Too Good to be True? When Altruistic Behavior Becomes Pathological

Posted on Sun, Jan 22, 2012 @ 11:00 AM

Armenian Genocide

Armenian Genocide Monument
Imeni Tairova, Yerevan Prov., Armenia
Image by Gael G.

In the last post we saw that the ability to think critically requires that we have enough self-control to resist our initial gut reactions. This allows us time to root out any biases or distortions that may be obstructing our thinking. Unfortunately, sometimes we simply fail to entertain the notion that we have biases, especially if we are not used to thinking about how we are thinking—a skill referred to as metacognition.

In other cases, we may know biases are possible but (of course) we don't have any. And we "know" this because we believe we're capable of recognizing our biases even though our personal history may be replete with proof that we are not. For instance, let's say "Jane" has a bias toward expecting the worst of others. In nine encounters out of ten, the worst doesn't actually happen, but Jane is unable to apply that experience to changing her view of the people in her life. She misses the clues in her own daily experience that should help her see that her thinking processes are skewed: that she has a deep-seated bias operating. This bias is probably hurting many of her relationships. And even though she may be aware that biases in her thinking are possible, this one completely eludes her—a state of affairs which has been called metacognitive dissonance

This failure of metacognition, operating together with an array of potential thinking distortions, is believed to be at the heart of many mental health issues, including a state researchers are beginning to call pathological altruism. A pathological altruist has been defined by researcher Barbara Oakley (along with other experts who are pioneering this new area of study) as, "a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts, but who harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help, often in unanticipated fashion; or harms others; or irrationally becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions" (Oakley et al., 2012, p. 4).

Our example, Jane, may fall prey to pathological altruism in feeling as though she needs to step in and "help" everyone around her since no one is capable of performing up to her standards. As a result, her children may never learn to clean their own rooms, her husband may lose the motivation to participate in family planning and decision making, and her friends may stop offering to help in the kitchen after her dinner parties. To all appearances, Jane is a paragon of self-sacrifice, but there's a dark side to her helpfulness: she has created a situation that is potentially harmful to herself as well as to her family.

Of course, Jane's situation is relatively mild in comparison to that of some other pathological altruists one might meet. According to researchers, the potential results of pathological altruism might include animal hoarding, eating disorders, suicide bombings, dictatorships or genocide.

Can the human brain really be so susceptible to self-delusion that some of the world's worst problems can be traced to a mistaken belief in motivations of altruism? Do we know any pathological altruists personally? Ourselves, perhaps? (And before any of us instinctively answers "no" to that last question, we may want to resist that initial impulse long enough to reconsider the concept of metacognitive dissonance.)



Oakley, B., Knafo, A. and McGrath, M. (2012). Pathological Altruism—An Introduction. In B. Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhaven, & D. S. Wilson (Eds.), Pathological Altruism (pp. 77-93). New York: Oxford University Press.

Tags: family relationships, altruistic behavior, famous dictators

Parenting Issues: Can You Teach Critical Thinking Skills?

Posted on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 @ 11:33 AM

marshmallow test

Image by Mark S

Economists, educators and policy makers like to ask a basic question that parents should also be concerned about in terms of their children: What makes some people more susceptible than others to biases of judgment?

Perhaps you've heard of a famous experiment in which four-year-olds were given a choice between a small reward "now" or a larger reward "later," intended to  test their self-control? If so, you also know that the researchers kept tabs on the children. Ten or fifteen years later, those who had resisted temptation were not only less likely to take drugs, but they also had better executive control in cognitive tasks and attention, and they scored higher on intelligence tests. In other words, they had a higher capacity for critical thinking.

Why is self-control so closely connected to the ability to think critically? According to Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his research in decision making, one of the reasons is that critical thinking requires the ability to resist the "easy" or "intuitive" answer. Like the children who resisted the "easy" reward, people with good critical thinking skills are deliberate and thoughtful in their approach. They are willing to invest the effort to check their first instincts. Kahneman refers to them as more "engaged," and explains that "they are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions."

In other words, they have the self-control to stop and think about how they think. Where did they get this self-control? Research suggests there are some genetic influences, but the same body of research also points to the importance of parenting techniques. 

Of course, even though we, as parents, may want to pass down strengths like self-control, critical thinking, and good decision making, the task will be nearly impossible if we don't possess these skills ourselves.

Just for fun, you may want to try the simple puzzle Kahneman includes in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. "Do not try to solve it, " he instructs, "but listen to your intuition":

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

A number came to your mind. The number, of course, is 10: 10₵. The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. Do the math, and you will see. If the ball costs 10₵, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10₵ for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10. The correct answer is 5₵. It is safe to assume that the intuitive answer also came to the mind of those who ended up with the correct number—they somehow managed to resist the intuition (Kahneman, 2011, p. 44).

Interestingly, many thousands of university students have answered the bat-and-ball puzzle in research experiments and the majority give the intuitive, though incorrect, answer. Depending on the selectivity of the university, the rate of failure to check intuition was between 50% and 80%.

"Many people," Kahneman concludes, "are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible." 

As tempting as it is to believe he's overstating the case, perhaps this is a good time to test your ability to resist temptation. The truth of the matter is that, even as we hope to teach our children the self-control required to resist thier intuition and become good decision makers, it's highly likely we have room for improvement in these areas ourselves.

More on this topic:

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: Teaching Chidlren Decision-Making Skills
Self Regulation: Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control

Tags: family relationships, parenting issues, critical thinking

Will a Cold Shoulder Fix Your Relationship Problems?

Posted on Wed, Jan 11, 2012 @ 03:42 PM

the cold shoulderMost of us, at one time or another, have been guilty of using the withdrawal of our love, affection, or attention as a tool to coerce others into doing what we want them to do. Couples may give each other the silent treatment when they are displeased, parents may pointedly ignore their children in an attempt to express disapproval of their behavior. Friends may cut one another out of their circle over real or imagined slights, gossip, or failure to conform to the group's social norms. But does our cold shoulder really get us what we want?

Clearly, that depends on what it is that we want. Do we want revenge? Do we want to "win" at all costs—establish our superiority in the social food chain? Do we want one more fix of that very seductive self-righteous chemical brain rush we get when we are sure we're right and the other person is wrong, and we get to be the one who puts them in their place before trumpeting our victory to our cronies? (This description isn't just a literary device. Research suggests that the chemical released in the brain during a self-righteous episode can literally be addictive.)

If what we want is repair, connection, and good physical and mental health outcomes for all concerned—including ourselves—then the answer is no. Turning a cold shoulder won't get us what we want. Lest you doubt (and don't we all love a little doubt when our favored behaviors are being questioned?) there is a vast bibliography of research to convince us. I will include some specific studies at the end of this post, but in short, social exclusion numbs our victims. It makes them less able to think coherently, limits their self-control, even cuts their empathy for others off at the knees.

Those being excluded DO crave connection, but rather than risk rejection by returning to former loved ones they will look for acceptance in less intimidating quarters. And considering their equally less discriminating state of mind, these new connections may not be the most conducive for good life outcomes.

"The need to belong," write researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, "is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation."

It would be prudent to give careful thought to any actions that might underestimate this need. When used as a tool for coercion it can have unanticipated consequences.



Further Reading:

Social Exclusion Impairs Self-Regulation, Baumeister et al. (2010), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 88(4), Apr 2005, 589-604.

Alone but feeling no pain: Effects of social exclusion on physical pain tolerance and pain threshold, affective forecasting, and interpersonal empathy. DeWall and Baumeister (2006), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 91(1), Jul 2006, 1-15.

Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior, Twenge et al, (2007). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 92(1), Jan 2007, 56-66.

Social Exclusion and the Deconstructed State: Time Perception, Meaninglessness, Lethargy, Lack of Emotion, and Self-Awareness, Twenge et al. (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 85(3), Sep 2003, 409-423.

Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought, Baumeister et al. (2002). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 83(4), Oct 2002, 817-827.

Does social exclusion motivate interpersonal reconnection? Resolving the "porcupine problem." Maner, et al. (2007). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 92(1), Jan 2007, 42-55.

Silence Is Not Golden, Stepp (2007).

People: Who Needs Them?, Stepp (2011)

Tags: family relationships, family communication, relationship problems