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Giving Till it Hurts: An Interview with Barbara Oakley

The Freeman

Barbara Oakley is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers and a recent vice president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. She has recently shaken up the academic community and the popular press by suggesting that there are limits to being a do-gooder, and that an inability to see beyond good intentions to adverse consequences may be more than a moral failing or an intellectual shortcoming. We are lucky to have her speak about her work to The Freeman.

The Freeman: When I first saw the term “pathological altruism” it was, for me, as if the two words were like peanut butter and jelly—rather like “enlightened” and “self-interest.” But can you give our readers the basic idea?

Oakley: It’s really the simplest idea around—pathological altruism is merely altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm. Altruism, in other words, isn’t an unmitigated good. In fact, it can have horrific consequences. The old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is all too true. What the concept of pathological altruism does is to put the aphorism’s essence onto scientific footing, so we can examine it more carefully and truly understand its effects.

Altruism arises in large part from our pre-wired sense of empathy for others. We often don’t realize that our empathy can trick us—it can be like an emotional, rather than optical, illusion. You feel a knee-jerk flash of wanting to make someone feel better, and you can end up doing that person a disservice. Whether you give an alcoholic the drink he craves, or a student a high grade she hasn’t earned, or you encourage truly unaffordable home ownership or taking out of student loans that will result in a lifetime of indentured service—all of these actions can feel like they’re helping, but they truly aren’t. 

The concept of pathological altruism doesn’t imply that altruism itself is problematic. Instead, this concept illustrates that both empathic emotion and rationality are important in truly attempting to perform an altruistic act. Sometimes the best thing to do to help someone else is not what your knee-jerk empathetic feelings are telling you to do. In a culture where we’ve been increasingly taught—virtually indoctrinated—to “follow our passion” and to believe that empathy is a “universal solvent” that will disentangle all difficulties, pathologies of altruism can flourish. The unwitting result of this kind of altruism is detrimental for everyone.

The Freeman: What is altruism bias?

Oakley: Altruism bias is the tendency to let our underlying judgment about whether something is good or bad flavor seemingly rational decisions. We see this type of thing playing out in politics all the time. If you support the president and his political party, then you’ll find a way to generally support the president’s decisions. Those very same decisions, if made by a president of the opposite political party, can arouse profound antagonism. 

If you want an aphorism for altruism bias, it’s “all’s fair in love and war.” My sense is that eventually, we’ll actually be able to see the brain’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down heuristic, which is a nutshell version of altruism bias, in medical-imaging experiments. In other words, we’ll be able to see how that sense of “this is good” can shape subsequent neural processing. Actually, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with neuroimaging experiments that demonstrate this. 

The Freeman: How does pathological altruism relate to our popular psychological ideas about codependency?

Oakley: Codependency is a big problem in this country. One single book—Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie, has sold over five million copies. Yet there is virtually no credible scientific research in this area. Why? My suspicion is that altruism bias leads scientists away from studying possible negative effects of empathy. In the edited book Pathological Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2012), psychiatrist Mike McGrath and I explored how little we truly know about codependency, and how scientists put themselves through virtual contortions to avoid studying anything to do with the phenomenon. 

The Freeman: To what extent do you believe pathological altruism infects cultural mores, political discourse, and contemporary politics more generally?

Oakley: Modern secular society members believe they are protected by their atheistic worldviews from religious superstitions. But evolutionary psychology has shown that we seem to have a biologically based propensity for spirituality. If you throw away organized religion, it doesn’t mean that the pull for spirituality just disappears. It is simply shifted to something else. The central spiritual tenet of modern atheistic creeds seems to be that altruism is always good. Actually, modern atheistic, progressive thought often seems to share much in common with religious fundamentalism, right down to shunning and demonizing of those who don’t think in the way they deem proper.

Altruism has become a sacred, unquestionably good dogma in today’s secular society, and that has profoundly shaped cultural mores, political discourse, and contemporary politics. Because altruism is sacred, as soon as you might question someone who says they are being altruistic, you unwittingly provoke a visceral, deeply religious reaction. 

The idea that altruism is always good is obviously false. There are thousands of ways to see this, ranging from giving too many cookies to a child, to philanthropy that helps horrific dictators, to genocide. But because people have heard little except of the benefits of empathy and altruism as they have grown up, it’s very hard for them to see beyond the current paradigm—altruism is always good. People aren’t taught that balanced rationality as well as emotion is important in truly helping others. Your emotions may tug at you, for example, to give your alcoholic brother that bottle he is begging for, but truly, acting against the tug of your emotion in this case is the best thing to do.

The Freeman: Some less-reflective partisans may be tempted to write headlines like “Left-liberalism is a disease, concludes bioengineer.” What sort of perspective can you offer for those so tempted?

Oakley: I’m laughing. Actually, pathological altruism is an equal-opportunity offender of a concept. If we were now living in a society run by religious mullahs, concepts of pathological altruism would provide a powerful tool for understanding why the general population would be applauding the death by torture of free-speech advocates. I think that less-reflective partisans who might write such a patently false headline would themselves be exemplifying altruism bias. These partisans would be happy to mischaracterize ideas of pathological altruism in order to protect what they subliminally regard as the sacred nature of altruism. 

The Freeman: More than anything else, it seems you have set out to sketch a research agenda. What disciplines or subdisciplines do you think are best equipped to unpack pathological altruism and why? 

Oakley: Oh golly, the best disciplines to unpack pathological altruism should be psychology, sociology, and anthropology. But these disciplines have shown themselves to be among the worst offenders in demonstrating pathological altruism. Read Napoleon Chagnon’s sadly magnificent book Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. Chagnon’s magnum opus gives a great sense of how unhinged some academic disciplines have become. Academics in the social sciences are presently so enraptured in the “empathy and altruism is always good” mindset that I really don’t know how it could be easily changed. Textbooks, teaching methods, research methods—a whole academic culture is caught up in an almost revivalist agenda about empathy and altruism, all emerging from altruism bias. Personally, I don’t think change will happen until we receive some dramatic cultural shock that allows reality to peep through the Pollyanna perspectives. Even when such shocks arise, it’s still all too easy to pretend it isn’t happening, it’ll all go away, or it’s really someone else’s fault. 

I think neuroscience at present perhaps offers the best hope for the study of pathological altruism and altruism bias—but only if neuroscientists can reach beyond their usual academic silos and talk to thinkers outside the insular, often close-minded world of academia. 

The Freeman: Do you believe pathological altruism can explain many of the horrors of the twentieth century? If so, why?

Oakley: Philosopher Eric Hoffer wondered, in his book The True Believer, how people could be so caught up in mass movements that lead to so much horror. We need wonder no more. People often become entranced and entrenched in these horrific movements because, at the time, they believe they are helping others. Hitler himself noted that it was when he appealed to people’s best traits—their sense of caring and hope for others—that he had them. 

Altruism is truly the best of human characteristics—and simultaneously the source of our worst.

The Freeman: Dr. Oakley, thank you very much for talking with us.

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