Killing with Kindness

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

Feb 1, 2012
Barbara Oakley, Guruprasad Madhavan, Ariel Knafo, and David Sloan Wilson

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.