Oxford University Press will release the curiously titled psychology survey Pathological Altruism on Dec. 19, “the first book to explore the negative aspects of altruism.” The Tip Sheet asked Barbara Oakley, one of the volume’s four editors, to explain the concept that’s been taking scientists, economists, and book reviewers by surprise.
Give us the layman's explanation of "pathological altruism." What is it?
Pathological altruism is an evolutionary oxymoron. What do I mean by this? Altruism is underpinned by traits and behaviors, such as empathy, that evolved to help us humans function smoothly together. But altruism has an oxymoronic flip side—sometimes our well-meaning attempts to help others can make matters worse. As Pathological Altruism reveals, this can happen far more often than you might think.
Do you have a story or a case study that illustrates how altruism can be harmful?
The same parent who might run into a burning house to save her child can be the parent who “helicopters” in to a university and threatens a lawsuit because her darling son received a well-deserved D on his report card. Altruism can be beneficial at every level of society—a brother’s love, a neighbor willing to lend a helping hand, a philanthropist’s endowment. But in the same way, pathologies of altruism can be harmful in many ways, at many levels. The Germans followed Hitler not because they believed he was evil, but because they believed that by following him, they were doing something good.
My most recent book, Cold-Blooded Kindness (Prometheus), uses a true crime story as a literary vehicle for exploring how our own feelings of empathy and caring for others can be used as a manipulative tool. This is a critical concept. It can be deeply empowering to learn that sometimes it’s normal and healthy to turn off our feelings of empathy—that handling our feelings for others in a responsible fashion can allow us, and those we love, to live healthier, happier lives.
To which disorders can selflessness gone awry contribute?
It’s important to realize that selflessness gone awry is not necessarily affiliated with any diagnosable disorder. In fact, because of society’s emphasis on the benefits of altruism, empathy, and caring for others, the problems affiliated with these seemingly beneficial traits have been largely ignored by science.
Pathological altruism is associated with disorders and conditions such as anorexia, the amorphous traits of codependency, animal hoarding, depression, excessive and misplaced guilt, and self-righteousness. It is also seen in suicide bombing—the one common trait of suicide bombers is their sense of altruism for those who share their ideology. Pathologies of altruism can even underlie genocide. A Rwandan Hutu, for example, didn’t wake up in the morning and think “Gee, I’m feeling totally evil today—I’m going to go out and kill Tutsis.” No—instead, he thought—“I’ve got to protect my family and people against those cockroaches, the Tutsis.” In other words, it was feelings of altruism, as well as hatred, that impelled many Hutus to kill.
What factors/conditions in an individual's personality most contribute to altruism becoming warped?
The road to pathologies of altruism can take a number of different paths. Warped altruism can arise from excessive feelings of empathy and caring for others—some people are simply naturally hypersensitive. Or it can arise from self-righteous, inflexible feelings of certitude—we may jump to conclusions and be absolutely convinced that we are helping others, and be unable to look pragmatically at the results of our “help.”
Our sense of kindness, in other words, can sometimes blind us, allowing us to be manipulated, or simply to make faulty knee-jerk decisions that ultimately worsen the very situation they were meant to solve. This is a powerful and important idea—one that is vital for us to understand if we truly mean to help others.