Pathological Altruism: The Road to Hell Really Is Often Paved With Good Intentions Argues New Study

road to hellCredit: A_poselenov/dreamstimeIn a remarkably interesting new paper, “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oakland University systems engineer Barbara Oakley argues that intentions to help people all too often hurt them. Unintended harm is the outcome of she what calls pathological altruism.  She defines pathological altruism “as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.” In her study Oakley explores the psychological and evolutionary underpinnings of empathy and altruism and how they can go wrong. It turns out that pathological altruism is a pervasive problem affecting public policy.

As Oakley explains:

Good government is a foundation of large-scale societies; government programs are designed to minimize a variety of social problems. Although virtually every program has its critics, well designed programs can be effective in bettering people’s lives with few negative tradeoffs. From a scientifically-based perspective, however, some programs are deeply problematic, often as a result of superficial notions on the part of program designers or implementers about what is genuinely beneficial for others, coupled with a lack of accountability for ensuing programmatic failures. In these pathologically altruistic enterprises, confirmation bias, discounting, motivated reasoning, and egocentric certitude that our approach is the best—in short, the usual biases that underlie pathologies of altruism—appear to play important roles.

The above list of pathologies afflicting public policy sounds all too familiar. Although Oakley doesn’t bluntly say so, the modern welfare state can be conceived of as being largely a collection of enterprises conjured into existence by pathological altruism. Social security – discourages citizens from saving and is going bankrupt. Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, ObamaCare, employer based health insurance - a dysfunctional system of third party payments that boosts overall health care costs without fostering improved care or services. AFDC (now defunct but replaced by lots of other programs) – encouraged single motherhood and near-permanent unemployment. Subsidized student loans - enable university bureaucracies to enlarge without improving educational outcomes. Obviously some people have benefited from these programs, but it is at least arguable that the unanticipated consequences, e.g., bankruptcy, dysfunctional families, higher unemployment, worse medical care, and so forth, are likely to overwhelm the good intentions behind them.

In the context of scientific research, Oakley notes…

…that those possessing altruism bias would be most strongly biased to object to the very concept of altruism bias. Research has shown the near impossibility of reaching biased individuals using rational approaches, no matter their level of education or intelligence; such attempts can be likened to squaring the circle.

In another vein, researchers from outside a given discipline, and who are thus less vested in the theories of that domain themselves, could initiate studies to determine whether insufficient statistics, exaggerated claims, drawing the wrong conclusions from other papers, or using data selectively to confirm hypotheses might differ among studies that relate to disciplinary biases or moral issues (many hard-science topics ultimately impact issues of deep moral concern) versus those that do not. Within scientific disciplines, the appearance of group-norm–enforcing signed petitions could be used as indicators of the potential for pathologies of altruism; such petitions might communicate important, albeit unintended, information about the health of a discipline.

Are entire disciplines shaped by papers that are not submitted because of legitimate fears of rejection?

With regard to that last question, I recently had a disheartening, but not surprising, discussion with a niece who has just begun graduate work in archaeology at a leading university. Her program is located in the anthropology department. We were talking about some recent studies that are trying to apply insights from evolutionary psychology to various issues in anthropology. She informed me that her professors so loathed evolutionary psychology that mentioning it could destroy her career. In the wake of that conversation, my wife gave her a copy of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, covered in a brown paper wrapper.

Oakley further argues:

Is it possible that some social advocacy and social justice efforts result in the same types of pernicious effects on a societal scale so that efforts to build cooperation instead inhibit it? We often do not know, because well-meaning advocates have made raising those questions a taboo. Framing issues in the form of pathologies of altruism and altruism bias forms a mechanism for breaking through the taboo and making dispassionate studies of when helping is truly helping and when it is contributing inadvertent harm.

Oakley concludes by reminding us…

… it is important to note that during the twentieth century, tens of millions individuals were killed under despotic regimes that rose to power through appeals to altruism. The study of pathological altruism, in other words, is not a minor, inconsequential offshoot of the study of altruism but instead is a topic of overwhelming scientific and public importance.

Earnest good intentions are not enough: bring data instead.

For more background on how experimental social science can improve public policy, see my review of Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society, by Jim Manzi.

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  • eyeroller||

    Although virtually every program has its critics, well designed programs can be effective in bettering people’s lives with few negative tradeoffs.

    Kind of unfortunate that sentence is in there, because it's the only sentence that pathological altruists will remember.

  • John||

    Well designed programs. And we all know every program is well designed.

  • fried wylie||

    Well intentioned intentions naturally produce well designed programs. Peon.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Research has shown the near impossibility of reaching biased individuals using rational approaches, no matter their level of education or intelligence

    This is apparent to anyone who has ever tried to bring data and facts into a conversation with a progressive on guns. The facts don't matter, all that matters is that we do SOMETHING to help protect the children.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Yesterday, a prog cited drug prohibition to me as an example of limited-government libertarianism run amok. In the progressiverse, Queen Carlotta has proclaimed every day to be backwards day.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Wait, wut?

    How?

    Ahh, fuck it, I give up. I don't want to hurt my brain trying to figure that one out.

    Prohibition is neither libertarian, nor limited government. Quite the antithesis actually. Please tell me you slapped them.

  • Mark22||

    I've had progressives tell me that the primary goal of libertarianism was to encourage rent seeking. Oh, and that Hitler's economic policies were libertarian.

    I think it's tribalism combined with profound stupidity.

  • Rasilio||

    "a prog cited drug prohibition to me as an example of limited-government libertarianism run amok"

    ???

    That'd be like me using the Yankees 25 World Series championships as proof that the Red Sox are the best team in Baseball History.

  • WTF||

    Ahem, 27 World Series Championships.

  • KPres||

    If anything, it's the will of the people dominating corporations who want to provide for the needs of an oppressed underclass. Business as usual in a democracy.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    This is apparent to anyone who has ever tried to bring data and facts into a conversation with a progressive on guns. The facts don't matter, all that matters is that we do SOMETHING to help protect the children.

    That's because those people are pathological. I'm just not sure about the altruistic part.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    I think they do see themselves as selfless warriors for peace and justice. They love to brag about standing up to the evil NRA and the terrible gun owners. I've seen a few praise other proggies for "risking their lives" by standing against guns, because according to their ideology, all of us gun owners are violent, barely contained psychopaths. I've heard them tell their friends to avoid certain areas because gun owners were holding a rally and they didn't want to risk being shot. Hell, I've even been told that gun shows should be shut down because with all those guns just lying around, someone is BOUND to get shot.

    So you see, they really do think they're being selfless and righteous.

  • Fluffy||

    The prog attitude toward the NRA is one of the best examples around of their complete imperviousness to facts.

    It is a prog article of faith that the NRA is a "front for gun manufacturers" and that their influence is due to "gun manufacturer campaign contributions".

    They are literally unable to conceive of the fact that gun rights people don't really care about the manufacturers at all. The NRA's influence is entirely - entirely - due to the fact that its membership is made up of brutally and relentlessly dogged gun owners.

    The NRA is the one, true example of successful grass roots activism defeating everything thrown at it. But the progs actively refuse to see that.

  • scareduck||

    They cannot conceive of anyone holding opinions counter to their own, nor that these would be popular. It's why, after every damn mass shooting, we are treated to thumbsuckers in Salon and Slate and Daily Kos about "having a national dialogue", as if those words hadn't been spoken before -- and duly rejected by a very large and vociferous group of people.

  • Mark22||

    They most certainly can conceive of non-progressive opinions being popular; after all, occasionally, non-progressive politicians win elections.

    They just explain it as the people holding them either being corrupt and paid off by corporations, or being brainwashed by corporate advertising.

  • sarcasmic||

    Obligatory C. S. Lewis
    "Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good
    of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live
    under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.
    The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may
    at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good
    will torment us without end for they do so with the approval
    of their own conscience."

  • Tim||

    The guy was right.

  • John Galt||

    Boy, ain't that the truth.

  • Doctor Whom||

    I don't lightly agree with C. S. Lewis, but he nailed it there.

  • robc||

    I dont think you have read much of his political/social commentary.

  • sarcasmic||

    There's Bloomburg in a nutshell.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    If Bloomie were to ever attain office higher than NYC Mayor, he could easily be the most dangerous man in America.

  • creech||

    Contrast Batista with Castro.

  • John||

    This is a wildly important book. It is not a new idea. The idea that people use altruistic intentions as a way to rationalize their own failings and evils is as old as mankind itself. But Oakley addresses the idea in a systematic way and in the language of modern social science.

    Because it is the truth, I have no doubt this book will be ignored by all right thinking people.

  • sarcasmic||

    Because it is the truth, I have no doubt this book will be ignored by all right thinking people.

    "The author obviously hates the children."

    "The racist author disparages programs aimed to help minorities."

    "The author would have the aged be homeless and the sick stacked up like cord wood in hospital parking lots."

  • John||

    The author is just a radical individualists who because of her pathological individualism feels the need to unfairly impinge on every collective impulse or effort to improve the collective good.

  • scareduck||

    Because it is the truth, I have no doubt this book will be ignored by all right thinking people.

    Yes. This.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    "Social security – discourages citizens from saving and going bankrupt."

    dude. what?

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Social Security is going bankrupt, not necessarily the people it discourages from saving.

  • Ron Bailey||

    TG: NEM is right - a crucial "is" was missing and is now fixed.

  • Boomer||

    You also could have said Social Security discourages citizens from saving and AVOIDING bankruptcy. Bankruptcy seems to have become a right of passage for Americans these days...

  • anon||

    discourages citizens from saving and is going bankrupt

    ftfy

  • Tommy_Grand||

    ok then

  • robc||

    behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.

    If only there was an iron law that stated that is a more pithy manner.

  • John||

    The more noble the ends, the more ghastly the means will be justified to achieve it.

  • robc||

    I was thinking of the actual Iron Law:

    Foreseeable consequences arent unintended.

    You know, the one that causes Tulpa to flip out.

  • John||

    That is true in a moral sense but not in a literal sense. RC underestimated people's ability to lie to themselves. I don't care how foreseeable the consequences are, a good altruist will lie to himself and pretend this time will be different.

  • anon||

    I don't care how foreseeable the consequences are, a good altruist will lie to himself and pretend this time will be different.

    Similar could almost be said of libertarians: "People are smart enough to take care of theirselves" is contradicted every minute of every day, as people continue to prove themselves as morons to me.

  • Marc F Cheney||

    But good intentions don't always work the way they should
    Some end up harming more than doing any good
    ---Tiles

  • PRX||

    first of all, I don't concede that most of these people meet the definition of altruists, pathological or otherwise. scratch an "altruist", find a parasite.

  • John||

    I wouldn't say that. I would say scratch an "altruist" and you will find a narcissist. Their efforts are usually have more to do with the altruist than it does with the problem.

  • PRX||

    whatever. I know a lot of government employees think they are altruists.

  • John||

    Of course they do. And why do they think that? Why do they want to be "altruists" in the first place? Mostly it is to feel good about themselves and feel like they have made a difference and all that. The people they "help" are just props in their own little morality play.

  • PRX||

    and if you get paid for it, you're not an altruist. pimp, mercenary, or parasite fits better.

  • John||

    So no one should ever get paid if they are doing something to help others? I don't think the "pay" has anything to do with it.

  • PRX||

    getting paid for it certainly takes altruism out of the equation.

  • creech||

    Maybe because being "selfish" is an epithet to the vast majority of people, instead of being a compliment. Next time someone says "You are being selfish." say, "Why thank you."

  • NeonCat||

    If you were really selfish, you wouldn't give them a thank you.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Of course they do. And why do they think that?

    Because they have to believe something good about what they do in order to sleep at night.

  • DaveAnthony||

    Yeah I see this attitude all the time.

    Teachers: "We're heroes to these kids!"
    Mothers: "I'm a hero for being a mother!"
    Police: "We're heroes putting our lives on the line!" *shoots bag of kittens*
    Military: "We're all heroes for taking a job that pays a salary and we knew the dangers when we signed up!"

    Me: "I do business & marketing for a living. I'm not a fucking hero."

  • entropy||

    That's a huge part of it.

    Crusaders gonna crusade. How else are they going to be the hero of all the storybooks and the very paragon of (self) righteousness?

  • anon||

    I don't care how foreseeable the consequences are, a good altruist will lie to himself and pretend this time will be different.

    I agree, to an extent: The only reason altruistic people do things for others is because it makes the altruist "feel" good to commit such behavior; however, I also believe that people only act in what they perceive as their own best interest.

    tl;dr; altruists are just obsessed with feeling like the world owes them something for their "good" deeds.

  • anon||

    So I guess what I mean is the word "altruism" is in itself a contradiction.

  • Mr Whipple||

    There are some that believe there are no true altruistic actions. Everything is done in self-interest. Even if that self-interest is just a "good feeling". This is known as "Psychological Egoism", (not to be confused with Ethical Egoism).

  • John||

    I am not sure if that is true. But no question it is a common phenomena even if it isn't always the case.

  • ||

    Also the people who perform "altruistic" actions to look good to other people.

  • Josh S||

    People do nice things for others all the time knowing that they may get something good in return. "Altruistic" I don't think so. Take note in this article about public policy. Many of the federal level representatives and federal workers may have gone into their positions for the benefit of others, but will almost will often deny the majority of the people they represent to avoid being thrown out of their position by figures of power, including mass media. It's a result of inevitable human flaw. Points to another reason for decreasing the size of the federal government in the United States.

  • KPres||

    Or an opportunist.

  • John||

    Or as Oakley says a sociopath. Altruistic occupations are havens for sociopaths. Sociopaths are wildly empathetic. They don't care about other people but have this feral ability to read other people. That is how they are so good at exploiting them.

    Any do gooder crusade is going to attract sociopaths.

  • KPres||

    I'll note that empathy and altruism aren't the same thing. Schadenfreude is empathetic, and quite the opposite of altruism.

  • John||

    They are not the same thing. But empathy is at the heart of altruism. Without empathy for the other person, why be altruistic?

  • KPres||

    I don't know. I don't really think either is real the way they're usually defined. Empathy isn't some spiritual hocus-pocus, it's just imagining yourself in someone else's shoes, at which point which any response is self-interested, ergo, not altruistic.

  • Mr Whipple||

    Many "rational people think that if they are acting against their own self-interests, and for the interests of others, they must be acting morally. That's completely false.

    Far more harm is caused by altruistic immorality than immorality due to self-interests.

    - Bernard Gert

    Common Morality:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enVFjAUTfI8

  • Tim||

    This is why we need to jump into this Syrian war- to help the Syrians. Of course thousands will die horribly as a result, but those will be unintended deaths.

  • Lord Humungus||

    it's for their own good!

  • Matrix||

    well, to be fair... unintended deaths are not as tragic as intended deaths. We can deal with the unintended ones. Those people just aren't as valuable anyway.

  • ||

    The full paper is worth reading. It's the best psychoanalysis of the progressive mindset I've ever seen.

  • KPres||

    My grandparents were wide-eyed hippie moonbats, and my experience is that until you get to know these people on an intimate basis, you can't imagine how demented the whole thing really is. It's passive-aggressive pathology on top of delusion on top of narcissism yet filled with fits of self-loathing. They run the gamut on dysfunction. It took my mother literally years to erase all the insanity they downloaded onto her. My advice is stay as far away from them as you can.

  • ||

    I forwarded the study to a friend I debate sometimes. Her response was "The author is a systems engineer commenting on social science, she's not qualified to speak on this subject". Pretty sure she just read the headline and maybe first paragraph and leapt to a conclusion. The strange thing is this person has also told me "there is no such thing as true altruism, people always act for some selfish reason even if they believe their motivation is truly selfless".

  • entropy||

    she's not qualified to speak

    Mind your betters.

  • Matrix||

    what has one to gain by jumping on a live grenade to save his squad?

  • robc||

    1. Depends if you believe in an afterlife.

    2. Depends if you value heroism.

    3. Depends if you value 5 friends (or however many) over yourself.

  • Sam Grove||

    IF you are close enough to a grenade that you can jump on it before it blows, it's likely you would be killed or seriously maimed whatever you do, so why not live on in the memories of your buddies?

  • ||

    How can you get to Valhalla if you are not fearless and never find a glorious death in battle?

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Her response was "The author is a systems engineer commenting on social science, she's not qualified to speak on this subject".

    She probably thinks a grad student without a background in child psychology is qualified to speak on how anthropomorphized animals in stories are harmful to the social development of children.

  • fried wylie||

    The Road to Hell Really Is Often Paved With Good Intentions Argues New Study

    Damn, it's almost as if sayings exist because people made dead simple observations and turned it into a catchphrase.

    How about a study on the effectiveness of counting chickens before/after hatching?

  • ||

    Are entire disciplines shaped by papers that are not submitted because of legitimate fears of rejection?

    This is a joke, right? Every science is harmed by this kind of groupthink. It's a major problem.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Climate science, just off the top of my head.

    I can't find the article, but I remember a story about a scientist (CERN, I think) that released a paper that held some evidence that humans might not be responsible for Climate Change. He didn't expressly say so, he didn't even refute that Climate Change exists. He merely presented his findings about the causes of changes we are seeing.

    He was summarily fired and ostracized from the scientific community.

  • Flemur||

    Normal and pathological altruism.

    Abstract
    The psychoanalytic literature on altruism is sparse, although much has been written on this topic from a sociobiological perspective. Freud (1917) first described the concept in "Libido Theory and Narcissism." In 1946 Anna Freud coined the term "altruistic surrender" to describe the psychodynamics of altruistic behavior in a group of inhibited individuals who were neurotically driven to do good for others. The usefulness and clinical applicability of this formulation, in conjunction with the frequent coexistence of masochism and altruism, encouraged psychoanalysts to regard all forms of altruism as having masochistic underpinnings. Since then, there has been a conflation of the two concepts in much of the analytic literature.

    This paper reexamines the psychoanalytic understanding of altruism and proposes an expansion of the concept to include a normal form. Five types of altruism are described: protoaltruism, generative altruism, conflicted altruism, pseudoaltruism, and psychotic altruism.

    Protoaltruism has biological roots and can be observed in animals. In humans, protoaltruism includes maternal and paternal nurturing and protectiveness.

    Generative altruism is the nonconflictual pleasure in fostering the success and/or welfare of another.
    ...

  • Flemur||

    Conflicted altruism is generative altruism that is drawn into conflict, but in which the pleasure and satisfaction of another (a proxy) is actually enjoyed.

    Pseudoaltruism originates in conflict and serves as a defensive cloak for underlying sadomasochism.

    Psychotic altruism is defined as the sometimes bizarre forms of caretaking behavior and associated self-denial seen in psychotic individuals, and often based on delusion. We consider Anna Freud's altruistic surrender to combine features of both conflict-laden altruism and pseudoaltruism. Two clinical illustrations are discussed.

  • ||

    The usual remedies usually work. Let those who favor doing, be invested in the adventrure; that which works less well will fall out of favor. Let those not investing, be prevented from any influence whatever.

  • ||

    Never trust anyting presented as a benefit. Only trust that which is presented as a benefit TO THE PRESENTER.

  • alittlesense||

    Charles Dickens, despite his unrealistic attitudes about many things in Victorian England, knew all about pathological altruism. See the character Mrs. Jellyby in "Bleak House", who is so involved in a project to relocate England's poor to Africa. The project ends badly when the king of the fictional country sells the project volunteers into slavery to buy rum.

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