ALTRUISM? REALLY?

Altruism: an individual performing an action that is at a cost to him/herself (e.g., time, effort,  pleasure, quality of life, probability of survival or reproduction) that benefits – either directly or indirectly – another individual or group, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action.

 

Helping behavior may or may not be altruistic.  There are many factors affecting the urge to help, including the following.

 

1) Kin selection: both animals and humans are more helpful toward close kin that to distant kin or non-kin.  Perception of kinship is affected by whether the other looks like the giver, shares a family name (especially if it’s an unusual name), has a familiar scent (in animal groups), etc.  Think of kin as the in-group.

 

2) Vested interests: helping friends, allies, and similar social in-groups (besides avoiding vicarious suffering to the individual) may eventually benefit the altruist.  Extreme self-sacrifice may be adaptive if a hostile outgroup threatens to kill the entire group.  During the Allied campaign in Italy in the World War II, First Lieutenant John Robert Fox ordered an artillery strike on his position in Sommocolinia, sacrificing his own life to take out invading German forces and allow US troops to retreat safely.  He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

First Lieutenant John Robert Fox
3) Reciprocal altruism: helping others is more likely if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate.  Therefore, people are more helpful it is likely that they will interact again in the future.  If a person sees others being non-cooperative, they are less likely to be helpful.  If someone helps first, the recipient of the help is more likely to help in return.  Think charities that give small gifts of stickers, notepads, or holiday cards when asking for a contribution.

 

Cleaner wrasse servicing a big-eye squirrelfish
4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.

 

Technology assisting Rohingya in getting aid
5) Groups of people cooperate more if they perceive a threat from another group.  In the insect world, this frequently happens when a colony or hive finds safety in numbers while moving larvae, a queen, or the entire group.  Ants, bees, termites, etc., form large masses and structures to complete the move.

 

Moving a beehive
6) People will help more when they know that their helping will be communicated to people they will interact with later, is publicly announced, is discussed, or is simply observed by someone else.

 

Peace Corps volunteers swearing in
7) Selective investment theory proposes that close social bonds, and associated emotional, cognitive, and neurohormonal mechanisms evolved in order to facilitate long-term, high-cost altruism benefiting those depending on another for group survival and reproductive success.  Humans, like many other animals, care for members of the species who cannot care for themselves, ultimately benefiting the species as a whole.

 

Very young and very old humans often require assistance and care
8) Microbiologists are studying whether some strains of microbes might influence the hosts to perform altruistic behaviors that are not immediately obvious as beneficial to the host.  There is a possibility, currently being researched, that the bacteria in a person’s gut could affect their behavior and that changes in the bacterial makeup (such as from taking antibiotics) might result in a change in personality.

 

At first glance, this monkey grooming a sleeping wild dog must be suicidal
Psychology has defined psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare.  Some definitions specify a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors.  Even when not immediately obvious, altruism is often rewarded in various ways (see above).  When there is no tangible reward, feeling good about oneself can be rewarding.  Regardless of whether an act is “true” altruism, there are many psychological studies that document the conditions under which people are more likely to help.
  1. Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
  2. Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
  3. A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.
The Good Samaritan mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik
The up-side of helping: volunteerism is strongly related to current and future health and well-being.
  • Older adults who volunteered were higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and lower on measures of depression, anxiety, somatization.
  • A 30-year study of the physical health of mothers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of those who did.
  • A 4-year study of people 55 and older found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying.  Controlling for prior health status indicated that volunteerism accounted for a 44%reduction in mortality.
  • Research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring out happiness but it also works in the opposite direction: happier people are also kinder.
Philemon and Baucis offered complete hospitality to Zeus and Hermes in disguise, despite being paupers
When too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing:
 
  • Although positive effects of helping were still significant, one study of volunteers found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health.
  • While generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for recipients of assistance to appreciate—and show that their appreciation—for kindness and help.
  • Research indicates that a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being for the grateful person.
  • Volunteer burn-out is especially common in high-stress positions, such as volunteer firefighters and medical providers at refugee camps.

Altruism is an important moral value for virtually all of the world’s religions:
  • Jews practice tzedakah, righteous behavior, providing support to make the world a more just place

  • Daya (compassion) and Daan (chairty) are two of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism

  • As part of aparigraha (non-attachment), Jains give away possessions and harm no living creature

  • Many Christian churches still practice tithing, donating 10% of all earnings

  • One of the five primary tenets of Islam is zakat, giving to charity

  • Sikhs practice seva, which is unselfish and unbiased aid to all

  • Buddhism teaches kindness toward all beings

Bottom line for writers: helpful characters are a good option, but be clear in your own head who, why, and under what circumstances the person helps.

 

PREJUDICE: WHAT IT IS, WHAT IT ISN’T

Is fear of grey people racism or able-ism?
Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways: 

 

1)  A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.  This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant).  Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.

Deborah Henson-Conant

2)  An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.

Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict.  Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder.  Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.

 

Where prejudice comes from:
 

1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong.  Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc.  Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked.  Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.

Zebras always vote the same way in local elections.

2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient.  We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.

 

Cartoon by Dan Allison
3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function.  If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).

 

Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
 
  • Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes.  E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
  • Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative.  For example, I hate Yankee fans They make me angry.
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
  • Behavioral: the treatment of others.  When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members.  Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.

 

“How It Works” by xkcd
First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.

 

Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations.  The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs.  (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)

 

Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..

 

In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences.  Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination.  When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed.  This is scape-goating.
 
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations.  Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.

 

Species-ism?

CHARACTERS’ ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR


Attitude is a favorable or unfavorable reaction toward something or someone (often rooted in one’s beliefs and exhibited in one’s feelings and intended behavior).  It is tempting to assume that there is a direct line between these favorable or unfavorable reactions and behavior.  Good news for writers: people’s expressed attitudes seldom predict their actual behavior.  This is because an attitude includes both feeling and thinking, and both affect behavior.

 

I don’t FEEL wet. I THINK I’m walking on water. I must have an uplifting ATTITUDE!
Attitudes predict behavior when these conditions are present:
  • Social influences on what we say are minimal (little social pressure, fear of criticism).  For attitudes formed early in life (e.g., attitudes toward authority and fairness) explicit and implicit attitudes often diverge, with implicit being a stronger predictor.
I’m a good boy. I’m a good boy. I’m a… that treat is mine!
  • Other influences our behavior are minimal: situational constraints, health, weather, etc.
I’m supposed to stay in my cage, but that open window is right there…
  • Attitudes specific to the behavior are examined: e.g., expressed attitudes toward poetry don’t predict enjoying a particular poem, but attitudes toward the costs and benefits of jogging predict jogging behavior.
You’re getting up early tomorrow to go running. Sure. I totally believe you.
  • Attitudes are potent: stating an attitude and an intention to do something makes the attitude more potent and the behavior is more likely (recycling); asking people to think about their attitudes toward an issue also increases potency.
Someday, I WILL be taller than you.
  • Attitudes that are developed through direct experience are more accessible to memory, more enduring, and have a stronger effect on behavior.
Once a diva, always a diva.
Behavior affects attitudes when these conditions are present:
  • Actions prescribed by social roles mold the attitudes of the role players.  (Think prisoners and guards.)
  • What we say or write can strongly affect subsequent attitudes.  (Think being assigned a side in a debate.)
  • Doing a small act increases the likelihood of doing a larger one later.  (Think foot-in-the-door technique.)
  • Actions affect our moral attitudes.  We tend to justify whatever we do, even if it is evil.
  • We not only stand up for what we believe in, we believe in what we have stood up for.  (Think adopting a rescue animal or donating to a food drive.)
I adopted this pet hippo. You should adopt one too. All turtles should have a hippo companion.

The question of whether government should legislate behaviors to change attitudes on a massive scale is compounded by the question of whether it is even possible.

Every day, I come a little closer to my dream of being a balloon.
Why does our behavior affect our attitudes?
  • Self-Presentation Theory says people (especially those who self-monitor their behavior hoping to make a good impression) will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions.  Some genuine attitude change usually accompanies efforts to make a good impression.
I meant to do that; I really wanted a lettuce hat.
  • Dissonance Theory explains attitude change by assuming we feel tension after acting contrary to our attitude or after making difficult decisions.  To reduce that arousal, we internally justify our behavior.  The less external justification we have for undesirable actions, the more we feel responsible for them, thus creating more dissonance and more attitude change.  (Think threat or reward.)
This color looks spectacular on me, and blue is a perfectly normal color for a sheep.
  • Self-Perception Theory assumes that when our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behavior and its circumstances and infer our attitudes (correctly or incorrectly) rather than the other way around.  “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”  And conversely, rewarding people for doing something they like anyway can turn their pleasure into drudgery—the reward leading them to attribute their behavior to the reward rather than the enjoyment of the behavior itself.
I like grass because I have a lot of it.

Bottom line for writers: to present a character’s attitudes to the reader, write what they are doing, thinking, and/or feeling.  And note that each of these affects the other two and is affected in turn.  Dissonance among the these creates lots of opportunity for tension, conflict, and misunderstanding!