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The psychology behind why we want to change the world

…even if we have to sacrifice ourselves

There are many big problems in the world today. We may not all agree on what those problems are, or what the best solutions to those problems are, but I think we can all agree there are problems.

The awareness of these problems motivates us to join or start mission-driven companies and nonprofits, donate our hard-earned money to good causes, march at protests, and share articles on social media.

These are noble ventures that do make a positive impact. But let’s be real for a minute. Changing the world is hard. Our efforts to do so come at a cost.

Political activism, for example, is stressful and time consuming. Depending on the cause, and your environment, it can hurt your relationships with friends and family or even cost you your job.

I had a friend who ruined his relationship with his boss over something he shared on Facebook. He thought that by sharing it he could change his Facebook friends’ minds, and that if he did, it would make the world a better place. I’m not sure if it changed anyone’s mind, but it did change his ability to make a living.

An old co-worker of mine quit his big consulting job after six months to work on the Hilary Clinton campaign. After she lost, he couldn’t get a job in consulting because employers were concerned he was uncommitted.

So why do we do it? Why do we sacrifice ourselves for the good of others?

Altruism is the belief in or practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. The countless occurrences of altruistic behavior — such as firefighters risking their lives to save others from a burning home, or political protestors risking jail time to further their cause — counters the commonly held belief that selfishness is our nature.

“Living things are designed to do things that enhance the chances of their genes or copies of their genes surviving and replicating,” Matt Ridley writes in his book, The Origins of Virtue. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy elaborates on how altruism may seem to be at odds to the design that Ridley describes:

“Natural selection leads us to expect animals to behave in ways that increase their own chances of survival and reproduction, not those of others. But by behaving altruistically an animal reduces its own fitness, so should be at a selective disadvantage vis-à-vis one which behaves selfishly.”

While it may seem that altruism comes at a cost and has little to no tangible benefit from a biological perspective, when we delve further into what drives us to fight for a cause, we may find that altruism and self-preservation are not always at odds. It turns out that being altruistic may be a better strategy to pass on one’s genes than being selfish.

What benefits the group benefits the individual

Humans have always been a social, cooperative species. According to Oren Harman of The Chronicle of Higher Education, this trait may be what’s propelled us to the top of the food chain:

“Developing the biological and cultural mechanisms that suppressed disruptive within-group competition and fostered empathy and trust, our ancestors became the sole primate.”

Ridley, and other evolutionary biologists, theorize that humans are designed to pass on their genes. However, preserving oneself is not the only way to replicate one’s genes. Per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “By behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce.”

David and Edward Wilson described the adaptive strategy behind this paradox more succinctly:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups”

While altruism may be a cost to the individual, it comes with the benefit of increasing the likelihood that others with the group will survive. In other words, while altruism may not help us as individuals, it may help our kinsmen. Or, as Ridley says, “Selfish genes sometimes uses selfless individuals to achieve their ends.”

The power of reciprocity

Our ancestors cooperated on important functions such as hunting, gathering, protecting the tribe, and raiding others for their resources. This cooperation is helpful to the group and to the individuals within that group, writes Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today:

“Social behaviors — including altruism — are often genetically programmed into a species to help them survive…Even if you are feeling ‘selfish’, behaving selflessly may be the wisest ‘self-serving’ thing to do.”

Bergland explains the benefit to this strategy: “Acting selflessly in the moment provides a selective advantage to the altruist in the form of some kind of return benefit.” A paper published in the Annual Review of Psychology describes these reciprocal benefits more specifically: “Signaling that one is generous can lead to benefits for the person signaling, such as being chosen as an exchange partner, friend, or mate.”

If you help a friend pay of their credit card debt, they may be more likely to help you pay off your debt in the future. If you help a friend move into a new apartment, they’ll be more likely to help you when you move. When you are known as a person who helps others, people want to be your friend. By giving, we receive.

Throughout history, there have been significant costs associated with appearing not to be altruistic. According to the same paper in the Annual Review of Psychology, “Across cultures, people punish others who have violated moral norms, even when the violation leads to people being better off rather than worse off…In populations in which certain behaviors are punished, people are better off if they resist engaging in these behaviors, even if doing so is in their short-term interests.”

The benefits of helping others, and the costs of not doing so, indicate that making sacrifices for the group helps us survive. While altruism may come at a cost, there are clearly significant benefits.

Conclusion

The personal costs of altruistic behavior are outweighed by the benefits: Reciprocation from our tribe. Additionally, we may be wired to protect our genially similar tribesmen, not just ourselves. This is in contrast to the view that we’re all just selfish creatures out for own best interests. Since acting selfishly is not always in our genes’ best interest, we may not be hardwired to do so.

However, the research conversely indicates that acting selflessly is not always in our best interest as the primary carriers of those genes. While it may have been beneficial for our ancestors to favor the interests of others over the personal and, as a result, we may have evolved to do the same, society is very different today than it was for our ancestors.

“Society was not invented by reasoning men. It evolved as part of our nature”, Ridley says. While our genes may want us to behave in a given way, we need not be slaves to our genes when the personal cost could potentially prove to be disastrous.

With awareness for the psychology behind altruism, we can be more aware of the real costs and benefits of altruism and, therefore, make better decisions.


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