Advertisement

Killing with Kindness

Studying the evolution of altruistic behaviors reveals how knee-jerk good intentions can backfire.

By | February 1, 2012

image: Killing with Kindness Oxford University Press, December 2011

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, DECEMBER 2011

Pathological altruism. The term seems a contradiction—how could a desire to help others be harmful? All too easily, unfortunately. We’ve all heard of gullible cult followers who force their own children to “drink the Kool-Aid”—literally or figuratively—in their sincere belief that they are saving their offspring’s souls. Or genocidal murderers convinced they are protecting those they love by exterminating the “human cockroaches” they’ve been taught to hate.

Pathological Altruism, our recent edited book, explores the historical and contemporary impacts of these maladaptive behaviors and introduces a whole new discipline that knits together evolutionary biology, social psychology, neuroscience, public health, and economics.

As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes in his recently published book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, our empathetic feeling for others—or at least for family members, friends, peers, or those we perceive to be victims—is a fast, involuntary response, much like envy or laughter. But empathy can sometimes lead to cognitive illusion.

Primatologist Frans de Waal has commented that feelings of empathy and associated behaviors of altruism may have evolved in order to prompt humans to take care of their children. But once a faculty has evolved, it can be used for other purposes than the ones shaped by evolution. Unfortunately, humans’ evolved tendency toward empathy and altruism can, under some circumstances, be applied to the wrong cause.

Just as a built-in “fast” desire for sugars and fats leads to health in lean times but disease in times of plenty, or the ability to sprint, which arose because it helped in hunting and avoiding predators, but can be used nowadays for fast breaks in basketball, spontaneous feelings of empathy tuned to the needs of others can work wonders in times of emergency. But at other times it can slide us into dysfunctional behaviors—we end up providing unwanted, unnecessary, or even detrimental help. Perhaps most poignant of all, the natural love we feel for our offspring can drive us to dart into a burning building to protect a helpless infant—clearly one of the most profound and positive aspects of altruism. But the same unthinking love, when glorified, can also result in parents who vehemently deny that their child can do anything wrong—perhaps contributing to the increasing prevalence of narcissism.

Self-sacrifice and milder forms of altruism have been observed in a wide range of animals. The evolutionary explanation of such behaviors is that they promote the survival of genetically related individuals—as in ant colonies—or that they serve as a signaling mechanism for mate selection. However, we are not aware of any instances of pathological altruism in nonhuman species. In humans, pathological altruism may be based on genetic factors that increased evolutionary fitness by improving social skills. For example, genetic variability associated with the function of vasopressin and oxytocin, two neurohormones involved in social behavior, has been shown to relate to empathy and altruism in humans. Dysregulation of these endocrine systems may cascade into pathological forms of altruistic behavior. It is possible that the survival advantages conferred by some variants of these (and other) genes may have increased their prevalence, making it possible for the extreme end of altruism and empathy to manifest as pathological forms of altruism.

Even behavior that has evolved for genuinely beneficial purposes—such as our ability to empathize and care for others—can be turned on its head and lead to deleterious outcomes. Caring feelings can be manipulated and exploited by emotional bullies to more easily harm their victims. Misplaced empathy and compulsive feelings of altruism may also fuel guilt, depression, and burnout. Unfortunately, it is our very zeal to help others—our idealization of empathy and altruism—that blinds us to the harms these emotions and actions can create. Realizing that to truly help others we often need to act rationally—using “slow” thinking that departs from knee-jerk reactions—won’t reduce our desire to help. Instead, it will allow us to systematically predict and prevent pathologies of altruism, and to channel our natural tendencies for empathy and altruism towards truly good causes.

Barbara Oakley, Guruprasad Madhavan, Ariel Knafo, and David Sloan Wilson are coeditors of  Pathological Altruism. Oakley is also the author of Cold-Blooded Kindness, a true parable of the perils of empathy. Read an excerpt of  Pathological Altruism.

Advertisement

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You

You

Processing...
Processing...

Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo

Comments

Avatar of: Juan Carlos Marvizon

Juan Carlos Marvizon

Posts: 1457

February 2, 2012

"Feelings of empathy and associated behaviors of altruism may have
evolved in order to prompt humans to take care of their children. But
once a faculty has evolved, it can be used for other purposes than the
ones shaped by evolution." So altruism that is not directed towards our offspring is morally wrong? This smacks of the naturalistic fallacy. Beside, I suspect that altruism and empathy evolved in humans because of the evolutionary advantage of bonding in groups of several families (tribes), not just for the caring of offspring.
"Spontaneous feelings of empathy tuned to the needs of others can work
wonders in times of emergency. But at other times it can slide us into
dysfunctional behaviors—we end up providing unwanted, unnecessary, or
even detrimental help." So empathy is only good in times of emergency? Providing help can be dysfunctional? Are they trying to sell us some kind of libertarian political agenda?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 2, 2012

"Feelings of empathy and associated behaviors of altruism may have
evolved in order to prompt humans to take care of their children. But
once a faculty has evolved, it can be used for other purposes than the
ones shaped by evolution." So altruism that is not directed towards our offspring is morally wrong? This smacks of the naturalistic fallacy. Beside, I suspect that altruism and empathy evolved in humans because of the evolutionary advantage of bonding in groups of several families (tribes), not just for the caring of offspring.
"Spontaneous feelings of empathy tuned to the needs of others can work
wonders in times of emergency. But at other times it can slide us into
dysfunctional behaviors—we end up providing unwanted, unnecessary, or
even detrimental help." So empathy is only good in times of emergency? Providing help can be dysfunctional? Are they trying to sell us some kind of libertarian political agenda?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 2, 2012

"Feelings of empathy and associated behaviors of altruism may have
evolved in order to prompt humans to take care of their children. But
once a faculty has evolved, it can be used for other purposes than the
ones shaped by evolution." So altruism that is not directed towards our offspring is morally wrong? This smacks of the naturalistic fallacy. Beside, I suspect that altruism and empathy evolved in humans because of the evolutionary advantage of bonding in groups of several families (tribes), not just for the caring of offspring.
"Spontaneous feelings of empathy tuned to the needs of others can work
wonders in times of emergency. But at other times it can slide us into
dysfunctional behaviors—we end up providing unwanted, unnecessary, or
even detrimental help." So empathy is only good in times of emergency? Providing help can be dysfunctional? Are they trying to sell us some kind of libertarian political agenda?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

 Juan, yes providing "help" can be dysfunctional.  1)  If the help acts as an enabler for the recipient to not learn to help themselves.    2)  If the help that is given is material, and the materiel goods or money are taken from someone against their will, then there is no moral high ground or help which can justify wrong actions.  (thus, dysfunctional help)   3)  If the help creates dependency, instead of allowing one to fail, and learn to be resilient and overcome.  4) The "help" is a manipulation used by someone to control the recipient.   These are just a few.

Oh, BTW, I actually am a Libertarian, and I often see leftist political agendas being sold, even in science articles and reviews.  So, welcome to the club.  *smiling*

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

Kahnemann got the fake Nobel Prize for Economics that the Swedish Central Bank set up in 1968 to trade off the Nobel name. I see here that the fakery has been extended to pretending that there is a Nobel prize for Psychology - another 'science' of dubious worth. Do you have editors?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012


This article sounds like it was written by a committee.  Also, I didn't really care about the cool-aid comment, the horrible murder of 1000 people that doesn't lent itself to sarcastic commentary. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

Would the concept of pathological altruism also include "Robin Hood"-type situations, in which "A" harms "B" in order to benefit "C"? (For example: a man robs a house/mugs a traveler in order to give the stolen goods to a poor person.)

Avatar of: huweber

huweber

Posts: 5

February 17, 2012

Very interesting. Remember the end of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? The Chief suffocates McMurphy whose brain was "fried" after McMurphy attacked the evil nurse Ratchet. Thus the Chief saves his friend from living his life as an institutionalized vegetable. Incidentally, Kahneman's above-mentioned book is very readable and digs deep into the human psyche. 
E O Wilson's recommendation of "Pathological Altruism" is noteworthy to me; I'll definitively take a look at this book.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

Very interesting. Remember the end of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? The Chief suffocates McMurphy whose brain was "fried" after McMurphy attacked the evil nurse Ratchet. Thus the Chief saves his friend from living his life as an institutionalized vegetable. Incidentally, Kahneman's above-mentioned book is very readable and digs deep into the human psyche. 
E O Wilson's recommendation of "Pathological Altruism" is noteworthy to me; I'll definitively take a look at this book.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

 Juan, yes providing "help" can be dysfunctional.  1)  If the help acts as an enabler for the recipient to not learn to help themselves.    2)  If the help that is given is material, and the materiel goods or money are taken from someone against their will, then there is no moral high ground or help which can justify wrong actions.  (thus, dysfunctional help)   3)  If the help creates dependency, instead of allowing one to fail, and learn to be resilient and overcome.  4) The "help" is a manipulation used by someone to control the recipient.   These are just a few.

Oh, BTW, I actually am a Libertarian, and I often see leftist political agendas being sold, even in science articles and reviews.  So, welcome to the club.  *smiling*

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

Kahnemann got the fake Nobel Prize for Economics that the Swedish Central Bank set up in 1968 to trade off the Nobel name. I see here that the fakery has been extended to pretending that there is a Nobel prize for Psychology - another 'science' of dubious worth. Do you have editors?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012


This article sounds like it was written by a committee.  Also, I didn't really care about the cool-aid comment, the horrible murder of 1000 people that doesn't lent itself to sarcastic commentary. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

Would the concept of pathological altruism also include "Robin Hood"-type situations, in which "A" harms "B" in order to benefit "C"? (For example: a man robs a house/mugs a traveler in order to give the stolen goods to a poor person.)

Avatar of: Elizabeth Van Horn

Elizabeth Van Horn

Posts: 1457

February 17, 2012

 Juan, yes providing "help" can be dysfunctional.  1)  If the help acts as an enabler for the recipient to not learn to help themselves.    2)  If the help that is given is material, and the materiel goods or money are taken from someone against their will, then there is no moral high ground or help which can justify wrong actions.  (thus, dysfunctional help)   3)  If the help creates dependency, instead of allowing one to fail, and learn to be resilient and overcome.  4) The "help" is a manipulation used by someone to control the recipient.   These are just a few.

Oh, BTW, I actually am a Libertarian, and I often see leftist political agendas being sold, even in science articles and reviews.  So, welcome to the club.  *smiling*

Avatar of: scouse1944

scouse1944

Posts: 2

February 17, 2012

Kahnemann got the fake Nobel Prize for Economics that the Swedish Central Bank set up in 1968 to trade off the Nobel name. I see here that the fakery has been extended to pretending that there is a Nobel prize for Psychology - another 'science' of dubious worth. Do you have editors?

Avatar of: kagni

kagni

Posts: 1

February 17, 2012


This article sounds like it was written by a committee.  Also, I didn't really care about the cool-aid comment, the horrible murder of 1000 people that doesn't lent itself to sarcastic commentary. 

Avatar of: KateGladstone

KateGladstone

Posts: 2

February 17, 2012

Would the concept of pathological altruism also include "Robin Hood"-type situations, in which "A" harms "B" in order to benefit "C"? (For example: a man robs a house/mugs a traveler in order to give the stolen goods to a poor person.)

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 17, 2012

Very interesting. Remember the end of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? The Chief suffocates McMurphy whose brain was "fried" after McMurphy attacked the evil nurse Ratchet. Thus the Chief saves his friend from living his life as an institutionalized vegetable. Incidentally, Kahneman's above-mentioned book is very readable and digs deep into the human psyche. 
E O Wilson's recommendation of "Pathological Altruism" is noteworthy to me; I'll definitively take a look at this book.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Terrible article, as it leaves out the operative word: psychopaths.

Psychopaths are people whose brain defect - usually inherited - makes them unable to feel they have done anything wrong. (See Cleckley, Hare, Stout, Raine.) They see the compassion of the Liberals as an opportunity to be taken advantage of.

Learning to not give love those who don't deserve it is a hard lesson for those who can feel compassion.. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

All aboard the White Guilt Express!

Avatar of: thematrixhasme

thematrixhasme

Posts: 2

February 22, 2012

Robin Hood took back from a corrupt government what it had unjustly taken from those who had produced the goods; returning each item to its specific owner would have been logistically impossible, so the booty was distributed freely among the people, who were equally suffering under the aforementioned corrupt gov. No Robin Hood under Richard the Lion Heart (legitimate gov).

Your example "robs a house/mugs a traveler" is as though the "victim" is chosen at random, an example of the technique of psychological warfare "dropping context."

Avatar of: KateGladstone

KateGladstone

Posts: 2

February 22, 2012

If you look up the original medieval stories about him, in most of them he's robbing or otherwise cheating private citizens (not the government). For instance, there are some where he arranges to alter the results of archery contests so that he can get the prize (gold) and then share it with some favored member of his gang ... There are others where he instructs his men to rob the next person who enters the forest, whoever that may be, because the gang is running short on supplies. What makes that course of action better than being a modern-day gang-leader or other thug?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Robin Hood took back from a corrupt government what it had unjustly taken from those who had produced the goods; returning each item to its specific owner would have been logistically impossible, so the booty was distributed freely among the people, who were equally suffering under the aforementioned corrupt gov. No Robin Hood under Richard the Lion Heart (legitimate gov).

Your example "robs a house/mugs a traveler" is as though the "victim" is chosen at random, an example of the technique of psychological warfare "dropping context."

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

If you look up the original medieval stories about him, in most of them he's robbing or otherwise cheating private citizens (not the government). For instance, there are some where he arranges to alter the results of archery contests so that he can get the prize (gold) and then share it with some favored member of his gang ... There are others where he instructs his men to rob the next person who enters the forest, whoever that may be, because the gang is running short on supplies. What makes that course of action better than being a modern-day gang-leader or other thug?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Terrible article, as it leaves out the operative word: psychopaths.

Psychopaths are people whose brain defect - usually inherited - makes them unable to feel they have done anything wrong. (See Cleckley, Hare, Stout, Raine.) They see the compassion of the Liberals as an opportunity to be taken advantage of.

Learning to not give love those who don't deserve it is a hard lesson for those who can feel compassion.. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

All aboard the White Guilt Express!

Avatar of: thematrixhasme

thematrixhasme

Posts: 2

February 22, 2012

Terrible article, as it leaves out the operative word: psychopaths.

Psychopaths are people whose brain defect - usually inherited - makes them unable to feel they have done anything wrong. (See Cleckley, Hare, Stout, Raine.) They see the compassion of the Liberals as an opportunity to be taken advantage of.

Learning to not give love those who don't deserve it is a hard lesson for those who can feel compassion.. 

Avatar of: M Lentini

M Lentini

Posts: 1

February 22, 2012

All aboard the White Guilt Express!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Robin Hood took back from a corrupt government what it had unjustly taken from those who had produced the goods; returning each item to its specific owner would have been logistically impossible, so the booty was distributed freely among the people, who were equally suffering under the aforementioned corrupt gov. No Robin Hood under Richard the Lion Heart (legitimate gov).

Your example "robs a house/mugs a traveler" is as though the "victim" is chosen at random, an example of the technique of psychological warfare "dropping context."

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

If you look up the original medieval stories about him, in most of them he's robbing or otherwise cheating private citizens (not the government). For instance, there are some where he arranges to alter the results of archery contests so that he can get the prize (gold) and then share it with some favored member of his gang ... There are others where he instructs his men to rob the next person who enters the forest, whoever that may be, because the gang is running short on supplies. What makes that course of action better than being a modern-day gang-leader or other thug?

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement