I’ve been thinking a lot about altruism recently. Early on in the pandemic, I spoke with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, Ph.D., an expert in empathy. He said that during disasters, “people are actually much kinder and more prosocial toward each other — not even kinder than they are cruel but kinder than they are typical.”
Zaki predicted that this tendency could be maintained through the coronavirus pandemic if people practiced altruism and empathy like a skill. “I think the length, the sheer duration of this tragedy, the fact that we’re all stuck in this new normal together, gives us the opportunity to create shared bonds that could last for a really long time,” he said.
For some people, that may be the case. Credit should be given where credit is due, and for the majority of the year, the majority of Americans have worn masks and stayed home, forgoing social interactions and normal life to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But many people have not, as evidenced by the United States’ continual failure to quash the virus-like Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and so many other countries around the world have, some multiple times.
To be clear, this nation’s catastrophic failure when it comes to the pandemic is due to numerous factors, the majority of which stem from a lack of clear guidance and financial support from the government. Why should people think bars and restaurants are unsafe when they’re open for business? How can restaurants close if it means they’ll go bankrupt without any financial support? How can a waiter stay home from work when they’re sick if it means they’ll be fired?
But sentiment among some experts is that one of America’s primary shortcomings in this pandemic has been a lack of empathy, altruism, and personal sacrifice.
Why am I writing about this now in a newsletter about the brain? Because, ironically, we have entered the Judeo-Christian season of gifting, and we practice this tradition in part because we are, biologically, an altruistic species. So how come so many people will readily give money, gifts, and services this holiday season when they’ve stopped behaving altruistically in other ways?
Humans are hardwired to give. We do so time and again in ways big and small to strangers and relations alike. It’s because we are a social species that must rely on one another for survival — a statement that was as true 100,000 years ago as it is today. One theory as to why Homo sapiens lived while Neanderthals went extinct is that we were the more social species, which increased our chances of finding food, withstanding attacks, and raising children.
There is a debate in psychology, however, as to whether humans are purely altruistic — defined biologically as “a behavior that decreases the fitness or genetic contribution of one individual while increasing the fitness of another” — or whether we always have something to gain from giving. The argument against pure altruism is that while giving depletes your resources in the short term, it potentially increases them in the long term, especially in a moment of need. More immediately, giving also provides the giver with a feeling of reward — the “warm glow” effect.
Donating money activates the brain’s dopamine-rich reward system, especially a region called the striatum, which is the same area that lights up when you eat cake, listen to music, or have sex. In fact, several studies have shown that both giving and receiving money similarly triggers this reward circuitry in the brain. Not everyone is equally generous, though. People who had more activity in the striatum when they gave money were more likely to donate, while people who experienced a bigger burst of activity when they received money were less likely to share the wealth.
People get an even stronger sense of reward when they witness the positive impact of their gift. Just think about the joy you feel when you see your loved one’s face light up when they unwrap the perfect present. Unfortunately, there are no more warm and fuzzy feelings when you stay home for the 276th day in a row while the pandemic rages on. No one is thanking you for your sacrifice — hell, we’re barely doing that for doctors and nurses these days.
So if all of the rewards have gone out of your altruism, what are you left with? Frustration, resentment, and no sense that your contribution is making a difference.
I don’t have an easy hack to get around this dilemma. But I will say, thank you. Thank you for every time you wore a mask, every time you stayed home, every time you put another person’s health ahead of your own desires. (Although it’s important to remember that you also protected your own life by doing so hey like I said, altruism is never truly selfless!)
This holiday season, give to charitable organizations if you can. Send a note of gratitude to a friend or family member to brighten their day. And please know that your sacrifices do not go unnoticed or unappreciated.