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Why some people are more altruistic than others - Abigail Marsh


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Every year, hundreds of extraordinary altruists risk their lives to save strangers by, for example, rescuing them from danger or donating organs to restore them to health. Scientists have struggled to explain how such behavior exists. Can brain imaging studies of extraordinary altruists help us understand the origins of human selflessness, care, and compassion?

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Research in humans and other species make it clear that altruism can be observed across social species. Therefore, it is likely to have very deep evolutionary roots. One type of altruism is supported by kin selection. Kin selected altruism helps genetic relatives, which makes it more likely that the altruist’s own genes will be passed along. This kind of altruism is “selfish” in some senses. Another type is reciprocal altruism, or cooperation. Helping someone who has helped you in the past (or might help you in the future) might ultimately improve your own welfare. Many species engage in kin-selected and reciprocal altruism. Watch these videos of altruism in species like meerkats, birds, and bats.Extraordinary acts of altruism to help strangers cannot always be explained through kin selected or reciprocal mechanisms. Such acts often reflect care-based altruism, which is supported by the brain systems that support parental care. This form of care is particularly common in mammals. Mammals give birth to “altricial” offspring who are very dependent and need extensive, costly care from their parents.Some of the adaptations that make good parents also seem to promote altruism. For example, highly altruistic people seem to be unusually sensitive to cues that signal distress and vulnerability. This sensitivity is probably promoted by the hormone oxytocin, which produced only in mammals and evolved to support parental care. Seminal research found that rats injected with oxytocin will go from having no interest in rat pups to providing them with the full suite of parental care in under 30 minutes! In humans, oxytocin also makes people more sensitive to others’ distress and, in some cases, more altruistic.Another evolutionary adaptation that promotes altruism is the emergence of “alloparenting,” or caring offspring who are not your own, in some social species. Animals from species that alloparent (i.e dogs, wolves, lions, rats, and humans) seem willing to provide care to anything that is vulnerable and needy. This may explain amazing instances of even fierce predators like lions caring tenderly for baby animals like antelopes and baboons. The tendency to alloparent is one of the best predictors of all kinds of altruism. Human babies seem to be adapted to receive care from many adults, both related and unrelated. The fact that humans are such good alloparents is likely one reason we are also such an altruistic species.Just because altruism has biological roots does not mean it is hard-wired or immutable. There are many ways to increase care, compassion, and altruism. One method that seems particularly effective is compassion meditation. Another may simply be reading, which may increase empathy.

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