10Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism
BARBARA A. OAKLEY.
The profound benefits of altruism in modern society are self-evident. However, the potential hurtful aspects of altruism have gone largely unrecognized in scientific inquiry. This is despite the fact that virtually all forms of altruism are associated with tradeoffs—some of enormous importance and sensitivity—and notwithstanding that examples of pathologies of altruism abound.
Our eyes can be powerless against visual illusions, with our underlying neural machinery leading us to predictably erroneous conclusions about the size or shape of an object (Shepard, 1990). In a similar fashion, our empathic feelings for others, coupled with a desire to be liked, parochial feelings for our in-group, emotional contagion, motivated reasoning, selective exposure, confirmation bias, discounting, allegiance bias, the Einstellung (“set”) effect, and even an egocentric belief that we know what is best for others, can lead us into powerful and often irrational illusions of helping (Oakley et al., 2012a). In other words, people's own good intentions, coupled with a variety of cognitive biases, can sometimes blind them to the deleterious consequences of their actions. This dynamic of pathological altruism involves subjectively prosocial acts that are objectively antisocial.
At the core of pathological altruism are actions or reactions based on incomplete access to, or inability to process, the wide range of information necessary to make prudent decisions that align with cultural values associated with altruistic behavior. Various psychological, religious, philosophical, biological, or ideological biases could lead a person or group to misinterpret, selectively discount, or overly emphasize certain aspects of relevant information. Thus, pathologically altruistic behavior can emerge from a mix of accidental, subconscious, or deliberate causes. [“Altruism,” in the context of this chapter, is used to signify well-meaning behavior intended to promote the welfare of another; thus altruistic behavior may be motivated by concern for the other, egoistic concerns for the self, or both (e.g., “it makes me feel good to help them”) (Batson, 2012). “Pathological” is used in the sense of being excessive or abnormal, without implying any clinical diagnosis.]
Pathological altruism can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable. More precisely, this chapter defines pathological altruism as an observable behavior or personal tendency in which the explicit or implicit subjective motivation is intentionally to promote the welfare of another, but instead of overall beneficial outcomes, the altruism instead has unreasonable (from the relative perspective of an outside observer) negative consequences to the other or even to the self. This definition does not suggest that there are absolutes but instead suggests that, within a particular context, pathological altruism is the situation in which intended outcomes and actual outcomes (within the framework of how the relative values of “negative” and “positive” are conceptualized), do not mesh.
A working definition of a pathological altruist then might be a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts but who (in a fashion that can be reasonably anticipated) harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help; or a person who, in the course of helping one person or group, inflicts reasonably foreseeable harm to others beyond the person or group being helped; or a person who in reasonably anticipatory way becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions (Oakley et al., 2012a).