Exploring the Roots of Extraordinary Altruism.

By Mia Diaz | Published on  

I’ll never forget the night that a stranger saved my life. I was driving back to my home in Tacoma, Washington, down the Interstate 5 freeway, when a little dog darted out in front of my car. I swerved to avoid it, but hit the dog anyway. That sent my car into a fishtail, and then a spin across the freeway, until finally it wound up in the fast lane of the freeway faced backwards into oncoming traffic, and then the engine died.

I was sure in that moment that I was about to die too, but then a man appeared out of nowhere. He ran across four lanes of freeway traffic in the dark to save my life. After he got my car working again and got me back to safety, he drove off again without even telling me his name. I’m pretty sure I forgot to say thank you.

The event left me shaken up, obviously, but it also left me with a burning, gnawing need to understand why he did it, what forces within him caused him to make the choice that I owe my life to, to risk his own life to save the life of a stranger.

That night changed the course of my life to some degree. I became a psychology researcher, and I’ve devoted my work to understanding the human capacity to care for others. Where does it come from, and how does it develop? These questions are really important to understanding basic aspects of human social nature.

A lot of people believe that human nature is fundamentally selfish, that we’re only ever really motivated by our own welfare. But if that’s true, why do some people, like the stranger who rescued me, do selfless things like helping other people at enormous risk and cost to themselves? Answering this question requires exploring the roots of extraordinary acts of altruism and what might make people who engage in such acts different than other people.

The experience of a stranger saving my life had a profound impact on me. It made me question the roots of extraordinary altruism and why some people, like that stranger, engage in selfless acts to help others even at great personal risk.

Many people believe that humans are fundamentally selfish, motivated only by their own welfare. However, the actions of that stranger, who ran across four lanes of freeway traffic to bring me back to safety, meet the most stringent definition of altruism, a voluntary, costly behavior motivated by the desire to help another individual.

To understand the causes of such extraordinary acts of altruism, I became a psychology researcher, devoting my work to understanding the human capacity to care for others. What are the roots of this capacity? How does it develop, and what are the extreme forms it can take?

One possible answer is compassion, which is a key driver of altruism. However, why do some people seem to have more compassion than others? Could it be that the brains of highly altruistic people are different in fundamental ways?

To explore this question, I started by studying the opposite end of the spectrum: psychopaths. Psychopathy is a developmental disorder that results in a personality that is cold, uncaring, and prone to engage in antisocial and sometimes very violent behavior.

Research has shown that psychopaths pretty reliably exhibit three characteristics: insensitivity to signs that other people are in distress, difficulty recognizing fearful facial expressions, and smaller amygdalas, the part of the brain that is the most important for recognizing fearful expressions.

But my main interest is not understanding why people don’t care about others. It’s understanding why they do. Could extraordinary altruism, the opposite of psychopathy in terms of compassion and the desire to help other people, emerge from a brain that is also the opposite of psychopathy? As it turns out, all three things are true.

Through testing a population of truly extraordinary altruists who have given one of their own kidneys to a complete stranger, I discovered that their brains have certain special characteristics. They are better at recognizing other people’s fear, and their amygdalas are more reactive to these expressions, possibly larger than average as well.

Together, these findings suggest the existence of something like a caring continuum in the world anchored by people who are highly psychopathic on one end and by people who are very compassionate and driven to acts of extreme altruism on the other.

What makes extraordinary altruists so different is not just that they’re more compassionate than average. They’re compassionate and altruistic not just towards people who are in their own innermost circle of friends and family, but also towards total strangers. And what distinguishes them the most is their amazing lack of self-centeredness, which is characterized by humility.

Expansions of altruism and compassion are already happening at the societal level, and as societies become wealthier and better off, people seem to turn their focus of attention outward, leading to increases in all kinds of altruism towards strangers.

In conclusion, the roots of altruism and compassion are just as much a part of human nature as cruelty and violence, and while some people may be inherently more sensitive to the suffering of others, the ability to remove oneself from the center of the circle and expand the circle of compassion outward to include even strangers is within reach for almost everyone.

The idea that humans are inherently selfish is a common belief, but is it really true? Many scientists and researchers have been exploring this question for decades, attempting to sort out the complexities of human behavior and the roots of altruism.

Some argue that humans are fundamentally selfish, driven by self-interest and self-preservation. They believe that our behaviors and actions are ultimately motivated by a desire to satisfy our own needs and desires, even at the expense of others.

However, others argue that humans are inherently cooperative and altruistic, wired to help others and work towards the greater good. They point to evidence of human behavior that goes against the idea of selfishness, such as individuals sacrificing their own well-being for the benefit of others or engaging in acts of kindness and generosity towards strangers.

It’s important to note that the answer to this question is not straightforward and may vary depending on cultural and societal influences. Additionally, human behavior is incredibly complex, and it’s unlikely that any single theory can fully explain it.

Ultimately, the question of human nature and selfishness versus altruism is an ongoing debate, with researchers continuing to explore the roots of human behavior and the factors that contribute to our actions. By understanding the complexities of human nature, we can better understand and appreciate the many different ways in which people act and interact with one another.

The human brain is a fascinating and intricate organ that has been studied extensively to understand how it functions in relation to human behavior. One particularly interesting area of research is the brain of a psychopath and how it affects their behavior and decision-making.

Psychopaths are known for their lack of empathy and disregard for the feelings of others, which makes it difficult for them to engage in altruistic behavior. However, recent studies have shown that there are complex relationships between the psychopathic brain and altruism that are worth exploring.

Research has shown that the brains of psychopaths differ in structure and function from the brains of non-psychopaths. One study found that psychopaths have reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that is associated with empathy and moral decision-making. This reduced activity can make it difficult for psychopaths to engage in behaviors that are considered altruistic, such as donating to charity or helping others in need.

Despite this, there are also studies that suggest that psychopaths may be capable of altruistic behavior under certain circumstances. For example, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that psychopaths were more likely to donate to charity when there was a chance of receiving public recognition for their donation.

These findings suggest that the relationship between the psychopathic brain and altruism is complex and not fully understood. While psychopaths may have difficulty with empathetic behavior, there may be situations where they are capable of acting in an altruistic manner.

Overall, further research is needed to fully understand the relationship between the psychopathic brain and altruism. By gaining a better understanding of how the brain affects behavior, we can potentially develop interventions to promote more altruistic behavior in individuals who may have difficulty with it.

The concept of a caring continuum is a relatively new idea in the field of psychology, but it has been gaining attention in recent years. The continuum is anchored on one end by psychopathy and on the other end by extreme altruism, with most people falling somewhere in between.

It is important to note that not all psychopaths are violent criminals. In fact, many psychopaths are able to function normally in society and may even hold successful careers. However, they lack the ability to feel empathy and may engage in behaviors that are harmful to others without feeling remorse.

On the other end of the spectrum, extreme altruists are individuals who engage in selfless acts to benefit others without any expectation of personal gain. These individuals may even put their own lives at risk to help others.

The existence of the caring continuum suggests that altruistic behavior is not simply a result of personality traits, but rather a complex interplay between nature and care. Researchers believe that both genetic and environmental factors may play a role in determining where an individual falls on the caring continuum.

Understanding the connection between psychopathy and extreme altruism can help us to better understand the nature of human behavior and potentially develop new strategies for promoting prosocial behavior.

Extraordinary altruists exhibit a certain level of humility that is not commonly found in the general population. This is evident in their lack of a self-centered circle and their focus on the greater good. In other words, their altruistic behavior is not motivated by personal gain or recognition, but rather by a genuine desire to help others.

The absence of a self-centered circle is a key aspect of their behavior. They do not prioritize their own needs or desires over those of others, and they do not seek attention or accolades for their actions. Instead, they focus on the needs of others and work tirelessly to help in any way they can.

This lack of self-centeredness is often linked to a sense of humility. Extraordinary altruists do not consider themselves to be better than others or deserving of special treatment. They recognize that everyone has inherent value and that all people are deserving of respect and dignity.

Furthermore, they tend to view their altruistic actions as a simple expression of their humanity, rather than as something exceptional or remarkable. This further demonstrates their lack of a self-centered circle and their focus on the greater good.

In summary, humility and the absence of a self-centered circle are defining characteristics of extraordinary altruists. Their genuine desire to help others is motivated by a sense of duty and compassion, rather than personal gain or recognition. By prioritizing the needs of others and recognizing the inherent value of all people, they embody the true essence of altruism.

The concept of altruism has intrigued many scientists and philosophers for centuries. It’s fascinating to see how humans can put aside their own self-interests to help others, even strangers. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the study of altruism and compassion, and the potential for these qualities to expand within society.

One of the most remarkable findings in this field is the idea of social contagion. This is the notion that behaviors and emotions can spread from person to person, like a contagious disease. Recent research has shown that acts of kindness and altruism can actually be “contagious,” spreading through social networks and inspiring others to act selflessly.

Furthermore, there has been a growing movement towards growing compassion and empathy in society. For instance, meditation and mindfulness practices are becoming increasingly popular, with many individuals reporting increased feelings of compassion and connection with others. Additionally, there are numerous organizations and initiatives focused on promoting empathy and altruism, such as the “Random Acts of Kindness” movement.

It’s important to note that altruism and compassion aren’t just “feel good” emotions - they can have real-world implications. Studies have shown that individuals who exhibit altruistic behavior tend to have better mental and physical health, experience greater life satisfaction, and are more successful in their personal and professional lives.

Overall, it’s clear that the potential for altruism and compassion to expand within society is vast. By understanding the mechanisms behind these qualities, and actively working to grow them, we can create a more empathetic and compassionate world for ourselves and future generations.

In our daily lives, we often prioritize the well-being of ourselves and those closest to us, but what about the strangers we encounter every day? Is it possible to extend our circle of compassion to include them, too?

Research has shown that the ability to expand our circle of compassion to include even strangers is within reach. We can develop our empathy and altruism by practicing compassion meditation, volunteering, or simply making an effort to connect with others.

By expanding our circle of compassion, we not only benefit those around us but also ourselves. Studies have found that helping others can lead to increased happiness, reduced stress levels, and even a longer life span.

In a world where we often focus on our differences, extending our compassion to include strangers can help create a more unified and compassionate society. As the saying goes, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

In conclusion, the exploration of altruism has opened a new door for understanding the complexities of human nature. Through the lens of extreme altruism and the lack of psychopathic traits, we have discovered a caring continuum that can help us comprehend the underlying factors that lead some individuals to extraordinary acts of kindness.

The study of the brain and behavior has also shed light on the potential for compassion and empathy to expand outward and encompass even strangers, leading to the hope that society can grow more caring and altruistic individuals.

While the roots of altruism may be difficult to fully comprehend, the ongoing research and exploration of this topic provide a glimpse into the human capacity for selflessness and the potential for us to create a more compassionate world.

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