The optimist in me would like to believe that Darwin was not fully correct when he proposed that our biological altruistic inclinations are reserved for the people who share our genes. I’d also like to think that humans are not innately selfish, that there must be some way to account for the decision to act in the service of others outside our gene pool beyond the calculated benefits it brings to us. One of the lesser-known facts about Darwin is his theory that humans wield an evolved tendency toward sympathy that supersedes the instinct for self-preservation, and that our resulting propensity for caretaking behavior and cooperation underlies the success of our species. The “survival of the kindest” theory espouses that natural selection favors the occurrence of compassion rather than punishing it. 1
Most of us have heard that providing social support to others stimulates the primal reward center of the brain, releasing neurochemicals like oxytocin involved with the characteristic “warm glow” feeling of giving. But there is further physiological evidence that humans may tend towards altruism by nature--for example, the vagus nerve may be adapted to promote altruism, and mirror neurons found uniquely in primates provide a possible neurological basis for the ability to empathize.2 But even if any sympathy we feel is not in fact instinctual, there still appears to be truth to the idea that social ties play an important role in prosocial behavior. A 2005 study found that while non-Jews who had helped rescue people from the Nazis (as compared to others who did nothing) were less risk-averse, the strongest correlation was with those who reported having regular interactions with friends and family.3 A recent study suggests that altruistic behavior in children is not automatic, but grounded in a pre-established relationship with the person whom they choose to help. 4
I have introduced just some of many attempts to resolve the mystery of why people act altruistically at all--self-sacrificial behavior would seem at odds with our personal welfare. There are likely many factors that play in. Psychoanalytic critics might support the theory that giving is merely a tool to reduce the burden on ourselves of our negative feelings about the situation, or of a possible guilt of not acting. Some people might choose to act altruistically purely in the hope that the favor will be returned, or that it will appease a higher power and produce favorable future consequences for themselves, like getting into heaven or having a peaceful afterlife. Or perhaps, sometimes, we can only be swayed by social pressures such as a desire to elevate others’ perceptions of us, a norm of reciprocity, or other desires or expectations that have taken root within a developed society that can make decisions that aren’t related to survival. All of these things seem to count against the possibility that any intention is purely altruistic. One theory that I find particularly intriguing relates to an experiment in which students who had just spent time looking at a large tree or building were found to be significantly more likely than a control group to help retrieve pens that the experimenter ‘accidentally’ dropped on the ground (5). A plausible explanation for this is that the self-loss that we experience in an awe-inspiring, or transcendent, moment reorients our thoughts in favor of prosocial behavior. We see this effect in astronauts after they have witnessed the Earth from space--they return with a diminished sense of self and a newfound impulse to help others (the cognitive shift in awareness that occurs here is called the “Overview Effect”). Whether some have a dispositional tendency toward such a state of mind, or if it has to be induced, perhaps we find reason to act altruistically by way of this kind of a third-party perspective in which we are removed from our own trivial interests and thus better able to think rationally.
If we are interested in mobilizing individuals for positive social change, perhaps it’s not enough to appeal to logic or unstated higher standards such as moral law. Knowledge of an optimal way to act should be accompanied by a will to act. In the words of Matt Langdon, “the opposite of a hero isn’t a villain--it’s a bystander.”
1 Disalvo, D. (2009). Forget Survival of the Fittest: It is Kindness that Counts. Scientific American, 20(5), 18-19.
2 Keltner, D. (2012). The Compassionate Species. UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.
3 Midlarsky E, Fagin Jones S, Corley RP. (2005). Personality correlates of heroic rescue during the holocaust. J. Pers., 73(4), 907-934.
4 Carey, B.. (2014). Stanford psychologists show that altruism is not simply innate. Stanford News.
5 Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-889.