Saturday, October 4, 2014

Had Enough Therapy? Extreme Altruism by Stuart Schneiderman

In the case of empathy or sympathy, can there be too-much-of-a-good-thing?

If psychopaths, by the common definition lack empathy for other people can there be people who have too much empathy or sympathy for others?If psychopaths exploit others ruthlessly, super-empaths would make self-sacrifice a fetish.

Researchers call these people with the ill-chosen term: “anti-psychopaths.” But, if a psychopath is all take and no give, these people might well become the perfect enablers for psychopaths… being all give and no take.

They might allow themselves to be used and abused, at times to a frightening extent, because they want to be more giving than anyone else.

Melissa Dahl reports on some new research in New York Magazine:

New research she just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests an answer: If the dark, scary end of the caring continuum is inhabited by psychopaths, way down at the other end is a group of what she calls “anti-psychopaths” — ultra-do-gooders who are extraordinarily compassionate, prosocial, and empathetic.

[Georgetown psychologist Abigail] Marsh wanted to study the characteristics of these sorts of people, so she sought so-called “altruistic kidney donors” who offer up a kidney to anyone who needs it (as opposed to those who donate a kidney to a friend or loved one), figuring they would fit the bill.

Altruistic kidney donors fit into a debate that has long been raging among psychologists and others who study human nature: Does true altruism — good deeds for the sake of good deeds — really exist? And if so, how did it evolve? “In theory, you’d have a species where nobody wants to help anybody else,” said Marsh. “And the fact that humans do is, I think, really amazing and not well understood ... So these kidney donors, they’ve done something I call extraordinary altruism, because it’s extremely unusual — it’s something most people would not do. It’s a pretty major decision to undertake, especially for a stranger.”

Altruistic kidney donors voluntarily sign up for an invasive surgery, which results in the removal of a perfectly healthy organ, all because a complete stranger (whom they’ll never meet) needs it. And, as you might guess, these donors are very rare — there are fewer than 1,400 in the U.S., Marsh said — but they help meet a huge need for donor kidneys in the U.S. (Kidney disease is among the top ten causes of death for both men and women in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.)

How do we explain super-empaths? Perhaps they want to be role models who will lead the world toward a more moral future. They might believe that they are sacrificing something of value in order to be the antidote to selfishness and psychopathy.

Researchers believe that super-empaths are genuine altruists. They give more than most; they are kinder and nicer than most… surely this cannot be seen as pathological behavior.

Unless, of course, they are more prone to sacrifice themselves for strangers than they are for their friends and family.

Obviously, no one is going to fault anyone for giving up a kidney to a stranger. A sacrifice that saves a life must certainly count as the ultimate in benevolence.

But is it really true to say that these extreme altruists gain no benefit from their sacrifice? Don’t they get to revel in their moral superiority? Even if the recipient of the kidney does not know who gave it to him, the friends and family of the super empath certainly do.

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