All True Stories About Altruism

Illustration by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

It’s no wonder that altruism has captured the interest of historians, philosophers, and psychologists alike; experts spanning the academic gamut have consistently presented altruism as a silver-bullet solution to many of the world’s most pressing problems. But beyond knowing the benefits that this trait confers, how can we cultivate altruism within ourselves? Can we train ourselves to prioritize selflessness over selfishness? 

For people like Rob Upham, there is no need to train—he can’t help but be altruistic. Upham, the director of human resources for an organization providing aid to the homeless in Rhode Island, belongs to a very rare group coined by psychologists as “extraordinary altruists.” In 2009, Upham gave his kidney to a woman he had never met, saving her life at significant risk to his own. He doesn’t see anything exceptional in his actions—the way he sees it, if he only needs one kidney, why shouldn’t he give the other one away? When asked about the risk associated with such a major operation, he replied, “Most people live in a wooden house. It might burn down. You still live in a wooden house. Life is filled with risk.” 

Where the term “primal instincts” might describe most people’s selfish, violent, and competitive impulses, it refers to something very different in extraordinary altruists. These are people for whom generosity takes precedence over selfishness. The notion of giving away one’s paycheck when it can be used to pay the rent may seem ridiculous to most; for extraordinary altruists, however, this may seem like a standard thing to do. But what really makes these rare humans so special is their capacity for sudden, impulsive, and remarkable displays of kindness. Some two thousand men and women like Upham have donated kidneys to strangers, and hundreds of others have risked their lives to aid another in distress, only to promptly fade away into anonymity.

For evidence of the impact that these extraordinary acts of kindness can have, one can look to Dr. Abigail Marsh, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of the book “The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.” She has spent her career researching the minds of extraordinary altruists. Her interest was born from personal experience: the entire trajectory of her life might have been different but for the actions of a stranger whose name she never learned. According to Marsh, one night when she was driving down an interstate freeway at 19 years old, a dog ran out in front of her car. She swerved to avoid it, sending herself into a tailspin that left her car stranded in the middle of the fast lane, its headlights pointed in the direction of approaching traffic. It was impossible to navigate the car out of danger because the engine had died. In her shock and panic, she could not bring herself to exit the vehicle and run away. In that moment, Marsh later recalled, she believed she was about to die. And she might well have if not for a man who happened to drive by and spot her marooned car through the darkness. Within a split second he had jumped from his own car, sprinted across four lanes, and helped her to safety. He stayed long enough to revive the car before driving off again into the night.

The questions that would haunt Marsh from that night onward are the same ones that cross all our minds when we hear of extraordinary altruists like Rob Upham or the anonymous man: what forces, what motives, lead a person to put the life of a stranger before their own?

When Abigail Marsh began her study on the cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, she hypothesized that the key to understanding the neural mechanism at the root of their behavior was to study their antithesis: psychopaths. Marsh knew that psychopathy is a neurological condition characterized by antisocial and often aggressive behavior. She realized that the same qualities lacking in psychopaths, such as an ability to feel compassion, remorse, or empathy, are those that altruists possess in abundance. The way she put it, “Given… that psychopaths represent one extreme of a caring continuum, we hypothesized that extraordinary altruism may represent the opposite end of this continuum, supported by neural and cognitive mechanisms that represent the inverse of psychopathy.” This conjecture led Marsh to first ask: what neurological properties trigger psychopaths’ peculiar tendencies? 

Her research led to two answers: first, psychopaths have impaired emotion recognition skills; second, they possess smaller and more unreactive amygdalas, which is the part of the brain that recognizes fear and distress. As a result, psychopaths have difficulty perceiving when others are feeling fear, anxiety, or discomfort. Marsh then shifted the focus of her inquiry to altruists. Sure enough, she found that altruists have larger than normal amygdalas, by approximately eight percent; additionally, when presented with a facial recognition test, altruists proved significantly more adept at recognizing fear than the average person.

However, extraordinary altruists should not be misconstrued as merely hypersensitive people; they possess a categorically different world perception that sets them apart from the everyday Samaritans. It is common for people to sacrifice their safety or well-being for loved ones, but what makes extraordinary altruists so special is that they often don’t distinguish between their closest relations and total strangers. Extraordinary altruists feel tenderness for everyone indiscriminately and extend their compassion to a much broader circle of people, as Abigail Marsh knew from personal experience. 

But Marsh’s investigation took her even further, culminating in a finding that far exceeded the limits of her original query. She discovered that extraordinary altruists do not place themselves at the center of their own lives. When Marsh asked one altruist why she donated a kidney, she replied, “I’m not different. I’m not unique. Your study here is going to find out that I’m just the same as you.” This rare lack of self-centeredness explains why extraordinary altruists sacrifice so much for others: they understand implicitly that no one person is worth more than any other. They are born with a skill that people like Matthieu Ricard, the “happiest man on Earth,” spend their lives trying to gain; namely, a holistic understanding of the world and their place within it. Extraordinary altruists recognize they are only actors in a greater, human collective, and love all mankind with the same involuntary, unconditional love that most of us reserve only for ourselves and closest family. Regardless of the size of your amygdala, each person has the capacity to become more altruistic through practice. One study showed that the brain physically changes after only 20 minutes of mindful meditation a day over the course of four weeks. By meditating on altruistic love, we can actually will ourselves to become better people. In other words, altruism is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger the impulse becomes. Those who better appreciate the impact that their compassion can have are those with a greater obligation to use it. Ultimately, character is not measured by how you act in ignorance, but how you act when presented with information that calls into question what you thought you knew. Extraordinary altruists provide a model to teach us what we so often try to forget: compassion can make a difference.

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