Generosity, Giving, and Personality Types

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Generosity is like snowflakes. No two people practice it the same all the time. Some research suggests that people may be hardwired toward generosity, and life and other influences teach them selfishness. But generosity, like most human behaviors, is likely influenced by personality types and traits. We’ll explore those in hopes of helping you better understand your own generosity style and the styles of others.

First, let’s talk about the impact of generosity. Most philosophies, cultures, and religions have highlighted the place and importance of generosity in society. We often, at least in part, measure a person by how giving they are. The press is quick to report whenever Bill Gates donates billions. On a smaller scale, food pantries are often the subject of local news stories. There is something newsworthy about charitable acts, and people have an almost universal interest in them.

Recent research suggests that just thinking about being generous can lift people’s moods. To further sweeten the pot, it doesn’t seem to matter how much a person’s imagination envisions them giving. Whether it’s a small or large amount people consider giving, they still receive the mood benefits – happiness is a by-product of playing with the idea of giving. Some specific types of giving also seem to reduce stress and relieve anxiety. Are you feeling uptight? Try being generous to someone you know – targeted generosity is good for feelings of apprehension and being overwhelmed.

Generosity can be anything from running downstairs to grab your partner’s glasses and save them the trip to donating a trust to a much-needed hospital wing. Generosity is something that runs in some form throughout our lives. Remember, we’re all hard-wired for it. We have an instinct to give and to help. But how we express it may be vastly different.

What’s the Coffee Scenario?

Much of the discussion below reflects our research in a broader and more theoretical way. The discussion is perhaps a little lofty at times, and it might appear that we believe the only generosity that counts is the earthshaking sort. We don’t. The “coffee test” in the following individual sections examines abstract ideas in an everyday context. Not all generosity involves saving the world or assisting the profoundly downtrodden. Often, it’s expressed in more common ways.

The coffee test explores what motivates the personality types in unremarkable contexts. It’s an attempt to bring the whole subject down to earth. To do this, we use the scenario of buying coffee or other preferred beverages for individuals attending a team meeting. How might each Role approach this ordinary act of generosity? How might they see giving this small gift to their fellow team members? In what way is their giving style expressed in their daily lives?

The Giving Analyst: Calculatingly Generous

“Thus, to give money away is quite a simple task, but for the act to be virtuous, the donor must give to the right person, for the right purpose, in the right amount, in the right manner, and at the right time.”


How Analysts Give

The above quote was spoken like a true Analyst – Aristotle. Among Analysts, generosity is no mushy affair of the heart. They are prone to calculate the impact of their giving. But just because Analysts prefer this style, we shouldn’t assume that other personality types never think about these things as well. It’s just that Analysts typically value weighing and measuring the effectiveness of their generosity to a greater extent than other types. It’s perhaps more of a “go-to” position with them.

According to their self-reporting in our research, Architects are more likely to hold the opinion that giving too much to the needy leads to dependency. A lower percentage of Analyst personalities report that they enjoy giving gifts. They aren’t as likely to donate their no-longer-used possessions to secondhand charities. They’re less in awe of individuals who display acts of kindness and are more prone to worry about loaning things to others. Fewer of them apply the label of “generous” to themselves.

By conventional measures of generosity, Analysts might appear downright selfish next to everybody else. But stereotypes based on personality traits can be unfair, and it’s important to remember that studying personalities is about tendencies and not absolutes. In most of our polls that addressed such matters, more than half the Analysts answered pro-generosity. There are plenty of generous Analysts. You may know some. You may be one. It’s just that Analyst types rely on more rigorous standards when they give to others, and this may sometimes defy conventional definitions of generosity.

That’s why we need to go beyond the conventional view. Analysts are probably as hardwired for generosity as anyone; but, with them, unique elements are at play. Analysts may teach themselves to be more “selfish” (in any conventional sense) by assembling logical constructs for why giving may not lead to the greatest good. But these self-taught lessons aren’t necessarily exercises in greediness. They’re more likely attempts to be rational in their generosity.

For example, Analysts may encounter a neglected puppy’s sad eyes while watching late-night TV. The spot is soliciting donations for an animal welfare group. Instead of immediately logging on to their electronic devices to contribute – as those more emotionally affected by such commercials might – Analysts mull over factors like:

  • “Don’t TV ads cost money? If I give to this charity, how much of my contribution would go to making more ads?”
  • “How many puppies do they really help? They offer no data describing their charity’s reach.”
  • “Is there a better way to end such abuse more effectively and sustainably? I might donate if they showed me how my giving leads to a more meaningful and permanent solution.”

A soft-hearted individual might regard Analysts’ questions as uncaring. “C’mon, look at those eyes.” And Analysts may even decide to give to the cause in the end. But whether they do or not, it’s going to be a carefully considered decision.

The Coffee Scenario

Analysts report to us through our polls that they aren’t the biggest fans of giving gifts – this is likely because they need a solid reason for such generosity. If they deliver coffee at all, they have probably developed a well-defined reason to do so before bringing coffee to a meeting. This gift would not be given on a whim.

For example, “If they receive the token gift of a delicious beverage, perhaps they’ll be more receptive to my proposal.” Or maybe, “John kept nodding off during the last meeting. A shot of espresso might help him stay awake this week. By buying for everyone, I won’t be singling him out.”

Possible Pitfalls

While a cooler, more rational approach to generosity has merit, sometimes intellectualizing and strategizing isn’t enough. If an unemployed neighbor can’t feed their children, providing some food is the one appropriate response. Most Analysts would deliver the lasagna, but some might attempt to outthink the neighbor’s dilemma.

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Right? Who could argue with that?

But compassion and generosity can provide a vital connection to other humans (and perhaps puppies). Giving isn’t always a passionate affair. But maybe occasionally it should be. Analysts who choose only a colder approach may miss out on bonding with others – something generosity can help cement.

Analyst personalities may want to be wary of doing nothing instead of supporting a charitable approach that doesn’t meet their standards. While people may overuse the phrase, perfect is indeed the enemy of the good. It’s both more generous and practical to address a problem in an incomplete but timely fashion than it is to sit on one’s hands while waiting around for a better solution.

Sometimes, it’s important to dish out food in a soup kitchen, even if it only fills a belly for the day. To someone hungry, what happens on that day is probably more pressing to them than any future days.

(And, as a bonus, Analysts can think about broader, longer-lasting solutions while ladling stew into a bowl. There’s no need to think in terms of either giving now or devising a better plan. There’s no need for “either/or.” The two activities can happen at the same time.)

The Giving Diplomat: Heartfelt Generosity

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”

Mother Teresa

How Diplomats Give

Diplomats feel strongly about expressing generosity. They are the group most likely to give a gift even if there is no special occasion. And it goes beyond just giving gifts and donations. These personality types often see it as their mission to support those who are in need or suffering. This doesn’t mean that they always actively do so, but the needs and feelings of others remain very important to them.

Diplomats are known for their involvement with causes (or at least their support of them). Recycling as a passion? Yes, they may believe that taking the time to separate one’s trash can be a gift to future generations. They don’t have to take the time to separate the cardboard from the bottles – but they do so anyway.

Diplomat personalities often align themselves, perhaps unknowingly, with the Buddhist ideal that far greater than the gift is the attitude of the giver. Idealism and noble intentions often serve as a launching pad for their altruistic concerns. As a group, they value being genuine, and this applies as much to their generosity as anything. And with that attitude, they likely make the Buddha smile.

They don’t always supply the nuts-and-bolts action needed to express their generosity fully, but that doesn’t mean that Diplomat personality types never give in a practical way. They often get their hands dirty for their causes. It’s just that their dominant tendency is to think about these things and sort them out according to their tightly held beliefs and principles. It’s often more an idea and a feeling rather than an actual plan. But ideas and feelings aren’t nothing.

The world needs generous, moral visionaries. The energy that comes from this style of caring has fueled important movements throughout history. Support that energy with the energy of those who are more hands-on, and together, they can change the world.

The Coffee Scenario

The Diplomat who buys coffee for the meeting would likely do so with an eye toward helping the team pull together. They probably hope to foster a good feeling about things at work and want everyone to feel that they belong and are cared about.

The coffee gesture might be more like, “We gather in unity over this shared cup of coffee,” than “Here’s something to perk you up.” “There’s nothing like enjoying a hot beverage together to help everyone feel like a part of the team. Isn’t togetherness wonderful?”

Possible Pitfalls

Diplomats are more likely than other personality types to connect empathetically with others in need. This can create a Feeling-based style of generosity that can be juxtaposed against Analysts’ default style. Diplomats may overlook a more rational perspective when giving to others. This potentially opens them up to being taken advantage of by others, whether unknowingly or by design.

Diplomat personalities may become too focused on the pain of others to consider any long-term implications. In their eyes, someone needs help, so they’ll get help. Feeling someone else’s pain can create a tunnel vision focused solely on easing it. But there may be other issues that cooler heads might more easily consider.

In addition, Diplomat generosity might grow into something beyond what they would ordinarily consider, “The right thing to do.” In being driven by a cause that helps someone they’re focused on, they may not realize that they are hurting someone else in the process. Diplomats are susceptible to becoming overzealous, and, in doing so, can go overboard. For example, they might spend so much time helping others that they forget about the people in their lives or family members who also need attention and perhaps help. Should they eventually realize that they damaged someone else in their hyper-focused attempts to help, they are likely to feel a great deal of remorse.

Diplomats may need to learn to acquire some distance and to approach their generosity a bit more rationally. Otherwise, their giving nature may end up doing more harm than good on occasion.

The Giving Sentinel: Giving as the Right Thing to Do

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Simone Weil

How Sentinels Give

Among the Roles in our research, Sentinels were the least likely to stand out as an extreme when responding to statements about generosity. They landed more often toward the middle of the groups. This can tell us as much about a personality style as those who pushed the statistical upper or lower boundaries. That said, their results were often more pronounced when the poll question involved work, family, and community.

Sentinels are practical people who are unlikely to overthink an issue like generosity. They give because they feel it is the right thing to do, either practically or because of tradition. Their reasons are usually uncomplicated.

These personality types report that they will go above and beyond at work and home. All things being equal, Sentinels typically put a lot of effort into giving the gift of support to the people, businesses, and institutions they care about. They give freely to those they feel loyalty toward, whether it be the people in their families, communities, or workplaces. Such dedication can be the epitome of self-sacrifice and generosity.

Sentinels are the least likely personalities to say they break rules for selfish reasons, which may not sound like generosity. But where others may shed the rules to take care of themselves, Sentinels are generous enough to support established rules even if it’s at a cost. Rather than take what they want, they sacrifice for the sake of stability. From that perspective, following rules becomes an act of generosity.

Sentinels are more likely than other personality types to show their generosity in everyday ways. For them, giving is just “something you do.” It’s not as agenda-driven as we see with Analysts and Diplomats, the two Intuitive Roles. If they cook a meal for the family, they do so with little fuss or without needing any thanks or praise (although it’s probably always appreciated when they receive it). They give their time to cook simply because people they care about need to eat.

The Coffee Scenario

Sentinels might walk into the meeting with the cardboard tray of coffee for one of three reasons:

  1. “It’s nice to have coffee at a meeting.”
  2. “Somebody always brings the coffee. I figured it was my turn.”
  3. “After all the work everybody’s been doing, we might all need a little refreshment.”

Their gift of beverages is because that’s what’s called for in that moment – nothing more, nothing less. For Sentinels, there doesn’t have to be anything beyond that.

Possible Pitfalls

As is often the case with these personalities, the pitfalls for Sentinels may be in giving too much, and they may fail to pay attention to their own needs. Generosity burnout is a real thing. Some studies suggest that being too generous may, paradoxically, not be as helpful as showing a little less generosity at times.

A sense of duty and other external motivations often drive and influence Sentinels to a greater degree than they do other types. Should the needs of the people they value become too intense, they may start to think that the opposite of being selfish is being selfless. This can cause an inadequate amount of self-care. Generosity doesn’t have to be about negating oneself in some extreme way. Some Sentinels may confuse generosity with a low-grade martyrdom that eats away at their lives.

People with the Sentinel personality type may need to be reminded that they can’t give to others if they don’t first maintain their own well-being. They may have to create boundaries that allow them to retreat, refuel, and preserve their energy and resources, so they can come back to give another day.

The Giving Explorer: The Gift of Freedom

“All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story.”

Atul Gawande

How Explorers Give

Explorers’ more relaxed attitude toward obligation provides an interesting twist on giving. These personality types don’t see themselves as particularly generous, nor are they fond of giving gifts – at least when compared to Diplomats and Sentinels. But they possess a type of generosity in that they’re more willing to trust others. They are the Role least likely to worry about loaning something to a neighbor, and entrusting someone with one’s possessions is a slightly different flavor of generosity – but still an act of generosity.

An Explorer’s generous trust may or may not play out in concrete ways. A trusting person is less likely to be a controlling person, and there is a certain generosity in letting people live life and do things their way. Explorers, insofar as they have any influence over the matter, generously give the independence to others that they themselves desire.

Explorer personalities also typically enjoy sharing the fruit of their skills and talents with others. This can be a tricky area because it might be hard to separate a sense of pride in their abilities from offering these things more selflessly. When there is too much of the first, can we still call it generosity, or has it morphed into something closer to showing off? At that point, only Explorers can fully examine their motives and their hearts. (And, ultimately, does it matter?)

This doesn’t mean that Explorers never express traditional forms of compassion and generosity. Many of them embrace jobs as first responders and childcare professionals, which suggests a willingness to risk sacrificing themselves and to care for others. Everything about personalities is on a continuum. It’s hard to live in society without following some of its norms. It’s just that their style of generosity may often focus more on an unconventional, vaguer version of what it means to give.

The Coffee Scenario

Explorers are likely to gift their coworkers with coffee on a whim. They may pass a coffee shop and see a sign in the window that indicates the shop’s barista has developed a unique and interesting take on cappuccinos. The idea of sharing their find may excite them as they jump at the chance to try the new flavor and expose others to it. This unexpected treat is likely to be a pleasant surprise for their teammates, and the element of surprise itself may gratify and even entertain many Explorers.

Possible Pitfalls

Explorers are capable of generosity and self-sacrifice. But if their generosity becomes only an expression of their live-and-let-live attitude, their giving may be hard for some to grasp. True generosity isn’t about getting recognition. However, if others can’t understand Explorer generosity because they measure it differently, they may think people with the Explorer personality type are uncaring and selfish. This can cause damage to relationships – especially those of a romantic nature.

To avoid such misinterpretations, Explorers may need to balance what they see as generous with what others consider generous. Perhaps they could strive to be as “materially generous” as they are “attitudinally generous” when they can. It’s great to give a friend room to be who they are. But if the friend needs a few bucks to carry them over until payday, generously allowing their independence so that they may flourish is meaningless. (Especially if there’s no gas money for them to get to work.) Right then and there, trusting a friend to borrow a favorite rake may not be enough.

Explorer personalities are often reluctant to tie themselves to anything. Many of them see commitment as a type of confinement, but sometimes the most generous thing people can give to others is themselves. Generous Explorers may need to sort out how commitment and a need for independence can exist in the same space. Achieving and applying such an understanding may create more kindhearted bonds and better relationships.

All Manner of Generosity

So, enough with the one-size-fits-all generosity. Learning to appreciate and accept people where they are is a very generous thing to do. Any kind of giving done in good faith should be treated as the expression of love and care that it is. Taking the time to understand what that means to the people in our lives can help us see more of the generosity around us.

So, what’s your style of giving? Do you feel like you’re giving too little? Too much? Or just right? How does your personality type influence of all of this? Please feel free to share your take on generosity with us.

Further Reading

Asking for Help Part I: Harder for Some Personality Types than Others

Charity by Personality Type

Need a Volunteer? Call an Extravert

We Love to Give Gifts – But Perhaps to Different Degrees