Kill Me With Kindness: Pathological Altruism
Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan and David Sloan Wilson (editors). 2012. Oxford University Press, New York. 496 pages.
March 25, 2012—A cartoon published in the British magazine Punch in 1909 depicts a young member of the fledgling Boy Scout movement lending his arm to an elderly lady (portraying England). The image, although eventually stripped of its intended satire, quickly caught the public’s imagination and has persisted in Western pop culture ever since: an enduring symbol of the best that human nature has to offer.
But the icon did not remain unspotted. An old joke asks, “Why did it take three large Boy Scouts to help the old lady across the street?” The answer, of course, is “Because she didn’t want to go.”
Is it just possible that we, like those Boy Scouts, might sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping when our actions are in fact hindering? This phenomenon, among other forms of killing kindness, is the focus of an intriguing collection of essays titled Pathological Altruism. The book is edited by a varied team of researchers headed by Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor whose work focuses on the connection between neuroscience and social behavior.
Pathological Altruism is not a straightforward piece of storytelling. Rather, it’s a compilation of scholarly research in which each chapter offers insight into a different manifestation of self-sacrifice’s dark side. While not exhaustive, the book does serve as an effective introduction to a very new concept, and its implications are almost staggering if not yet fully understood. “Many harmful deeds—from codependency to suicide martyrdom to genocide—” Oakley and her colleagues declare, “are committed with the altruistic intention to help companions or one’s own in-group.” What researchers want to know is how these good intentions disintegrate into pathology—social abnormalities or malfunctions that have a negative effect on the altruist and/or the targeted beneficiary.
Of course, some will argue that a “pathological” altruist cannot be a true altruist and that the term is therefore somewhat of an oxymoron. This is the stance taken by philosopher Bernard Berofsky in his essay, “Is Pathological Altruism Altruism?” Berofsky argues that when it comes to defining the term, motivation is everything. Thus, if the motives of the pathological altruist differ from those of the “normal,” they must not be altruists. Although in the end Berofsky concedes to accepting the label for convenience, he objects that some would-be benefactors may appear to have unselfish intentions, but that a distortion takes place between motive and intention that distinguishes them from real altruists. Admittedly pathological altruism must involve distorted thinking—“cognitive distortion”—or all altruists must be considered pathological. But must these distortions occur only between motivation and intention? Undoubtedly the human mind is capable of utterly deceiving itself about either one. Perhaps in the case of suicide bombers and dictators, both of which are identified as possible pathological altruists in this volume, the distortion comes after the motivation to save the world (a motivation few would argue with) and before the intention to implement some twisted plan for accomplishing their goal.
The problem goes well beyond such obviously misguided individuals, however. Consider those who hoard animals with the aim of saving them from harm. Researchers Jane N. Nathanson and Gary J. Patronek suggest that for such people the distortion may occur in the motivation itself. “Hoarders often report social histories characterized by dysfunctional human relationships,” they write. “Childhood history may interact with loss to create even more difficult challenges in coping, which predisposes hoarders to pursue compulsive animal ‘caregiving’ as an avenue of self-repair.” Of course, the hoarder’s brain doesn’t interpret this motivation as one of self-repair. The addictive rush of positive feelings the hoarder experiences from animal caregiving is interpreted by the brain as the byproduct of selflessness (a cognitive distortion). A hoarder whose animals are in tragic states of neglect due to their unmanageable numbers is certain he or she is rescuing the creatures from a fate far worse. Surely in such a case it could be said that an altruistic motive, as much as the ensuing intention, rests on a distortion.
We are further assured by psychiatrists Madeline Li and Gary Rodin in “Altruism and Suffering in the Context of Cancer” that altruistic motivations, like all human behaviors, arise from a combination of influences. Genetic predispositions may not show themselves unless or until they are activated by aspects of a child’s home environment, and there’s no question that mental health in adulthood is closely tied to the quality of early attachment, bonding and socialization experiences. Psychologists Carolyn Zahn-Waxler and Carol Van Hulle add that a troubled childhood can leave us vulnerable to a variety of thinking distortions that affect how we express altruism.
Still, we don’t need the excuse of a troubled childhood to become addicted to the pleasurable chemical rush we get from certain states of mind such as self-righteousness, an especially insidious form of self-deception that can also lead to wrong-headed forms of benevolence. In a particularly compelling chapter titled “Self-Addiction and Self-Righteousness,” science writer David Brin suggests that self-righteousness is indeed at the bottom of at least some forms of wrong-headed altruism. He writes, “We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed occasionally in self-righteousness ourselves.)” But while it may be easy for us to admit many of its drawbacks, we might hesitate to acknowledge our enjoyment of what he describes as its “heady, seductive, and even . . . well . . . addictive” qualities; “any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good.” He adds that you can’t help but love “the pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong. Or, that your method of helping others is so purely motivated and correct that all criticism can be dismissed with a shrug, along with any contradicting evidence.”
Self-righteousness and its accompanying indignation at the faults of others can feel so validating that we can’t resist returning over and over again for more of the drug. We are all potential addicts. “Indeed,” points out Brin, “one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad [of] modern problems.”
Of course, cognitive distortions of various persuasions are closely tied to addictions, even addictions to states of mind like self-righteousness. They underlie all forms of pathological altruism, but perhaps they do not always fall in the space between motivation and intention, as Berofsky suggests. Self-deception can occur at any stage in our thinking—even on the metacognitive level. Metacognition, or the ability to think about how we are thinking, usually allows us to root out at least some of the errors and biases that can potentially distort the workings of our mind.
Unfortunately, sometimes people simply fail to entertain the notion that they may have biases. In other cases they may know biases are possible but think they are capable of recognizing them even in the face of ample evidence that they are not. Forensic criminologist Brent E. Turvey calls this “metacognitive dissonance.” Clearly we are all capable of various levels of the problem, deceiving ourselves about our biases as well as through our biases.
This book doesn’t pretend to answer every question about what causes self-sacrifice to go awry, and it is certainly not a fireside read. It does, however, succeed in its aim: to open the door to further study in this burgeoning field and to suggest that the quality we most respect in human nature—altruism—may not always be as honorable as we think.