Why Everyone Can Be An Altruistic Person, According To A Psychologist

All people are good people.

Imagine the people closest to you as a circle around you. You are at the center of this circle and as you move outward, beyond your siblings and your squad, are more concentric circles of people you see most days to people who live on the periphery of your life to, eventually, people who you don't even know. 

The people in the innermost circle are the people whom you would do anything for. You wouldn't think twice if they asked to borrow your favorite sweater, and you've probably covered their bar tab when they've forgotten their wallet. You would be less inclined to give the people in the outer circles a helping hand. After all, you don't really know them, so there's little chance for reciprocation.

However, it's this target of friends and strangers that may be the key to what motivates some people to act in the service of others, even those whom they might not know.

About 20 years ago, psychologist Abigail Marsh was in a car accident. In her "Why Some People Are More Altruistic Than Others" TED talk, she explains it was the middle of the night, and, after swerving to avoid hitting a dog, Marsh's car spun across the interstate and ended up stalled and facing backwards into oncoming traffic. A man whom she had never met and would never see again ran across the road, made sure she was OK and fixed her car before driving off again. 

It is this experience that spurned Marsh's interest in researching altruism — a voluntary, costly behavior motivated by the desire to help another individual. She wanted to know why some people were more altruistic than others and what explains such selfless actions.

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She started by looking at the brains of individuals on the other end of the spectrum — psychopaths. Her research found that, in psychopaths, the part of the brain responsible for recognizing fear in others and reacting to that fear — the amygdala — is much smaller and nonreactive. 

When she compared these scans to a population of individuals who donated one of their kidneys to a complete stranger, the brains of the altruistic population reacted in the almost exact opposite way. Their amygdala was better at recognizing people's fear and knowing when someone else is in distress in addition to being more reactive in such situations.

However, being an altruistic person is more than knowing how to help someone. It's wanting to help anyone, even strangers. 

"I say, 'How is it that you're willing to do this thing when so many other people don't? You're one of fewer than 2,000 Americans who has ever given a kidney to a stranger. What is it that makes you so special?'" she explains in her talk. "And what do they say? They say, 'Nothing. There's nothing special about me. I'm just the same as everybody else.'"

Marsh believes that a huge key to understanding an altruistic person's personality is that he or she does not see him or herself as the center of their interactions. When there's no center of your circle, there are no inner and outer rings and thus, no one more or less deserving of your compassion. Altruistic people do not recognize or categorize people by how well they know them, but rather, feel compassion for anyone who is suffering in the world.

According to Marsh, this is the key to being an altruistic person. While there are some scientific explanations for why people act the way they do, really, all it takes to perform an altruistic act is compassion. She says societies in general around the world are becoming more altruistic as they also become less accepting of suffering in general, not just when it happens to those who they know. 

"A hundred years ago, people would have thought it was ludicrous how normal and ordinary it is for people to donate their blood and bone marrow to complete strangers today," she says. "Is it possible that a hundred years from now people will think that donating a kidney to a stranger is just as normal and ordinary as we think donating blood and bone marrow is today? Maybe."

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