LEND A HAND
Why would someone risk their life for a stranger? After experiencing an extraordinary act of kindness, psychologist ABIGAIL MARSH made it her mission to understand altruism. She talks to JAMES LLOYD
What was the act of kindness that you personally experienced?
When I was 19, I was driving home late at night on the biggest freeway in Washington State when a dog ran out in front of me. I swerved to avoid it, but ended up hitting it anyway, and my car was sent spinning. I found myself in the fast lane, facing backwards into oncoming traffic, and then the engine died. I was sure I was going to die. Cars and trucks were speeding towards me, swerving at the last minute. But then this guy suddenly appeared at the passenger window. “You look like you could use some help,” he said. I let him get into the driver seat and he managed to get the car going again, launching us across the freeway and parking me behind his own car. After making sure I was okay, he just left – I didn’t know anything about him.
I figured out later that he had parked on the opposite side of the freeway and run across five lanes of traffic in the middle of the night. I live to this day with the regret that I don’t think I ever said thank you.
And this got you thinking about the concept of altruism?
Until a stranger has put their life on the line for you, you can’t fully grasp the gravity of it. Why would someone do that? It doesn’t make sense from a scientific perspective, either. There are lots of good evolutionary explanations for why showing altruism to those close to you can benefit them, and in turn benefit you. But why would someone sacrifice their own welfare for a stranger? That’s a real puzzle.
How did you go about investigating this?
For about seven years I’ve been studying a group of people who’ve all done something extraordinary: donating one of their kidneys to a stranger. This is at no small cost to themselves. A donor will lose over $2,000 due to travel, missed work and other expenses. Then there’s the recovery time – at least a couple of weeks – plus possible health complications later down the line, and even a small (less than one per cent) risk of death associated with the surgery itself. For most of the history of transplantation you weren’t allowed to donate a kidney to a stranger, because these people were assumed to be insane.
Why are people willing to do it, then?
I’ve asked the donors to unpack that moment between when they first heard about the need for organs and when they decided to donate one. A lot of us have that same information but don’t make the same decision. What I find really interesting is that the donors often have trouble understanding why someone
wouldn’t donate. Their decision is happening at an intuitive level – it’s not a rational cost-benefit analysis.
What do you think makes someone a ‘super altruist’?
We’ve carried out brain scans and behavioural tests with these altruists, and found that they’re better at recognising other people’s fearful facial expressions – they’re more attuned to the suffering of others. They also show more activity in their amygdala – a region of the brain that’s important for recognising fear. This makes sense, because when we see someone in distress we tend to have a spontaneous caring response, which in theory should give rise to altruistic behaviour.
These findings also tie in with what we know about people who are psychopathic, who have very little empathy and under-reactive amygdalas, and don’t recognise when others are frightened.
Are most of us selfish by nature?
Very few of us are fundamentally selfish. There’s a continuum of caring, from psychopaths to these altruists, and most of us are somewhere in the middle. The average person has a capacity for altruism towards strangers, but it’s not as robust or as frequent as the people I’ve studied. We care the most for those dear to us, and then the caring response drops off as we move outside our closest circle.
We don’t know exactly what makes someone an extraordinary altruist in the first place, but it’s likely to be a mixture of genetic and environmental factors – there’s no one thing, like a religion or family background, that links them all.
What can we learn from these people?
Just knowing these people exist gives you a different perspective on human nature. Helping strangers is becoming more common, and it’s been shown that people who help others, especially when it’s truly motivated by care, tend to be happier. Doing something altruistic is beneficial for everyone, even if it’s something small.
GOOD FOR NOTHING BY ABIGAIL MARSH OUT 19 OCTOBER (£14.99, ROBINSON).