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

Focus-Science and Technology - - Out There -

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.


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