Where does all the altruism go?

By Brian Gendron, Ph.D.
Published January 10, 2015

So much hate and violence in the news! This comes in the wake of multiple ‘terrorist’ attacks in Paris, France, but this is only part of a consistent theme in the times we live in today. It seems like one minute we get this sense that “we’ve come such a long way,” in terms of bias, prejudice, and fear of diversity. In the United States, for instance, women and ethnic minorities now have more opportunities than ever before, in a variety of fields. Yet, we are reminded again and again that the world is packed with hatred and cruelty. Unfortunately, this may never go away.

Right from the start, we are equipped with basic emotions. Psychologists debate exactly how many there are, but at birth we feel something akin to joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. These are hardwired into the human brain, as is the case with many other living things. Our innate animal instinct coupled with experiences of socialization brings about a host of unpredictable, exciting complexities, in addition to sad and deplorable behaviors.

Today, we are learning that humans are also equipped, very early on, to care for others. There are some pretty great experiments (see the work by Warneken & Tomasello, below), demonstrating that unbiased altruism and cooperation are found among toddlers, and arguably even among primates.

Where, then, does it go over time? If, as a newborn, we are willing to help a stranger for no apparent reason aside from knowing it will help the person accomplish their goal, does this go away? And if yes, why does it go away? Where does it go? Also, is everyone experiencing this to the same degree?

It must simply be a product of experience. We know that familiarity brings about attraction. We are better at recognizing faces of people within our own ethnicity; we like songs on the radio more if we’ve heard them prior, etc. So, perhaps at birth we are something of a tabula rasa (blank slate) as the famous philosopher John Locke wrote, back in the 17th century. Upon each of us, ‘society’ imprints fear and hate. But, if this is the case, where did society first acquire these themes of anti-love?

Today, it is in the best interest of a human to live with other humans – division of labor and all that. Why do we also acquire disdain for those in the out-groups? Are the others seen as a threat to our resources? Does contempt bring about an evolutionary advantage? If there’s only so much good stuff to go around, are we simply ensuring that our loved ones get some, before the wretched ‘others’ try and steal it away?

In 1954, Muzafer Sherif conducted the Robbers Cave Experiment, which is now considered a classic in the study of psychology. A dozen or so 12-year-old boys, all strangers, were brought together for a camping expedition in the wilderness. The group of boys naturally formed a hierarchical social structure, playing games and completing tasks, under the spontaneously adopted name the “Rattlers.” What they didn’t know at first was that a similar group of boys called the “Eagles” had also been camping nearby.

When the groups were brought together for competitions, they automatically developed varying degrees of hostile attitudes towards members of the other group. Not surprising—studies show people will develop these negative attitudes over nothing more than a coin flip as cited here, in a peer-reviewed study by Tajfel.

The remarkable part came when the researchers devised tasks that could only be completed through altruism and cooperation between both groups. In one scenario, ‘vandals’ had cut off the supply of drinking water and it subsequently took all of the boys working together to solve the problem. Once successful, Rattlers and Eagles celebrated together, setting aside their differences and thus forging non-hostile relationships to build upon in the future.

More questions than answers have been posed here. However, if there’s a lesson to be learned, perhaps it’s that we were all created with inherent feelings of love, altruism, and cooperation. Even though the world around us may try and push these feelings aside, change is possible.

Take us out, Bob:

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About the Author

has a Ph.D. in Psychology and enjoys writing in the third person.

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