Born Good

THE STORIES make us shake our heads in wonder:

A fireman plucks a life from a burning roof. An assistant principal gently takes a gun from a school shooter. A man gives half his liver to save a stranger.


In past years, “the response to apparently altruistic acts has been: ‘People are basically selfish. The only reason they help each other is that they think they’ll get something out of it,’ “says University of Wisconsin philosopher Elliott Sober. Cynical as it seems, that judgment was the logical lesson to draw from decades of theory and research. Biologists believed that, evolutionarily speaking, we’re all on our own, and psychologists subscribed to the “behaviorist” view that people are motivated only by rewards and punishments.

BUT that gloomy view is brightening as scientists begin to look on the sunny side of human nature. Psychologists are finding that our motivations may include a genuine desire to help others, and biologists now say humans evolved to be altruis-tic because groups in which members help each other fare better than those in which each member stands alone. For the first time, science is acknowledging that genuine altruism exists — and is as basic to human nature as selfishness.

Everywhere in our culture, altruism is gaining attention: Economists are realizing that real people aren’t like the “rational actor” of their neat theories, whose choices are dictated solely by self-interest. Anthropologists now know our ancient ancestors were not lone hunters, but helped one another gather food. Even in the cutthroat world of business, teams are the trend and cooperation the new name of the game.

Today, (USA WEEKEND - July 23-25, 1999) charitable giving is up and a new generation of high-profile benefactors has managed to make philanthropy chic. Along with the eye-popping wealth of.tycoons such as Ted Turner and Bill Gates has come.equally outsized generosity, such as Turner’s $1 billion.bequest to the United Nations and Gates’ $11.3 billion endowment to, among other things, buy computers for public libraries.


Advocates of egoism, as the anti-altruism position is known, say people help others only to relieve their own discomfort. Fine, thought University of Kansas psychologist Daniel Batson: We’ll design an experiment that makes it easy to turn away from others’ suffering. But even when offered an escape from watching a woman receive (simulated) electric shocks, two thirds of the college students in his study instead chose to receive shocks in her place.

And anyone who thinks we help others just to feel good should hear the research of David Schroeder, a University of Arkansas psychologist. He arranged for subjects to believe their mood wouldn’t change, no matter what they did when confronted with an ill woman who was having trouble calling for assistance. Yet more than two-thirds volunteered to help. Going in, Schroeder expected evidence of selfish-ness: “ To our surprise, we found there are at least some circumstances and some times when altruism does happen.”

Why do some help and others don’t? The difference ‘ lies in our environments. “A seed will only become a flower if it gets sun and water,” as Louis Gottschalk, a psychiatry professor at the University of Cahfornia, Irvine, puts it. The sunshine, in this case, is often parental care and attention. Studies of altruists have found these triggers in childhood:

Loving parents who instilled healthy self-esteem. Moms and dads who modeled selfless behavior. “Just telling your kids to be altruistic is not enough. You have to do it, too,” says Jane Piliavin, a sociologistat the University of Wisconsin. “ Adults who volunteer and intend to continue vol-unteering are the ones who report that their parents were volunteers.” Parents who inculcated a moral code. Altruists “learned early on that it’s wrong to hurt, it’s wrong to oppress, it’s wrong to exclude,” says sociologist Samuel Oliner of California’s Humboldt State University. The same conditions seem to produce “heroic altruists”— people who risk their lives — and ordinary folks who give in less spectacular but no less generous ways.


Even parents who do everything right have to fight the cultural tide. “We know human nature has the capacity to be selfish and altruistic, so the question becomes:

What does our society do to encourage one or the other?” Piliavin asks. Her rueful answer: “Our culture strongly encourages looking out for No. 1.”

America’s consumerism can put things before people. Our full-steam-ahead economy leaves some behind. And our tradition of rugged individualism elevates the one above the many Surveys show that while 80% of us agree that citizens should be involved in their communities, far fewer - 49% - actually volunteer “We’re a society of busy involved people who have a lot of commit-ments,” says University of Minnesota psychologist Mark Snyder. “It’s easy to endorse altruism. It’s harder to figure out, ‘Where am I going to find those five extra hours a week?’”


Altruism isn’t out of reach for any of us, even those who weren’t well-parented or who have never been the do-gooder type.

Begin by giving others the benefit of the doubt. “There’s evidence,” Sober says, “that people’s beliefs about human nature [whether people are basically selfish or altruistic] influence how they behave in situations in which they see someone in need.” Instead of forcing a selflessness you don’t feel, try putting yourself in situ-ations — the local soup kitchen, a children’s shelter — where your sympathy is likely to be evoked. You may feel stirrings of altruism in spite of yourself.

Then, just do it — and do it again. Piliavin, who studies the reasons people give blood, says repeat donors make it “part of their sense of self, so that if they were to stop they would feel like they had lost something of themselves. Also, other people start to view you as ‘the kind of person’ who helps. Then you have both internal and external encouragement to continue.”

Finally don’t think of service as a sacrifice or a chore, but as an opportunity. It’s here that social science has in a sense come full circle: Volunteers who think they are getting something back, such as new friends or new skills, are most likely to keep giving, Snyder’s studies show Their motives may not be entirely selfless, “but these are the people who make the most sustained contribution to society” says Snyder. “I see that as a win-win situation.”

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL learned about altruism from her father, a social worker who helps abused and neglected children.

Want to have a more altruistic personality?

Cultivate these traits.

Empathy. Altruists easily imagine what it’s like to be in another’s shoes.

An urge to give. “People who are altruistic have the genuine desire to see others prosper,” says philosopher Elliott Sober . “They don’t have to fight against some stronger tendency to keep the cookie for themselves.”

Tolerance. Altruists tend to reject stereotypes and to have friends from different racial, ethnic and religious groups.

A keen sense of justice. They protest unfair treatment of others.

Religious, in a particular way. Altruists have “a kind of spirituality that believes we all belong to the human family,” says sociologist Samuel Oliner. “It’s a belief that everyone is part of a common universe.”

A history of generosity They make helping people a habit.

Confidence. “Altruistic people have a strong sense that they can shape their destinies,” says University of South Florida psychologist Louis Penner. “They have a great deal of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. It’s not enough to think good thoughts. You have to feel, ‘I can change things.”’

How helpful are you?

This quick test is based on scales developed by personality psychologists to measure the helpful, or “altruistic,” personality. Indicate how well each statement describes you: 1 means not at all; 5 means nearly perfectly. There are no right or wrong answers.

1 2 3 4 5 I would try to stop a friend from hurting an enemy.

1 2 3 4 5 Even if all my co-workers on a group project were lazy,

                          I’d still do my part.

1 2 3 4 5 Even if people treated me badly, I’d still feel I should be nice to them.

1 2 3 4 5 I feel sympathy for people who are less fortunate than I am.

1 2 3 4 5 I find it easy to understand other people’s point of view.

1 2 3 4 5 I am usually greatly bothered by other people’s misfortunes.

1 2 3 4 5 If someone needed help in an emergency, I would willingly offer it.

1 2 3 4 5 There are two sides to every story and I try to understand both of them.

1 2 3 4 5 I would be effective and useful if someone needed help in an emergency.

1 2 3 4 5 My personal decisions are primarily based on concern about others’ welfare.

1 2 3 4 5 The actions I choose are usually based on the rights of everyone involved.

1 2 3 4 5 I would give money to people in need even if I did not know them well.

1 2 3 4 5 I would offer to help a neighbor without being asked.

1 2 3 4 5 I would help people I didn’t know well.


1 2 3 4 5 I would let an elderly or disabled person go ahead of me in a line even if I was in a hurry.

Add up your answers to all the questions.

If your total score was 31-45: You’re probably reluctant to help strangers or to do volunteer work


46-60: You are about average in helpfulness and generally inclined to help others.


61-75: You’re probably very willing to help others, by doing volunteer work and other similar activities.

CLICK ON to take a full-scale personality test that is part of an altruism study by Louis Penner, a psychologist at the University of South Florida. Also, ideas and tools to help you help others.


USA WEEKEND - July 23-25, 1999


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