The profound benefits of altruism in modern society are self-evident. However, the potential hurtful aspects of altruism have gone largely unrecognized in scientific inquiry. This is despite the fact that virtually all forms of altruism are associated with tradeoffs--some of enormous importance and sensitivity--and notwithstanding that examples of pathologies of altruism abound. Presented here are the mechanistic bases and potential ramifications of pathological altruism, that is, altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm. A basic conceptual approach toward the quantification of altruism bias is presented. Guardian systems and their over arching importance in the evolution of cooperation are also discussed. Concepts of pathological altruism, altruism bias, and guardian systems may help open many new, potentially useful lines of inquiry and provide a framework to begin moving toward a more mature, scientifically informed understanding of altruism and cooperative behavior.
The psychoanalytic literature on altruism is sparse, although much has been written on this topic from a sociobiological perspective. Freud (1917) first described the concept in \"Libido Theory and Narcissism.\" In 1946 Anna Freud coined the term \"altruistic surrender\" to describe the psychodynamics of altruistic behavior in a group of inhibited individuals who were neurotically driven to do good for others. The usefulness and clinical applicability of this formulation, in conjunction with the frequent coexistence of masochism and altruism, encouraged psychoanalysts to regard all forms of altruism as having masochistic underpinnings. Since then, there has been a conflation of the two concepts in much of the analytic literature. This paper reexamines the psychoanalytic understanding of altruism and proposes an expansion of the concept to include a normal form. Five types of altruism are described: protoaltruism, generative altruism, conflicted altruism, pseudoaltruism, and psychotic altruism. Protoaltruism has biological roots and can be observed in animals. In humans, protoaltruism includes maternal and paternal nurturing and protectiveness. Generative altruism is the nonconflictual pleasure in fostering the success and/or welfare of another. Conflicted altruism is generative altruism that is drawn into conflict, but in which the pleasure and satisfaction of another (a proxy) is actually enjoyed. Pseudoaltruism originates in conflict and serves as a defensive cloak for underlying sadomasochism. Psychotic altruism is defined as the sometimes bizarre forms of caretaking behavior and associated self-denial seen in psychotic individuals, and often based on delusion. We consider Anna Freud's altruistic surrender to combine features of both conflict-laden altruism and pseudoaltruism. Two clinical illustrations are discussed.
Many studies have linked volunteerism (a popular form of altruism) to happiness, better physical health, and increased mental health. One such study followed a group of mothers over a 30-year period. Over the course of the three decades, 36% of women who routinely volunteered experienced a major illness. Of those who volunteered rarely or never, 52% experienced a major illness.
Unselfishly doing nice things for others sounds like a great thing, right But too much altruism can actually be a bad thing. Pathological altruism is when people take altruism to the extreme and hit a point when their actions cause more harm than good. Some common examples of pathological altruism include animal hoarding and the depression often seen in healthcare professionals.
On the other hand, there are many who reject the social exchange theory. They argue that kind acts serving selfish gains fall into another category altogether. Such a category could be egoism (benefitting the self), collectivism (benefitting a group), or principlism (to uphold a moral principle). These same people argue that altruism based on empathy is always truly altruistic.
Pathological altruism is a construct describing the willingness of an individual to place the needs of others above him- or herself to the point of causing harm, whether physical, psychological, or both, to the purported altruist. Codependency can be viewed as a form of pathological altruism. The study of codependency has been hampered by limited agreement as to what it is, whether it even exists, and a lack of validated psychometric instruments to study it. This chapter suggests codependency is best viewed as a behavior and not a diagnosis, facilitated by the inability to tolerate negative affect. This chapter will review the concept of codependency, comment on its roots in empathy and altruism, explore its potential neurobiological, genetic and evolutionary basis, and make suggestions for future research.
In a remarkably interesting new paper, \"Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism,\" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oakland University systems engineer Barbara Oakley argues that intentions to help people all too often hurt them. Unintended harm is the outcome of she what calls pathological altruism. She defines pathological altruism \"as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.\" In her study Oakley explores the psychological and evolutionary underpinnings of empathy and altruism and how they can go wrong. It turns out that pathological altruism is a pervasive problem affecting public policy.
Is it possible that some social advocacy and social justice efforts result in the same types of pernicious effects on a societal scale so that efforts to build cooperation instead inhibit it We often do not know, because well-meaning advocates have made raising those questions a taboo. Framing issues in the form of pathologies of altruism and altruism bias forms a mechanism for breaking through the taboo and making dispassionate studies of when helping is truly helping and when it is contributing inadvertent harm.
However, introducing a pathological altruist into the dilemma can wreak havoc in the cultural dynamics of small, tight-knit communities. Pathological altruists are masters at mustering social loyalty, obedience, and fealty. Their very presence and ability to organize and foster cooperation benefits the collective community even if better opportunities exist for individuals.
Pathological altruism can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.
In short, the fact that pursuing short term happiness sometimes, maybe even often leads to negative longer term consequences, it seems to me, has little to do with either pathology or altruism. One reason for this is that indulging many of our short term appetites have long-term negative consequences, a topic I and others have discussed in various places. Moreover, because the world is complex, sometimes when we try to help, we harm instead. So, yes, people make mistakes. For instance, one mistake that a person might make is confusing a new idea for one that has been around for a very long time. These things do happen.
In other words, the pathologically altruistic have a sort of tunnel vision, a way of looking at the world around them that lends toward destructive self-sacrifice. Some already know it, others simply should.
A working definition of a pathological altruist then might be a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts but who (in a fashion that can be reasonably anticipated) harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help; or a person who, in the course of helping one person or group, inflicts reasonably foreseeable harm to others beyond the person or group being helped; or a person who in reasonably anticipatory way becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions. The attempted altruism, in other words, results in objectively foreseeable and unreasonable harm to the self, to the target of the altruism, or to others beyond the target.
Power lines tend to fall along color lines, and prejudice and ignorance reinforce the us-versus-them structure voluntourism relies on. Over time, the guilt that drives the urge to invent differences, and to use those differences as excuses to exercise power, becomes pathological.
The benefits of altruism and empathy are obvious. These qualities are so highly regarded and embedded in both secular and religious societies that it seems almost heretical to suggest they can cause harm. Like most good things, however, altruism can be distorted or taken to an unhealthy extreme. Pathological Altruism presents a number of new, thought-provoking theses that explore a range of hurtful effects of altruism and empathy.
One of the most valuable characteristics of science is that, despite the obvious imperfection of biases in ostensibly objective scientists, it provides a potential mechanism for overcoming those biases. At the same time, altruism bias may be one of the most pernicious, hard-to-eradicate biases in science, because it involves even-handed examination of what groups of seemingly objective rational scientists subliminally have come to regard as sacred.
Potential Steps to Address Altruism Bias in Academic Disciplines and the Scientific Enterprise. There are active steps that could be taken to prevent the potential for altruism bias within the scientific enterprise. In all-important journal review processes, for example, mixed panels of reviewers (e.g., cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists reviewing social psychological papers) could become standard practice (105). Doctoral programs can place heavier emphasis on the scientific method and careful use of statistics so that graduate students, who are themselves future journal reviewers, can learn to spot problematic submissions more easily and perhaps be less likely to conduct problematic research themselves. The many aspects of altruism bias and the problems as well as benefits of empathy can be much more broadly discussed and emphasized in textbooks, beginning even in high school and the early years of college. Disciplines heavily involved in social advocacy, whose primary goal involves truly benefitting others, should be among the first to take interest in incorporating these concepts and approaches into research and training programs, editorial efforts, and textbooks. 59ce067264