True Blood: Saintly Sinners, Free Riders and Reluctant Altruists

The importance of being inauthentic. That’s the title of a TEDX Talk in which the presenter, Mark Bowden, asserts that

"authenticity is you know what’s good for you, you know what’s bad for you and you will do what’s good for you and feels right for you at an instinctual level regardless because you want to be you, you want to be you regardless of the prizes or punishments out there. If I were being authentic I would not show up for this”

The assertion is that Bowden would not turn up for his job if he was being his genuine self. Is this how people generally feel about their employment? The notion of leaving their job immediately is a sentiment that is often repeated when people are asked what they would do if they won the lottery. This made me wonder - when are we truly our authentic selves? In this article I’ll explore one aspect of my life to assess its authenticity.

Life is, of course, more than just work. Who are you? By that I mean what’s your identity, what makes you tick, why do you do what you do? I’ve asked myself these questions plenty of times. Over the years I’ve donated blood and blood platelets, recently making my 100th donation. It’s an achievement that I’m proud of and having the resilience to do this over a prolonged period suggests donating is a time when I am being my authentic self although it’s not as straight forward an assumption as it may seem.

Image by allinonemovie from Pixabay

As a youngster I looked up to my footballing heroes and dreamt of being in their position. Supporting a football club has given me great joy – it’s hard to beat the unbridled euphoria that erupts from the crowd as the ball hits the back of the net. Yet over time, despite being part of the influential ‘twelfth man’, I started to find this a somewhat passive way of achieving satisfaction, reliant on someone else and their good fortune. So, whilst there’s no doubting the emotional high of attending a live sporting event (especially when the result goes in your favour), I have recognised that I need to balance this with something where I have more control of the outcome; I need to do something for myself to get that joy and, preferably, something that would help others.

In my organisation staff are fortunate that they can donate money to charity through the Payroll Giving scheme. This is a great way to make a difference in the world albeit the donor has to do nothing more than complete a form and let the experts put the money to good use. I yearned for something in which I could be physically involved and Brown, Meer and Williams (2019) hypothesise that we are “driven, at least in part, by higher levels of warm glow when volunteering than when donating money.”

Perhaps this warm glow from the physical act of doing something makes us feel like a valued part of society and a better human being? Maslow suggested that becoming a better human being should come first and it was from this quest that well-being, fulfilment, and a sense of meaning and purpose would follow (Compton, 2018). Crandall (1980) suggests that, “the core of social interest is a valuing of things other than the self. Such valuing is based on the human capacity to transcend the limits of the self and to identify with the needs and concerns of others.”

Some soul searching can help us to uncover what our personal values are and what motivates us. Going back to the lottery winning scenario, this reflection can lead winners to comment that after having the satisfaction of walking away from their job they would actually need something to motivate them, the social interaction, to stop them from becoming a wealthy recluse. They would perhaps go someway to finding what their authentic self looks like, as a EuroMillions winning couple tried to do.

Knowing that I’m unlikely to win the lottery, what could I actively do that matters, that makes a difference? When I heard of others donating blood I thought, like a modern day Jimmy ‘Yosser’ Hughes, “I can do that”. I realised it was simple to do, cost nothing and had a huge, life-saving impact. Let’s think about that for a moment – you can save a life. Yes, experts are still needed to use the donation wisely but there is a physical act of giving. Even if I wanted to donate money to the blood service they would not, at least not ethically, be able to buy blood. There is a reliance on donors to contribute their time in order to physically donate blood which results in the donor’s warm glow.

Mentors regularly talk altruistically of giving up their time so as to ‘pay it forward’ i.e. genuinely wanting to help others to benefit from the same support that they received in the past. In a similar vein, this may lead to friends and family of recipients of blood to decide to donate blood themselves. Would it be inauthentic (but equally valued of course) if someone felt compelled to donate so they can feel they are worthy recipients themselves if needed in the future (like a physical national insurance contribution)? This then avoids the stigma of being a free rider, “People can take advantage without contributing and have a free ride…Free riders are defined as those who are medically capable to donate blood but do not” (Abasolo and Tsuchiya, 2014). Ferguson (2015) even posits, “Donors also show ‘saintly sinning’ with the extra ‘moral currency’ from blood donation allowing them to be less generous in other contexts.”

What if no-one donated? That expectation of a loved one with cancer getting the essential treatment they need, a tragic accident requiring emergency treatment, it simply couldn’t happen without donors. Therefore, there are undoubtedly reluctant altruists, “those who donate because they cannot trust others to do so and try to encourage others to donate” (Ferguson, 2015)

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

So, perhaps there’s an innate sense of responsibility. However, we are unable to feel that responsibility until we become aware of the need for something. The first step then is being aware that there is such a thing as blood donation (by the way, did you know that animals can donate blood too?) and then it is up to the individual to decide whether to remain passive or take action. So often it seems that we hold ourselves back because the thing that we’d like to do takes us out of our comfort zone. I recall the apprehension I had going into the blood donor centre simply to book an appointment whilst others may not like the thought of either blood or needles. It is imperative therefore to surmount that initial hurdle:

“let us think of life as a process of choices. . . . There may be a movement toward defense, toward safety, toward being afraid; but over on the other side, there is the growth choice. To make the growth choice instead of the fear choice a dozen times a day is to move a dozen times a day toward self-actualization. Self-actualization is an ongoing process . . . [it is] little accessions accumulated one by one.” Maslow (1971)

Wanting to do something but failing to do so (in a career sense) led Verbruggen and de Vos (2020) to develop a Theory of Career Inaction which has three key features:

1. the person desires to make a change (in their career)

2. the person recognizes that they can take action to initiate the desired change but does not do so in a sufficient way

3. this situation persists for some period of time.

In a similar vein it would seem that individuals may pledge to donate blood but then not go through with it. The desire to make a change distinguishes them from being a free rider and some sort of incentive can help, whether that is playing on the masculine need to feel like a hero or something else.

My donations were intended to be an ad hoc thing but on my first visit I saw an advert for donating platelets. I was intrigued – something different and which could be done regularly – maybe a new habit and a new challenge was what I was looking for. Middle-aged and with a ‘big birthday’ a few years down the line I worked out that I could set a challenge to donate 100 times by the end of that big birthday year.*

“When an individual volunteers for charity, she may see the grateful faces of others, receive greater recognition for her contribution, make valuable social contacts, or perform a task so different from her work that she may view it as leisure. In particular, the ability to signal one’s generosity has been shown to exert a strong impact on giving behaviour” (Brown, Meer and Williams, 2019)

I’m lucky that the blood centre is just a few minutes away from my place of work so I could engage with it during my (sometimes extended) lunch breaks. I am thankful that my organisation has always been accommodating so donating almost feels as if it is a natural part of my working day. I’d found something authentic yet if I’d had to donate after work or at weekends or if the donor centre was further away I wonder if I would have responded in the same way?

A few days after donating, the Blood Service sends a message telling you which hospital your platelets or blood has gone to and the processes that have happened to it. This specificity makes the process seem very personal. What an incredible feeling to have helped someone at their time of need. For me, I can confidently conclude it is all about the healthy warm glow. Adler pointed out that characteristics such as concern for others, cooperation, and even altruism may be as important for the health of the individual as for society in general” (Crandall, 1980)

During the Covid pandemic many people reflected on what they wanted in life (to answer the ‘why do you do what you do?’ question) resulting in a ‘career shock’ defined as “a disruptive and extraordinary event that is, at least to some degree, caused by factors outside the focal individual's control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one's career” (Akkermans, Seibert and Mol, 2018) . As we commence ‘the new normal’, maybe this reflection will extend further to thinking about identity; how we want to be as individuals, what makes you tick, and how we can live more authentically. Whatever your reasoning, authentic or not, why not give yourself a warm glow by making a blood donation?

World Blood Donor Day is 14th June.

Footnote: * Donating platelets can be done on a regular basis (every 3 weeks for some) with each visit making two donations. Donating full blood is usually limited to no more than every 3 months.


Abásolo, Ignacio and Tsuchiya, Aki (2014), Blood donation as a public good: an empirical investigation of the free rider problem, The European Journal of Health Economics, 15(3), 313-321

Akkermans, Jos ; Richardson, Julia ; Kraimer, Maria L (2020), The Covid-19 crisis as a career shock: Implications for careers and vocational behavior, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 119, 1-5

Brown, Alexander L ; Meer, Jonathan ; Williams, J. Forrest (2019), Warm glow: Why Do People Volunteer? An Experimental Analysis of Preferences for Time Donations, Management science, 65(4), 1455-1468

Compton, William C. (2018), Self-Actualization Myths: What Did Maslow Really Say?, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2216781876192

Crandall, James E. (1980), Adler’s Concept of Social Interest: Theory, Measurement, and Implications for Adjustment, Journal of personality and social psychology 39(3), 481–495

Ferguson, E (2015), Mechanism of altruism approach to blood donor recruitment and retention: a review and future directions, Transfusion medicine (Oxford, England), 25(4), 211-226

Maslow, A. H. (1971), Farther reaches of human nature, New York, NY: Viking

Maslow, A. H. (1970), Motivation and personality (2nd ed.), New York, NY: Viking

Mayer, Claude-Hélène; Krasovska, Nataliya; Fouché, Paul J. P. (2021), The meaning of life and death in the eyes of Frankl: Archetypal and terror management perspectives, Europe's Journal of Psychology, 17(3), 164–175


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