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