Social Science

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


road to hell
Credit: A_poselenov/dreamstime

In 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.