Barbara Oakley Thinks Altruism Can Work Against Us

When I interviewed Frank Abernathy last week, we discussed how evolution isn’t the free for all that it is often portrayed as. Organisms can evolve to be helpful to one another, which actually strengthens their position in the evolutionary tree.

As a result, humans have evolved an instinct for altruism. Maybe it was to impress mates. Maybe it was to strengthen beneficial relationships. Either way, Barbara Oakley argues that this instinct for altruism can sometimes work against us. It enables codependent relationships and genocide. It allows sinister motives to slip under our noses.

An Associate Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, Barbara has tackled psychological concepts with the mind of a hard scientist, earning praise from the likes of Steven Pinker.

The Interview

Thanks for joining me, Barbara. So, your latest book, Pathological Altruism, is about how evolution, neuroscience, and psychology relate to the subject of altruism. What first strikes me about this is that you have a doctorate in systems engineering, you work as a professional engineer, and you teach engineering at Oakland University, in Michigan. On the surface, these seem like very different subjects. How did you transition from your role in engineering to discussions about altruism? Are the subjects more interrelated than they seem at first glance?

Actually, I’m continuously amazed at how useful training in engineering can be. In engineering, we have something called “root cause analysis.” If you have a process that produces problematic parts, you don’t just throw out those parts—you go to the deepest levels possible at understanding the physical process that produced those parts, so you can truly understand what went wrong. Engineering also often involves optimization—understanding the tradeoffs inherent in any endeavor.

So this type of training has helped me to avoid the blinkers of someone with conventional training in psychology. I don’t think the “bible” of psychologists—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has all the answers. In fact, I don’t even think it offers up the right questions.

Altruism is very nearly a secular religion in today’s society. It’s been put on this pedestal of unquestioned sanctity. But altruism has tradeoffs, just like any engineering process. And it is also great cover for the more nefarious among us.

I’d like to move on to the central theme of your book, the idea that altruism can be destructive. Obviously, this is a thought that will upset many people, but you present some compelling evidence. Let’s hear a few examples.

If I was saying all altruism was bad, I can understand why people would feel upset. What is important to understand, I think, is a nuanced perspective on altruism. Would you run to the store for a bottle of Jim Beam every time your alcoholic husband had a yen for it? Of course not! (Or at least, I would hope not.) Sometimes something that seems altruistic on the face of it can actually worsen the very situation you mean to help. This happens far more often than we might like.

Hitler once said that it was when he appealed to people’s best qualities—their altruism, sense of sacrifice, and love for their fellow man—that’s when he got them. Along those same lines, a Hutu in Rwanda didn’t wake up one morning and think—“I’m going to be totally evil and kill Tutsis today!” Instead, he was certain that killing Tutsis was essential to help his fellow Hutus. It was the Hutu’s altruism that helped compel him to kill. Likewise—the one common trait held by all suicide bombers is their altruism—their care and concern for those who follow their cause.

Does neuroscience play a role in your understanding of all this?

Absolutely. Through neuroimaging, Jean Decety of the University of Chicago and his colleagues have shown how physicians turn off their empathy in order to do the necessary painful procedures involved in their work.

Sometimes, it’s important to be able to turn off our empathy. Think of a child wheedling for candy—that child is trying to manipulate us to have his own needs met. People attempt to manipulate us through playing to our feelings of empathy all the time. We are manipulated all the more easily because we are constantly bombarded with messages that we must help others. Empathy and altruism aren’t one-size-fits all buckets of goodness. If we really want to help others, it’s important to be able to turn off our empathy as well as to turn it on. It’s also important to understand that what may at first glance appear to be altruistic, may not be that way at all.

I’d like to talk about what role systems play in all of this. You have a doctorate in systems engineering, so I’m sure you can appreciate my interest. Do certain systems lend themselves towards more destructive forms of altruism, while others are more likely to promote beneficial altruism? By system I mean almost any social construct, ranging from a family, to a social group, to a nation state.

Systems plays a role in everything. So do tradeoffs and root causes. The worst systems are those that don’t acknowledge and take into account the fact that facile notions of altruism and caring can make matters worse for everyone.

Do you see this playing out at a societal level?

In the United States, we’ve gone so overboard with a one-dimensional idea that altruism is always good that it is creating real problems for society. For example, an ideology has evolved among certain well-meaning people that business is always predatory, and academia and unions are always on the right side in helping people. But can we afford to have unions that block reform in places like Detroit, where only 25% of students graduate from high school? Or unions that force taxpayers to pay millions to try to get rid of proven child molestors and absurdly incompetent teachers? The state of Georgia is turning out to be the Enron of K-12 education. From my personal experience here in Michigan working with corrupt K-12 school systems, Georgia is just the tip of the iceberg.

The reality is that unions and academics can be, and often are, as predatory and self-serving as businesses. Yet they fly under our radar, because they pretend to serve “the people” instead of just their constituents—and themselves. I’m reminded of Jimmy Hoffa, who inserted into his union’s contract that he had to receive his million dollar salary even when he was in prison. Hoffa was a grifter who got away with his con on a massive scale because he said he was helping people.

In many places, public unions are bankrupting cities and states. It sounds great to pay people commensurate with their skills. But the reality is, policies that sound wonderfully altruistic are often simply Ponzi schemes. We’re turning into a large scale version of Greece, where people can claim big bucks by being seen as victims. And anyone who contradicts this is labeled a bad guy. But in the long run, all of society suffers as the economy sinks into a depression.

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