Monday, October 27, 2008

The Goodish Samaritan

A new (zoo?) review of past studies into altruistic (or “prosocial”) behavior published in the journal Science has uncovered some surprising results. And by “surprising”, I mean “obvious”. Turns out people who perform altruistic acts in the name of religion do so less out of empathy than a fear of reprisal from a higher power. Or they just want to be seen as morally upstanding citizens. Or they simply lie to researchers about all the altruistic acts they supposedly perform. Of course, such selfish and fearful motives for altruism aren’t exclusive to the religious. In a secular society, the long arm of the law can also act much like a terrible father figure watching to make sure you do good. And the biological origins of altruism may be rooted in the need for a species to cooperate in order to simply survive. The review also points out that selflessness in the name of religion can be taken to an antisocial extreme when it comes to suicide bombers or others who will sacrifice themselves to further the cause of their own particular group at the expense of some other group. I’d like to think my good deeds are entirely motivated by my empathy for others, but I know I’m no exception to the general trend. The only reason I donate to Jerry’s Kids is because I’m trying to get in the pants of that chick who can balance a chair on her pinky toe. More details here.

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