Why bother helping others?
How altruism works.


After being saved by a stranger one fateful night when she was just 19 years old, Abigail Marsh started wondering what it was that motivated another person to risk his life to save hers. Marsh became a psychology researcher and dedicated her life to understanding the human capacity to care for others.

The question she kept wondering about touches the very core of human nature: Is man fundamentally selfish or selfless? Do we only care about ourselves or are we capable of profoundly caring for others? Why did Abigail Marsh get saved by someone who had absolutely no responsibility towards her and absolutely nothing to gain from his risky act?

Selfishness vs Selflessness

Not everyone of us can understand the choice this one stranger made in the case of Abigail Marsh that night. There are many people out there who believe that human nature is, at its core, pretty selfish. Some people don’t believe in altruism at all. And some might even argue that people who risk their lives for others, like the stranger who saved Abigail Marsh, do so for their own sense of self-worth, and thus for inherently selfish reasons – merely disguised as altruism.

The philosophical debate about the human condition has been going on since the very beginnings of philosophical debates. Thomas Hobbes, for example, was convinced that the natural state of man was a perpetual war of all men against all men (“bellum omnium contra omnes”). Hobbes used this thought experiment, that rests upon man’s selfish nature, to legitimate the necessity for a powerful state to guarantee peace for its inhabitants. Without the power of the state every man would just destroy the other for his own selfish reasons, Hobbes argued. But are people really that selfish?

The caring continuum  

There’s a new trend in psychotherapy to describe mental disorders as a scale, instead of describing them as a binary condition people have or don’t have. In her research, Marsh found out that it is the very same thing with altruism. You don’t just have it or not; it is rather a capacity that is developed to some degree or another.

To substantiate her theory of the caring continuum, Marsh examined the brains of highly altruistic people on the one hand, and the brains of psychopaths on the other. Psychopaths are people with some kind of developmental disorder that hinders them to put themselves into the position of another human being (they lack the so-called “theory of mind”), and therefore act emotionally cold and overly rationalistic. Highly altruistic people, on the other hand, are people who voluntarily act in a way that costs them something, just to help another human being. (For her studies, f. ex, Marsh examined people who donated kidneys to strangers).

She found out that the brains of psychopaths and altruists are actually a lot different from each other. She even worked out some key differences between psychopaths and altruists: Altruists are extremely sensitive to other people expressing fear – while psychopaths don’t get fearful facial cues at all. And altruists have a bigger amygdala than psychopaths and a more reactive one at that.

Caring in circles 

The thing that makes altruists so extraordinary, is that they don’t only care about their inner circle of friends and family – like “normal” people in the middle of the caring continuum do – but also about strangers.

“These altruists literally don’t think of themselves as being at the center of anything, as being better or more inherently important than anybody else.”, Marsh explains. Altruists show a lack of self-centeredness. That’s why they are prone to helping everybody else. They are convinced that everybody else matters just as much as they do.

So, Marsh’s findings could end the old philosophical debate about altruism once and for all. Her research clearly shows: Altruism is not just selfishness in disguise. It very much exists. People who believe altruism to be a mere myth might lack this human capacity, to some degree, and therefore might not be capable to experience altruism for themselves.

Find out all about Abigail Marsh’s astonishing research:

Cover image: Death 2 Stock

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About Verena Ehrnberger

Verena works as a data privacy legal expert and studies philosophy at the University of Vienna. Always juggling multiple projects, she is seriously addicted to coffee.

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