What is altruism? According to UC Berkeley's Greater Good center, which studies empathy and compassion, altruism is the act of promoting "someone else's welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves." It's when people act kindly toward others even when there's no benefit for the giver. Some studies show that altruism is linked with greater health and longer lives, suggesting that a little kindness does indeed go a long way.
For years, researchers have been fascinated by the concept and whether it even genuinely exists (for example, if altruism has health benefits for the giver, then can anyone ever really act altruistically?). Dr. James Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), recently held a Reddit AMA to answer users' questions about the subject.
Dr. Doty touched upon a number of interesting facts about acts of kindness, including the difference between empathy and altruism and the fact that drugs can indeed make someone more selfless.
1. Drugs can make someone more altruistic
Can someone suck down a pill and become more compassionate? It seems possible, Doty said. "We are seeing how certain drugs, i.e. MDMA, can positively affect one's ability to 'connect,'" he writes.
Doty adds that physical activity and exercise can also contribute to altruistic behaviors. "Physical activity releases endorphins that result in a pleasurable state and as a result makes one more open and connected," he said.
2. Altruism is less likely in certain people
When one Redditor asked Doty if gifted children were more empathetic than average dolts, he said that wasn't the case at all.
"[T]he very nature of defining a child as gifted can make them feel more entitled than another," Doty said. "I have seen many 'gifted children' exhibit ruthless behavior to the disadvantage of another ... some of the most compassionate acts [are done] by those who are in the most humble of circumstances and have average to below average intelligence."
3. Social media has made some of us less compassionate
Doty says that a world where we can easily hide behind a computer has brought out the worst in us as humans.
"For many, such lack of physical interaction and anonymity brings out negative behaviors that are not compassionate or kind," he said.
However, Doty acknowledged that social media isn't all terrible — it provides a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't have one. "That being said, such technology can empower and energize a movement that can have a huge positive impact on the world and make individuals feel engaged and connected to others," he wrote.
4. Being rich doesn't make someone less altruistic
Some of the kindest and most compassionate people Doty has ever met have been of great wealth, he said. However, he acknowledged that many people who come into power and wealth do so by acting without compassionate toward others.
"[O]ftentimes the behaviors that have allowed someone to accumulate such wealth is associated with ruthlessness and pure self-interest and once the wealth is accumulated such patterns of behavior don't change," Doty said.
5. Humans, by nature, are altruistic creatures
Doty said he believes that humans' "default mode" is to be kind toward others. However, humans also have a natural desire toward tribalism because it gives them a sense of safety. This type of cliquish behavior "can lead to one not being altruistic or compassionate," he said.
6. Humans can learn to be more empathetic
One Redditor approached Doty and said they have a family member who lacks empathy. According to Doty, people can be trained to be more empathetic, but it might be harder for some people to do.
"There is a significant amount of evidence that increasing one's compassion or empathy can be taught," Doty said. "That being said, there is also evidence that some individuals have defects in brain circuitry or even defects in neurotransmitter receptors that limit their ability even with 'training.'"