Altruism: Are we all programmed differently?

The first time I heard the word “altruism”, I thought it was someone who plays truant all the time. Guess there was enough onomatopoeia happening there for me to assume that. Just to be doubly sure though, I looked it up in the dictionary and imagine my surprise when I found out that altruism meant “unselfish concern”. It had nothing to do with truancy. OK then!

Inline image 1Since then, I’ve observed over the years, altruism exhibited in various forms and have come to the conclusion that some people are just better programmed for it than others, choosing to help someone, just because they think the person in need has to be helped. No ulterior motive, no elections or popularity contests to be won. Simply because they thought it needed to be done.

Lately, I’ve been going through a podcast binge phase consuming faster than they get published. On one such day last week, as I was browsing my list of available podcasts, I came across the newest one on TED Radio for Altruism. That piqued my interest and more so when they started off with discussing if some people are wired to be more altruistic than the rest of us.

So this podcast on altruism talked about the amygdala which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions and survival instincts. It is also designed to perceive advanced emotions like fear, sadness or even anger. The amygdalae (there’s two of them, one in each hemisphere) in altruists are as much as 8% larger than normal people. These people also tend to exhibit a higher level of benevolence than their not-so-perceptive counterparts and this is where the programming for more altruism comes in.

While we reference altruism primarily in the context of humans, most higher primates like rats, dolphins and dogs also display an impressive capacity to be altruistic with no knowledge or expectation of reward or recognition. This brings us to a rather basic question – is altruism purely genetic or can it be an acquired skill? If we look closely, our society in general has started to become more altruistic over time and we now care more about the welfare of strangers than we did in the past. A lot of it is environmental. It comes primarily from being in and around situations that bring out that trait in us. So it is clearly a learned skill, one we can have more of!

For the longest time I believed the truly altruistic were the ones that gave freely and anonymously. I assumed that they gave because they had so much of it. But it isn’t as much an indication of how much you have as it is of what you would like to do with it. As a child, when I lamented over something I didn’t have, my Dad would often say and I translate “Always look down to see how much more you have than someone else rather than look up to see how much less you have. If you can help those that have less than you, it is far more fulfilling than achieving something you crave instead.” That has stuck with me for life. I’m no Buddha. I still can be envious but then his words come back to me and create that calming effect I need.

Until recently, I was also very ambivalent about venerating wealthy donors like Bill/Melinda Gates or Warren Buffet or Sachin Tendulkar for their generosity. Yes they were doing good but didn’t they already have plenty, so why then was it such a big focus when they gave away a small portion of their fortune, only to be left with so much more? I held onto this belief for most of my life too. It’s only now as I get older do I think, does it really matter that they use their fame and attention to help provide resources to those less privileged? Instead of thinking that way, maybe a better way to look at it is – what is more befitting than using one’s social stature to bring about prosperity in the world! If nothing else, it might inspire others among us to emulate them which is several times better than aspiring towards the fashion goals of our famous celebrities.

There’s no doubt that altruism is a positive trait to have. How much then is good and how much is considered going overboard? I guess if you do it without endangering your loved ones or demanding the same of them, you are within the boundaries of a healthy need to help. That being said, I believe I am selectively altruistic. I will donate to causes I believe in or will help hold the door for a mom pushing a stroller and carrying an armful of groceries. I might even help carry her bags for her if she will allow it. However, I will think twice and probably not help someone trying to load their vehicle in a parking lot or give a hitchhiker a ride. While I’ve often wondered if I am being prejudicial or cold, I think the desire to be safe and alive, far exceeds my desire to help someone. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies or heard of too many abductions and molestations to risk it myself.

I sincerely hope the other things I do make up for my lack in situations where I choose not to help. I could help so many more if I continued to stay alive. 🙂


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