OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, DECEMBER 2011
Killing with Kindness
Author: Barbara Oakley, Guruprasad Madhavan, Ariel Knafo, and David Sloan Wilson
Source: The Scientist
Pathological altruism. The term seems a contradiction—how could a desire to help others be harmful? All too easily, unfortunately. We’ve all heard of gullible cult followers who force their own children to “drink the Kool-Aid”—literally or figuratively—in their sincere belief that they are saving their offspring’s souls. Or genocidal murderers convinced they are protecting those they love by exterminating the “human cockroaches” they’ve been taught to hate.
Pathological Altruism, our recent edited book, explores the historical and contemporary impacts of these maladaptive behaviors and introduces a whole new discipline that knits together evolutionary biology, social psychology, neuroscience, public health, and economics.
As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes in his recently published book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, our empathetic feeling for others—or at least for family members, friends, peers, or those we perceive to be victims—is a fast, involuntary response, much like envy or laughter. But empathy can sometimes lead to cognitive illusion.
Primatologist Frans de Waal has commented that feelings of empathy and associated behaviors of altruism may have evolved in order to prompt humans to take care of their children. But once a faculty has evolved, it can be used for other purposes than the ones shaped by evolution. Unfortunately, humans’ evolved tendency toward empathy and altruism can, under some circumstances, be applied to the wrong cause.
Read more on The Scientist