Humans: Selfish or altruistic? And does it matter?

How we can stop pointing fingers and start creating a more altruistic world

Writer: Karolay Lorenty
Editor: Bethany Maia Evans
Artist: Rosie Jarrett

In the last few months, we have seen people refusing to wear masks and breaking social distancing measures, despite knowing that these rules could potentially save others’ lives. In times like this, it is hard to believe that humans are inherently good. But, at the same time, we have also seen innumerable displays of altruism as nations have come together to fight against a common enemy. How can we reconcile these two opposing aspects of human nature? It’s easy to divide the world into selfish and caring individuals, but it’s naive to ignore the complexity that resides within each of us.

In the TED Talk ‘Why aren’t we more compassionate?’, the psychologist Daniel Goleman points at a single enemy: self-absorption - we can’t care about those we don’t notice. And as we spend the majority of our lives concerned with ourselves - heads down, eyes fixed on screens - we are increasingly losing our ability to notice. An extreme case of this oblivious tendency can be observed in psychopaths, who have difficulty identifying signs of distress in people. Underlying this incapability is a reduced volume of the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in the recognition of fearful expressions. By contrast, extremely altruistic individuals are endowed with a larger amygdala that enhances their ability to detect distress, more easily triggering a compassionate response. 

What distinguishes us from the most altruistic individuals isn’t just the size of our amygdala, but who we extend our compassion to. Goleman emphasises the distinction between compassion and mere empathy: “simply put, compassion makes the difference between understanding and caring”. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, he explained that the compassion of characters like the Dalai Lama is limitless - “he thinks in terms of generations and of what’s best for humanity as a whole”. In the meantime, many of us struggle to extend our compassion to individuals and groups in the present.

When digging deeper, we inevitably fall into the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. Our position in the selfish-selfless spectrum is determined by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Antisocial behaviour is heritable and can be observed from the age of two in adopted children, away from maternal influence. But interestingly, when the adoptive mother provides positive reinforcement, this biological antisocial behaviour can be buffered. Adults are not helpless either. Simply reflecting on gratitude can make us more attuned to our dependence on others, increasing our altruistic behaviour with a concomitant change in brain activity

Whether we are selfish or altruistic may not be the right question, as we all possess the capacity for both and have the potential to take control of the side we lean into. We can all try to step outside of ourselves, see the distress that surrounds us and do our best to support one another. But this is not just an opportunity to blame others for their lack of interest, as very few of us make the effort to change. It might, however, be a chance to extend our compassion to those who do not have our genes or education. Of course, compassion alone is not enough. But when we zoom out to take a wider perspective, we can identify the missing values and pitfalls in education. Only then, can we start building up the system it would take to make the world a better place. 

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