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Your good = my bad: When helping hurts

By Barbara Oakley

In a contrapuntal coincidence, November 13—World Kindness Day—coincided with the publication of Pathological Altruism.  Even pre-publication, this seemingly mild-mannered edited volume has served outsize duty in rattling the very foundations of our national culture of caring.

Mark Twain House and Museum controller Donna Gregor, for example, recently hit the news in a big way because she admitted to embezzling $1 million over eight years from one of Hartford, Connecticut’s major cultural institutions, where Twain had lived after the Civil War.  Gregor’s lawyer and her psychologist cited pathological altruism as a reason that Gregor, a 54-year old grandmother, should be spared prison.  Gregor was compelled to steal, they argue, by her obsession to help her deeply troubled, extended family.

Pathological altruism is, in a great sense, the study of the onramps to the well-intentioned road to hell. That is, it is the study of truly well-meaning behavior that worsens instead of improves a situation, or creates more problems than it solves.  Does the concept of pathological altruism then provide a license to steal—as long as it was done for a good cause?  Not so fast.  If Gregor personally profited from the embezzlement, instead of or in addition to, serving as a sort of nepotistic Robin Hood, she’s very probably a con artist.  Pathological altruism distinguishes such obviously self-serving behavior—and in any case, does not excuse it.

In fact, the new research area of pathological altruism provides a valuable new scientifically-based framework for understanding—albeit not justifying—some of the most important recent events now dominating the news.  Public union members protest that their salaries aren’t high enough?  On the face of it, their arguments sound reasonable—who could be against reasonable wages for teachers and police?  But by the time you add up all the “reasonable” wages, from hundreds of different unions, ignoring the union’s well-meaning attempts to protect their members, which block meaningful reform and allow for a wide range of incompetence and malfeasance, a state could become bankrupt.  In fact, by focusing on the individual “obviously” beneficial outcomes for each of the public unions, the much bigger, far worse outcome—a bankrupt state—is missed.  It’s rather like saying yes to every request for cookies from a small child—and ending up with an obese adult.  In just such a fashion, underpinned with many similar pathologically altruistic financial choices, the European Union is falling into disarray.

The concept of pathological altruism even explains why the concept of pathological altruism has itself been attacked.  Who, you might ask, could assail the common sense idea that self-righteous individuals can get carried away by their own convictions, losing sight of the harm they might cause through their efforts to help others?  Why, precisely those self-righteous sorts who form one aspect of pathological altruism!   These happy helpers are certain, at the deepest core of their being, that they are helping—the idea of objective analysis of the results of their efforts leaves them a queasy feeling.  In this sense, altruism has become a central dogma of a new stealth religion—religions, remember, are often based on dogma that is not to be questioned.

Modern psychology has made much hay of the fact that altruistic acts increase our own happiness in a profound way.  But psychologists ignore the corollary to this idea—that in today’s increasingly narcissistic world, many are focused on “altruism” that makes them feel good, and that allows them to ostentatiously flaunt their do-gooder status.  Such altruism isn’t really altruism at all—it is simply self-serving ego stroking.  True altruism often involves making those tough choices which include saying no to seemingly benign choices.  This, indeed, should be a major topic of conversation around World Kindness Day.

Barbara Oakley is an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. Her work focuses on the complex relationship between social behavior and neuroscience. Along with Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Wilson, she is the editor of Pathological Altruism.

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