intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Altruism – why we help others

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Interview: Why we help others
WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) — Why some of us help our fellow man while others stay selfish has long been a riddle to scientists. Now, Scott Huettel, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University and colleagues are beginning to form a picture of how our brains drive altruism.

In the Jan. 21 issue of Nature Neuroscience, Huettel and colleagues report a novel discovery: Altruism may be linked to the perception of a person’s actions, in addition to the potential for reward. United Press International talked to Huettel about his research.

Q. Has this question been studied before?

A. We’re one of the first. People have only (become) interested in the past few years as they are looking at complex traits like altruism and risk aversion. It’s called neuroeconomics — it refers to the idea that we can use neuroscience to understand ideas of economics.

Q. Is this possible because of MRI technology?

A. It’s more than that. People (have) realized they can look at more complex areas of behavior. The earlier functional MRIs were looking at memory and behavior. So it’s not just technology, but attitudes and practices changing.

Q. How did the experiment work?

A. We brought (45) people into a lab and had them pick a charity of choice. We put them into an MRI scanner and (asked them) to play a game in which they can earn money for themselves and for charity. We found a part of the brain — the posterior superior temporal cortex (or pSTC) — is more active when (the subjects) watched the computer play a game than (when) playing the game themselves.

That part of the brain is associated with aspects of perception, or the ability to see meaning or goals in a situation. (For instance), if you see a rock moving from place to place, (pSTC is activated if) someone picked it up, but not if it’s just rolling down the hill. It’s not just motion — it is motion caused by something.

We then gave every subject a questionnaire that asked them how often they helped others. We looked at how brain activation related to answers. Those who reported helping others more showed greater activation in that region when playing than watching — so that brain area was activated as a trait of altruism.

Q. Why did you choose a computer program?

A. We went in with the hypothesis that the most active area (is the one associated with) rewards in the brain. We chose a game that often can evoke activation in reward areas. We found something surprising: The area more associated with perception (was activated). Reward is not unimportant — it’s how rewarding you feel when giving to charity and how well you can interpret someone else’s intentions and goals that are important for altruism.

Q. This is a unique finding?

A. Yes. There has only been one other related study, where they found activation of the reward areas of the brain are more active when people gave money to charity.

Q. Why would the pSTC be activated?

A. It suggests a possible precursor — something necessary for altruism to occur. In order for you to behave altruistically, you need to be able to understand people have actions and goals. It’s not exactly empathy — it’s if you think of (people who need help) as that rolling rock, of being purposeless, there’s no real reason to help them.

Q. Has this part of the brain been well-researched?

A. This part of the brain has been well-researched on perceptual tasks, but we’re making the novel leap to altruism.

Q. Why is it difficult to define altruism?

A. It’s difficult to measure quantitatively. We measure it as taking an action to help others but as a cost to yourself — it’s hard to get that in the lab.

Q. Does it have an evolutionary role?

A. There’s a misconception that altruism is evolutionarily impossible, but nothing could be further from the truth. Altruism works to the extent that it helps genes become more prevalent in a population. If you help other people, you have to know that it’s going to help people who are like you in some way.

Q. Why is it important to understand altruism?

A. Generally, it’s another example (where) we can use neuroscience to understand complex aspects of human behavior. We don’t know all the answers, but (we’re) getting on the right track. Our specific result shows this idea of altruism can be complex — that (you don’t practice) altruism because it makes you feel good, but people may have differences in their brain in other things aside from rewards. These people have differences in brain that are associated with perceiving, intentions and goals.

Q. What is your next step?

A. We want to identify the development correlates of this. (We’ll) look in children to see whether we can get a handle of this area of the brain as it develops. Do children who have more adult-like functioning of this region tend to behave more adult-like in attempts to help other people?

Q. Has studying altruism made you a more giving person?

A. (Laughs.) It has made me think more about the reasons behind my giving.

Copyright 2007 by United Press International. All Rights Reserved.

Nat Neurosci. 2007 Feb;10(2):150-1. Epub 2007 Jan 21.
Altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency.Tankersley D, Stowe CJ, Huettel SA.
Brain Imaging and Analysis Center, Box 3918, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina 27710, USA.

Although the neural mechanisms underlying altruism remain unknown, empathy and its component abilities, such as the perception of the actions and intentions of others, have been proposed as key contributors. Tasks requiring the perception of agency activate the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), particularly in the right hemisphere. Here, we demonstrate that differential activation of the human pSTC during action perception versus action performance predicts self-reported altruism.

PMID: 17237779 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

The Problem of Altruism


In the event the cabin depressurizes, oxygen masks will automatically drop from the ceiling. Next always come the warning to make sure we put our own masks on before attempting to help our seatmates with theirs. This is part of an FAA-approved script, from which they never depart in making these presentations.

I imagine that this warning is aimed at the following scenario. The cabin depressurizes and anyone without a mask will become unconscious in moments. Your seatmates are children or otherwise helpless. If you attempt to help them without securing your own mask first, you will pass out without succeeding and everyone will die or become incapacitated. If you put your own mask on, your seatmates may pass out but will revive as soon as you have placed their masks on their faces. Thus, your attempt to help them will only succeed if you help yourself first.

It is marvellous to think that the danger of a human being assisting another before herself is so great that the FAA felt the need to warn against it on every airplane flight. The implication is that if the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, it is human nature–immediate, instinctive behavior– to assist your companions with their masks before you don yours. Such altruism in the face of danger reveals great compassion, for it is performed in a moment of terrible risk, at great potential cost to oneself, when no-one knows what the future holds.

Altruism and compassion are not synonyms. Compassion is an emotion, sharing the suffering of another. Altruism involves acting to help another. Not all compassion leads to altruism, and not all altruistic acts are performed because of compassion.

Altruism and compassion are linked to one another. A supposedly “compassionate” person who never performed a single altruistic act would lead us to doubt the person’s professions of sympathy. At the other end of the spectrum, an individual whose obsessive and continuous acts of altruism were performed in the absence of any compassionate feelings–perhaps motivated instead by a powerful sense of duty–would be an interesting moral study. One could argue, with Kant, that this last individual would be the most moral of beings, feeling no immediate pleasure from her acts.

Acts of altruism are easier to study than feelings of compassion. To know what anyone is feeling, we must usually rely on what we are told, while acts take place in the empirical world. Motivations may be ambiguous, but by studying the degree of cost and risk associated with the act, we may be able to detect the degree to which these acts are honestly motivated by compassion.

While few feel comfortable attacking compassion (just as equality, a related concept is off-limits), those who have no compassionate feelings of their own express themselves by attacking compassionate acts as misguided (just as those who oppose equality do so by arguing that particular programs, such as affirmative action, are wrong-headed.) If the question on the table is whether altruism is correct behavior, we can best answer by looking for the roots of altruism. If it is deeply implicated in our human natures, what gave rise to it and in our present complex circumstances, does it promote or interfere with human survival?

In his Evolution and Ethics, published in 1894, T.H. Huxley noted that every major human religion and most philosophies have independently arrived at the same conclusion: that the best way to conduct oneself is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In the Christian tradition, it is first mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy…
Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

If one accepts this as the word of God, as a rule graven in the stone of the universe, then the inquiry as to the source of altruism need go no further. But what if God is just a stopsign, meaning: “Stop asking questions here.” For example, if a child asks why an acquaintance has been killed in a car accident, or moved away, and in my answer I reference God, I have communicated no more information to the child than if I referenced Og or Dog. (Q: What does a dyslexic agnostic insomniac do all night? A: Lies awake, wondering if there is a dog.) Instead, I have provided a stopsign or doorstop, conveniently blocking further inquiry.

In the absence of God, the existence of altruism becomes a central problem of philosophy and later, of sociobiology. It becomes impossible to derive ethics from the empirical world; as Hume noted, you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”:

In every system of morality the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden instead of the usual copulation of propositions is and is not, there is no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason ought to be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.
Is it then that, in the absence of God, the strongest statement you can make is “I like morality”, which is essentially the same sort of statement as “I like ice cream”. Certainly, sociobiologists try to find an empirical basis for it. Their theories in present altruism as an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS) because reciprocal; if I rescue others related to me, the genes we hold in common are more likely to propagate through the population; I am also more likely to be rescued myself if I am ever in trouble, so I will have a chance of having a greater number of offspring than a more selfish person. Of course, sociobiology supports a sort of Manichean world-view, as it envisions selfish strategies that work as well as altruistic ones. For example, some men maximize their chances of distributing their genes by investing a lot of time and energy in a few children they have in a faithful monogamous relationship, while others pursue an equally successful strategy of having more numerous offspring with multiple partners and investing nothing in any of them.

Sooner or later, most discussions of biological and social origins of morality get around to The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game theory parable which appears to demonstrate conclusively that we all benefit more over time from reciprocal altruism than we would from selfishness. This is intuitively true and explains a good deal about the way we live; though living in groups is not the only ESS (many animals lead very solitary lives except during mating season), it is the one the human race has chosen, and reciprocal altruism must certainly be the primary factor. Philosopher Peter Singer, in The Expanding Circle, gives a nice example of prehistoric man discovering that two hunters can best bring down a sabretooth tiger without injury if they help each other. Safety in numbers is in fact mutual assistance.

Following this path, one can place human behavior in three buckets:

I regard you as a means to an end–my own survival and satisfaction. I will exploit you in any way that suits me, including killing and eating you if I am starving. I will never help you because there is no benefit in it for me.

I regard you as a means to an end, but in a more enlightened, forward-looking way. Foregoing immediate payoffs, I now understand that in a series of interactions over time, we can both become richer, safer and happier if we help one another.

I regard you as an end in yourself. I will help you in ways that are of no conceivable benefit to me and which even put me at risk.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma involves a binary switch–betrayal or cooperation–which results in the first two states described above. In the P.D., utter selfishness is “betrayal”, and enlightened selfishness is “cooperation”. The PD fails to explain self-sacrifice, describing it merely as the act of a “sucker” (the game’s worst result, when one player cooperates while the other betrays him, is called “the sucker’s payoff”).
While sociobiology, evolution and game theory all provide some interesting insight into altruism, no such approach can lead to a “final theory”. Despite the volumes that have been written since trying to root morality in science, Huxley was right when he wrote in 1894 that

“it is none the less true that, since law and morals are restraints upon the struggle for existence between men in society, the ethical process is in opposition to the principle of the cosmic process, and tends to the suppression of the qualities best fitted for success in that struggle.”
In other words, the type of altruism that represents the real conundrum of philosophy and science–the disinterested altruism that regards other people as ends in themselves–can never be fully clarified by any biological explanation, since it so clearly opposes all biological and natural processes. Disinterested altruism, like certain other human activities, flies in the face of evolutionary theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Philosophers, scientists and the religious all share a desire for certainty; the first two find it in detailed explanations, while the religious take comfort in their stopsign. However, if you accept the premise that morality is a type of fuzzy thinking and that this is natural and desirable, a good deal of the intellectual tumult goes away.

In part, the question of the origin of altruism may simply be the wrong question. Science is often irresponsibly reductive of its subjects of study; anyone who loves to watch birds today is shocked to learn that the proper exercise of nineteenth century ornithology almost always consisted of shooting the subject. Dissecting the brain can only give us very limited information about the soul, and biological or social explanations of love, courtship or marriage fail to capture the full human impact of the phenomena. All these centuries after Hume, we are still looking to give the “ought” a firmer underpinning. Even if morality is completely normative, and not the least bit empirical, there is still a completely valid line of inquiry: How “ought” we to live? There is no shame in the fact that the answer is a fuzzy one.

Altruism is the ultimate beauty of being human. Singer says:

“Beginning to reason is like stepping onto an escalator that leads upward and out of sight. Once we take the first step, the distance to be travelled is independent of our will and we cannot know in advance where we shall end.”
As the title of his book, The Expanding Circle, implies, Singer traces a progression from love of our spouse and offspring, to concern for our neighbors, all members of our nation, of our race, of humanity, and finally, all living things:

Ethical reasoning, once begun, pushes against our initially limited ethical horizons, leading us always toward a more universal point of view.
Similarly, selfless altruism is simply enlightened selfishness further up the escalator, just as enlightened selfishness itself is selfishness further up the escalator. There is a fuzzy progression where behavior, which originally developed with one end in mind, comes to share new motivations, and sometimes loses its original motivation entirely. For example, pleasurable sex certainly originated because creatures that enjoyed copulation had more offspring. Human sex today serves many other ends completely unrelated to childbearing, including sharing of intimacy, expression of love, mutual reassurance, antidote against loneliness and the like. Altruism is also likely to be a rewarding behavior almost completely unhooked from its original biological motivation. If we felt good saving our own child, why should we not feel good saving someone else’s?

Behaviors that enhance our likelihood of distributing our genes are more likely to occur if they also make us feel good–so individuals who feel good about such actions will have more offspring. Helping people feels good, feels right, irrespective of any cost-benefit analysis. Industrial accidents in which ten or fifteen workers are overcome trying to rescue the initial victim from the fumes, or fires in which several firefighters are hurt trying to rescue a child, cannot be justified by any cost-benefit analysis known to us.

This is where the sociobiologists stumble into complete absurdity. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, wrestles amusingly with the problem of “suicidal altruism,” in which an individual dies rescuing another. After calculating the degrees of kinship and the circumstances under which saving another will pass on at least as many of your genes as you could have passed on yourself, he concludes:

A gene for suicidally saving five cousins would not become more numerous in the population, but a gene for saving five brothers or ten first cousins would. The minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents), or more than four half-siblings (or uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren) or more than eight first cousins, etc.
But naturally when a child is drowning and we jump in to save it, it is not the result of a calculation of its degree of consanguinity. We do it because something emotional in ourselves, something admirable and which precedes reason, immediately, and without any calculation of which we are aware, concludes it is the right thing to do. It feels good. It is what we would want someone else to do for us.

It is this instinct that we refer to when we talk about a “moral compass” which some people have and others lack. The person who does not stop to think, who rushes to rescue, is the person most of us would like to be. We honor such behavior even when we cannot explain it, even when we are unable to emulate it ourselves. The man who jumps off a brdge to rescue a woman struggling in the freezing water below is a hero, not a fool, and the extreme risk to his own life, incurred for a stranger, is completely admirable. We mutely sense that if we could all live like this, the world would be better.

Like about altruism, there is nothing empirical about beauty, yet we have wide ranging agreement that certain things are beautiful. Altruism is beautiful.



Written by huehueteotl

April 10, 2007 at 2:31 pm

Posted in Arts, Psychology, Science

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  1. […] Altruism – why we help others Tagged with: generalized reciprocity, non-human animals, rats, reciprocal altruism […]

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