Pathological Altruism

“There is a fine line between genius and insanity” –the antithetical words of the famous actor and composer Oscar Levant can be paralleled to almost any aspect of life. There is a fine line between love and hate, a fine line between fear and courage; a fine line between altruism and fanaticism.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins states that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more likely they are to behave selflessly (display altruistic behaviour) with each other. This holds true for most animals. Vampire bats commonly regurgitate blood with sick roost mates that have been unable to find a meal. Likewise, raccoons inform conspecifics about feeding grounds by droppings left on commonly shared latrines. It seems, however, that the more complex a creature is, the more intricate the idea of altruism becomes. Studies have shown that dolphins are able to display intellect that is beyond the capabilities of other animals. Dolphins support sick or injured animals (not from their own species) by swimming under them for hours and pushing them to the surface so they can breathe. Chimpanzees that are genetically most similar to human beings share their food with conspecifics as well as human beings without expecting any reward in return (it is not a conditioned act, rather an altruistic gesture).  As for us, humans, the sight of a lost puppy or an injured cat is often more emotionally overwhelming than a passing ambulance or a homeless person. In fact, in the United Kingdom, more money is donated annually to animal charities than children’s charities or old age homes.

Altruism is neurobiological. Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institute of Health, provided the first evidence of this. It was found that altruism activated the mesolimbic reward pathway of the brain. This primitive part of the brain is usually stimulated as a response to sex or food. Drugs, nicotine and sex are all neurologically stimulating. We have all heard of drug addictions, chain smoking and nymphomania. If altruism stimulates the same part of the brain as sex does, shouldn’t it be equally likely to turn into an addiction? As David Brin said, “sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug and as destabilizing”. It seems unorthodox to suggest that there is anything ‘pathological’ about altruism. However, like most good things, altruism can be distorted and taken to unhealthy extremes.

Instances of altruism gone awry surround us, not only as vignettes of our contemporary lives but also within anecdotes from history. Women often put up with abusive partners and men often put up with alcoholic spouses –living under the common delusion that their significant other may reform.  Globally, terrorism and specifically suicide bombing are acts of altruism where individuals actually believe they’re sacrificing themselves for a good cause. Clearly, fanaticism is contagious and altruism can and has often become a part of that disease. Mahatma Gandhi is viewed as one of the main ideological leaders of India. His intentions were pure –he wanted the world to be devoid of violence. Gandhi strove to practice non-violence and truth in all situations and expected an enraged India to follow in his footsteps. To achieve this he put himself through a series of hunger strikes within which Gandhi was prepared die for his nation. When an act like this is performed, it’s difficult to distinguish altruism from fanaticism, or in the case of Gandhi what seemed like obstinacy.

A clinical psychologist at Hadassah University Medical Centre in Jerusalem who specializes in eating disorders noticed that young women with anorexia display extreme selflessness. Women with eating disorders are excessively sensitive to the needs of the people around them. Their selflessness arises primarily from the fact that they feel completely worthless. Pathologies of empathy rise from depression and vice-versa. Nurses that are found to be excessively emphatic with their patients seem to face a burn-out and feel the need to quit their jobs.

The seemingly heretical term ‘Pathological altruism’ might not really be an oxymoron at all. Is altruism really an unselfish regard for the welfare of others? Or is it merely an addiction, a vision or a mirage? The case study involving the anorexic patients shows that the idea of altruism doesn’t just revolve around the genetic make-up of person but rather their neurological needs. Although an act may seem selfless, the individual carrying it out is a beneficiary of it. How then can this be classed as altruism?

If the natural circle of life was supposed to revolve around the survival of the fittest then an individual should be genetically programmed to focus on their own survival. Altruism allows for this, as just, like natural selection, it is merely a form of self-preservation. If the benefits of selflessness and selfishness both promote self-preservation, then the question arises –what is altruism and how can it be considered selfless?

About the author

Tara Sud

After living the first seventeen years of my life in India, I travelled to the England to study at the University of York. My undergraduate degree was in English Literature and Linguistics, and I am currently completing my Masters degree in Romantic and Sentimental Literature. Apart from writing, I thoroughly enjoy playing piano and consider myself a commendable Scrabble competitor. I have a keen interest in literature, psychology and biology and love to learn in general.