Members in the Media
From: Slate

Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding?


Hero means everything and nothing. It encompasses the firefighters who rushed into the burning twin towers, long-distance runners who compete through chronic disease, and the wag on Twitter who makes a point you agree with. The highly specific, armor-bright figure of classical myth has grown a thousand faces. We still want him around (DC Comics recently announced 10 new superhero films to unspool over the next six years, including one about a her: Wonder Woman), but his omnipresence makes him easy to mock. Part of our ambivalence may also stem from the suspicion that his noble deeds are not as selfless as they seem, motivated instead by a thirst for attention, rational egotism, or even masochism.

The volunteers—and a computer algorithm, for safesies—analyzed the medal winners’ statements for evidence of careful thought, or of unpremeditated action. Overwhelmingly, they found that day-savers rescue first and reflect second. As Christine Marty, a 21-year-old student who wrested a trapped senior citizen from her car during a flash flood, said, “I’m thankful I was able to act and not think about it.” Study author David Rand noted that people playing economic games are similarly less likely to share resources when they ruminate about their moves, but more generous when they don’t take time to consider strategy. Perhaps human nature is reflexively pure and kind (and corrupted by our hyper-rational, transactional society)—or perhaps, as Rand speculated, cooperation becomes an intuitive habit only after we see it paying off. (Quoth Zazu: Cheetahs never prosper.)

One study, by researchers at Georgetown University, implies that the world’s givers and helpers simply possess more empathy. Psychologist Abigail Marsh and her team recruited 19 people who had donated their kidneys to total strangers, and 20 people who had not. They flashed images of fearful, upset, or angry human faces at the volunteers while recording their brain activity with an fMRI machine. The donors and the control group generated similar scans, except for two details: In donors, the right amygdala, which governs emotional response, was 8 percent larger, and it showed enhanced activity. Previous tests had already revealed the opposite finding for psychopaths. These empathy-impaired subjects had amygdalae that fired less when distressed faces were presented. Though fMRI studies are in their infancy, this one implied that altruists just give more shits than do the rest of us.

Read the whole story: Slate

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