“Pathological Altruism”: A New Idea that Robert Burns Discussed in 1785

[UPDATED, fixing a bad mistake the first time ’round. Sorry. In my prior version, I indicated that Oakley required that the results of the acts be hard to predict, rather than what she actually said, which is that they are easy to predict. I regret the error.]

Oh, you wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,

What a panic’s in thy breastie!

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a collection of papers, based on a colloquium “which aims to survey what has been learned about the human “mental machinery” since Darwin’s insights.” I haven’t read all of them, but I think it likely that readers of this blog will find some, even many, to be of interest.

One paper did catch my attention, in part because it touches, if only gently, a topic I’ve mulled before having to do with the strangely contentious issue of how to define the term “altruism.”

Before I get to the paper, here is a recent remark by John Tooby in the context of the recent Edge discussion of group selection on the issue that amuses:

For example, using the definition of selfishness and altruism that biologists use, a loving and self-sacrificing mother is acting selfishly, while a drug addicted mother who starves her children to give all her money to her dealer is an altruist (i.e., she is lowering her own fitness in a way that increases a nonrelative’s).

Now, one might quibble with the former part of the example, insofar as mom is increasing her own inclusive fitness as well as baby’s, thus making the action (still somewhat oddly) “cooperation,” but the addict does seem to conform to the definition of altruism insofar as one is committed to definitions that refer only to the fitness effects of a given behavior.

A key advantage of the behavioral definition of altruism, for which we have Hamilton to thank, is that it takes a term rooted in folk psychology and frees us from having to worry about the perennially tricky notion of intentions. Because the definition refers only to behavior, we don’t need to worry if mother wanted to help her child (or the drug dealer), and equally we don’t have to worry if a worker ant wants to aid her colony-sisters. Defining altruism in behavioral terms, while subject to certain sorts of worries, at least purges intentions from the whole business.

And now to the PNAS article. Barbara Oakley, in a piece called “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism,” seems to have surrendered any clarity gained by behavioral definitions. She writes:

Pathological altruism can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.

Pathological altruism – in contrast to garden variety altruism – turns on intentions. In particular, for something to be pathologically altruistic, the doer of the deed must have the intention of helping. Further, mental states are important for the second condition, having to do with what a third party could “reasonably” foresee. When I try to put this slightly more formally, it seems to me that she means that PA is defined thusly:

  1. I do X AND
  2. I intend to benefit you by Xing AND
  3. doing X caused result R, a (net, long term) harm to you AND
  4. R was foreseeable.

[I updated this because I got condition 4 backwards when I originally wrote this. My apologies to readers and to the author. I’ve removed all the bits I got wrong. I hope.]

It seems to me that while Oakly has identified something interesting, that something already has a name. Actually, it has several names, such as “myopic,” “short-sighted,” or perhaps “ being impatient.” The phenomenon is essentially that people sometimes choose to pursue short term goals (keeping brother out of pain and out of trouble with the boss) even though this conflicts with achieving some long term desirable outcome (ending brother’s addiction to painkillers).

When Oakely moves to the non-human animal world, the link between observations and behavior is even more obscure. She suggests that “pathological altruism can be thought of as a pattern of nurturing or beneficial behavior with evolutionarily unsuccessful consequences,” seemingly switching the definition away from her previous commitments, and uses the example of “the unwitting hosts of brood-parasitism, as with the wood thrush who devotes substantial resources to raising the offspring of cowbirds.” It’s not clear to me that any of the key elements of pathological altruism are satisfied here. And, of course, this area has been well explored and explained with concepts like manipulation and deception in the literature in behavioral ecology.

As for the bottom line, Oakley is explicit about what this might be: “The bottom line is that the heartfelt, emotional basis of our good intentions can mislead us about what is truly helpful for others.” This is almost certainly true. Because the world is complex, and because behaviors have effects at different time scales, there are many ways in which my (intended) help in the short term will make you worse off in the long term. As Adam Smith and (many) others have noted, the Law of Unintended Consequences virtually guarantees this, and is unlikely to be repealed any time soon: interventions from the scale of the well-meaning brother to international aid – made with the best of intentions – often lead to pervasive harm and suffering. (I myself find this idea to be interesting, and have discussed it from time to time.)

The same is true, of course, for the effects of my behavior on me because my choices have cascades of consequences. That is, choices I make to make me happy in the short term – eating cake, watching television, venting my spleen – have long-term negative effects. Am I being pathologically selfish?

To return to the point above, definitions are important, and it seems to me that this is especially the case in the context of talking about “altruism” and related concepts from biology when talking about humans. With humans, it is more important than in other species to be vigilant about using intentional language because it is with humans that it is most tempting. While the definition of altruism some use might not be optimal, Oakley’s foray into coining new terms seems to me to take steps backwards; my hope is that this use of terminology isn’t broadly adopted. (For a relatively recent paper on some of these issues, see West et al., 2007).

In short, the fact that pursuing short term happiness sometimes, maybe even often leads to negative longer term consequences, it seems to me, has little to do with either pathology or altruism. One reason for this is that indulging many of our short term appetites have long-term negative consequences, a topic I and others have discussed in various places. Moreover, because the world is complex, sometimes when we try to help, we harm instead. So, yes, people make mistakes. For instance, one mistake that a person might make is confusing a new idea for one that has been around for a very long time. These things do happen.

Oakley places no small importance on her idea, writing that “pathological altruism, in other words, is not a minor, inconsequential offshoot of the study of altruism but instead is a topic of overwhelming scientific and public importance.” So it’s all Kind of a Big Deal.  If the real point is that things don’t go as well as we had planned, well, my good friend Bobby Burns, I think, said it best:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

– From “To a Mouse,” 1785

(But, seriously, check out the other papers in PNAS.)

20. June 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 6 comments

Comments (6)

  1. The behavioral definition never sat well with me. The West paper would seem to imply, unless I’m misreading them, that working together is not cooperation if doing so fails to result in benefits. If two hunters attempt to jointly catch prey, and they fail to, they have failed to cooperate. On the other hand, if they do the same thing, but actually do catch the prey, then they have cooperated. Differentiating between “cooperative” and “non-cooperative” behaviors on the basis of outcome alone seems tricky.

    I touched on it here: http://popsych.org/is-working-together-cooperation/

  2. Pingback: A week of links - Evolving Economics

  3. By training I’m a clinical psychologist (CBT) I research evolutionary theories of religion. I would ask at what point do we say “it’s just pathology”. At some point the system gets messed up, by drugs etc… And now we are dealing with pathological person. The evolution and survival of pathologies is interesting, but if the theory explains anything, it explains it at a macro level – not the micro one

  4. And of course “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

    There is also a Robbie Burns piece on Pathological Piety – called Address to the Unco Guid.


  5. Pingback: Når altruisme bliver skadelig | Punditokraterne

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