A is for… Altruism

The Psychologist A-Z kicks off.

Suggested by Martin Milton, Professor of Counselling Psychology at Regent’s
University London
(Twitter: @swlondonpsych)

‘Our egocentrism has made us one of the most successful species on the planet, but it is central in the challenges we are facing: those such as a massively growing population, stress on water and food, and terrorism. We need an understanding of altruism – towards those we deem friends, the Other and those that share our planetary home – more than ever if we are going to foster relationships and enhance quality of life in all our human and bio diversity.’

Among people who feel they have low status, increased neural markers of empathy are actually related to reduced altruism. A team led by Yina Ma at Peking University surmised that any feelings of empathy are quashed by a grudging sense of low status.

Subtle exposure to the sight of two apparently companionable dolls, stood side by side, is enough to increase the likelihood that an 18-month-old will help an adult pick up some dropped sticks. That’s according to research led by Harriet Over.

Psychologist Barbara Oakley has put forward the concept of ‘pathological altruism’: ‘in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm’.

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that ‘We have the capacity for moral behaviour and moral judgments today because our ancestors favoured sexual partners who were kind, generous, helpful and fair’. Is that still the case in modern society?

- Tweet your thoughts on this topic, and suggestions for any letter, to @psychmag using the hashtag #PsychAtoZ or email the editor on [email protected]

Illustration: Karla Novak.

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