Unshakable Humanity: Altruism and Disaster

The Huffington Post:

In May of 2008, a massive earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province. The earthquake measured 8.0 and could be felt as far away as Pakistan, Vietnam and Russia. The shaking lasted a full two minutes and was followed by some 40,000 aftershocks, triggering hundreds of landslides. By the time the earth stopped moving, almost 70,000 were left dead, with another 18,000 missing and more than 300,000 injured. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded.

These facts are staggering — incomprehensible, really. Even people who have experienced some of nature’s wrath must find such fury and human loss unimaginable. It would seem that such a disaster would trigger people’s rawest self-preservation instincts. Surely with the sight of whole towns crumbling and friends and family being swallowed up, civility and generosity of spirit must take a back seat to basic survival.

The results were clear and provocative, as described in a paper to be published in the journal Psychological Science. Three years after the earthquake, the kids’ altruistic giving returned to pre-quake levels, suggesting that the earlier changes were an acute response to the immediate aftermath of the disaster. In other words, the younger children opted for self-preservation in a crisis, suggesting that their emerging generosity is still fragile — but this reaction was not long-lasting. The altruism of the older children was apparently robust enough to withstand the challenge of adversity. Importantly, empathy for other victims was the pathway to generous action.

Read the whole story: The Huffington Post

Wray Herbert is an author and award-winning journalist who writes two popular blogs for APS, We’re Only Human and Full Frontal Psychology.

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