who tries to help him. As often happens, the one in the “helping” position ends up learning the most. One of the lessons Hopkins teaches Gooding is the difference between givers and takers.

Givers contribute more back to the world than they consume. They never acquire more than they need, never plow more land than required, and so on. Takers, in contrast, see the world as theirs for the taking. The question the film puts forward is simple: When your life is all done and accounted for, will you have given back more than you consumed?

It’s a valid question for anyone in today’s society, where it is easy to accumulate and consume more than we realize (often because the costs of our consumption are hidden). But what struck me when I read Adam’s research is that he offers a third possibility, something beyond the category of taker or giver. I found myself wondering how Hopkins’ fictional character might describe a matcher: someone who, when life was all done, netted out to nothing. Contributions evenly balanced by subtractions. An equal measure of success and failure. In sum, a zero.

Not very aspirational, is it?

The truth is that most people aspire to be givers—they wish to leave something good in the world, for their positive deeds to outweigh their failures. The irony is that a majority of people don’t live as givers. Rather, the overwhelming majority behave as matchers. We are born with an innate sense of fairness. To take the question above, few of us opt to send the stranger away with half the money we receive. But by the same token, just as few reward the stranger with extra money, even when that extra comes at no cost to us personally.

The Bible makes a daring claim that we are created in God’s image. So does this mean that God is a “matcher?” Certainly, I believe our sense of fairness and justice comes from some part of God’s character. But I also believe that God’s image is best seen in our aspiration to be givers. We are better people—and we bear God’s image more justly—when we live out of that impulse.

So next time you interact with a stranger, think about that question from Adam’s test. Do you take what you can and move on? Or do you seek to leave an extra blessing behind? My hope for you—and for me—is that we will choose the latter.

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