We don't think we'd ever heard of Oakland University, a second-tier institution in suburban Rochester, Mich., but Barbara Oakley, an associate professor in engineering, may help put the place on the map. Earlier this week Oakland's Oakley published a fascinating paper, "Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism," in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The paper is a concise summary of an innovative idea that informed Oakley's two recent books: "Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just..." (Prometheus, 2011) and "Pathological Altruism" (Oxford University Press, 2012). The former has been described as a true-crime thriller; the latter is a dense, 496-page collection of 31 academic papers, edited by Oakley and three other scholars.
The PNAS paper has the virtue of brevity, running only eight pages despite including 110 footnotes. Yet it's remarkable for its breadth and depth. It introduces a simple yet versatile idea that could revolutionize scientific and social thought.
Oakley defines pathological altruism as "altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm." A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, "an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable." Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn't pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is.
As the latter example suggests, the idea of "codependency" is a subset of pathological altruism. "Feelings of empathic caring . . . appear to lie at the core of . . . codependent behavior," Oakley notes. People in codependent relationships genuinely care for each other, but that empathy leads them to do destructive things.
Yet according to Oakley, "the vital topic of codependency has received almost no hard-science research focus, leaving 'research' to those with limited or no scientific research qualifications." That is to say, it is largely the domain of pop psychology. "It is reasonable to wonder if the lack of scientific research involving codependency may relate to the fact that there is a strong academic bias against studying possible negative outcomes of empathy."
That is a provocative charge, and one that Oakley levels more generally at the scientific establishment:
Both altruism and empathy have rightly received an extraordinary amount of research attention. This focus has permitted better characterization of these qualities and how they might have evolved. However, it has also served to reify their value without realistic consideration about when those qualities contain the potential for significant harm.
Part of the reason that pathologies of altruism have not been studied extensively or integrated into the public discourse appears to be fear that such knowledge might be used to discount the importance of altruism. Indeed, there has been a long history in science of avoiding paradigm-shifting approaches, such as Darwinian evolution and acknowledgment of the influence of biological factors on personality, arising in part from fears that such knowledge somehow would diminish human altruistic motivations. Such fears always have proven unfounded. However, these doubts have minimized scientists' ability to see the widespread, vitally important nature of pathologies of altruism. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, "Morality binds and blinds."
"Empathy," Oakley notes, "is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others." It also can produce bad public policy:
Ostensibly well-meaning governmental policy promoted home ownership, a beneficial goal that stabilizes families and communities. The government-sponsored enterprises Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allowed less-than-qualified individuals to receive housing loans and encouraged more-qualified borrowers to overextend themselves. Typical risk–reward considerations were marginalized because of implicit government support. The government used these agencies to promote social goals without acknowledging the risk or cost. When economic conditions faltered, many lost their homes or found themselves with properties worth far less than they originally had paid. Government policy then shifted . . . the cost of this "altruism" to the public, to pay off the too-big-to-fail banks then holding securitized subprime loans. . . . Altruistic intentions played a critical role in the development and unfolding of the housing bubble in the United States.
Mixing two ideologies in the same presentation my good Frog.
'ALL THINGS ARE SELFISH'
Ever just do something for someone because it makes 'you' fell good?
Human success is greatly because of this. Even if you go into the mountains and live a hermit. You will bring artifacts/tools, with you because of this dynamic.
Last paragraph @ post here: Now we are talking of forced fake altruism which is actually for the gain of a few.
The money power. Total BS and I with you. Watch 'Inside Job" It's on Net Flix to see the motivation of the housing crisis.
psychoAynRandolize that ;)
"Empathy," Oakley notes, "is not a uniformly positive attribute. I strongly disagree! It is one of the highest and noble human attributes! Voluntary is at the root and a rational thinking person knows that you can help anyone if you can't help your self. Shirt off your back You just might get cold. Don't throw pearls to swine comes to thought.
At any rate interesting post. I agree with much, but not buying the money power spin.
I rest assured that many intelligent posts will follow ;)!