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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Minding Your Mind Minding Your Mind

The Truth About Altruism

July 07, 2012

By Michael Craig Miller M.D.

Harvard Medical School

Eleanor Roosevelt is supposed to have asked, "When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?" Mrs. Roosevelt was reflecting on the long history of humans reacting to suffering and misery with acts of revenge. If a tender conscience depends on the evolution of human nature, we may have thousands of years to wait, suggests a 2006 study in the journal Science.

A world-wide group of researchers, led by the anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Emory University in Atlanta, looked at the motives behind altruism — kindness and concern for others that is selfless.

After studying more than 1,700 people from 15 cultures, the researchers found that altruism isn't necessarily rooted in tenderness. Rather people often do good to avoid disapproval or punishment. Altruism may have evolved along with the impulse to condemn and even punish those who act only in their own self-interests. Perhaps this explains how social groups early in human history were able to enforce social norms before they had established formal laws, contracts and courts to compel cooperation. This also suggests why stories of triumph over the wicked are so satisfying to us.

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Is Altruism a Reflex?

It often feels good to do good. Also, we want people to think well of us. We may carefully nurse a reputation for honesty and forthrightness. But the experimental games Henrich used in his research suggest that the average person is motivated by something else that is reflexive in human nature.

Henrich and his colleagues tested his theory of the link between altruism and punishment by playing three "games" with subjects in Africa, South America, New Guinea, the South Pacific and the American Midwest. The results support the notion that people around the world — whether they are farmers or urban workers, nomads or college students, hunters or office workers — do not act purely out of self-interest, even when it's logical for them to do so. In all of these games, the sum of money or "stake" given out was real and equal to about a day's wages in the local currency. The players were all anonymous to each other.

  • The Dictator game – Player A is given the stake and decides how much of it — anywhere from none to all — to give to player B. Player B has to accept whatever amount is offered and player A will not be punished even if she's stingy.


  • The Ultimatum game – Player A must decide how much of the stake to share with player B. Player B, before hearing what he is being offered, decides what kind of offer he's willing to accept, if any. If he rejects player A's offer, both players get nothing.


  • The Third Party Punishment game – Player A must decide how much of the stake to share with player B. Player C is given a separate amount — half the stake. Player C can punish player A if he feels she has been too stingy. The punishment: He can reduce her winnings, but has to pay for the privilege by giving up some of his own money.

In these games, self-interest dictates that all of the players should keep whatever amount of money they're given, since these are one-time, anonymous encounters and reputation doesn't matter.

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Altruism Wins the Game

In fact, self-interest did not govern the results. Few people acted in a purely selfish manner even when anonymity protected their reputation. Everywhere in the world where the games were played, there was an almost universal tendency to act altruistically and share the stake. Player A usually offered something to player B and frequently gave away half. In the third party punishment game, player C was usually willing to sacrifice some of his money to punish player A for being selfish. Player A, when aware of the possibility of punishment, tended to be more generous in anticipation of that threat.

The stingier player A was, the more players opted to punish him or her, whether they were the butt of player A's selfishness or merely an onlooker. The amount of sharing and the threshold for punishment varied according to local customs. It is not clear from the study whether the impulse to punish comes from a desire for revenge, or from feelings of envy or competition that might arise in such a set-up. In any case, people may be more generous when they expect to be punished for selfishness that strays outside the cultural norm or where behaving fairly is a strong community value.

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Can Societies Evolve?

What does this mean for Eleanor Roosevelt’s longing for a more universally tender human conscience? Dr. Henrich may believe that such evolution is possible. Humans with a greater capacity for altruism may have had a survival advantage in early societies. But so did people who were good with a spear or had a talent for foraging or farming. Perhaps, in evolutionary terms, being the strong, altruistic type is a winning combination.

And this study provides no proof that altruism exists in the pure sense. A smart friend of mine who has been very successful in business, contends that there is no pure altruism. Even when we're being "selfless," we are serving our own interests. The Henrich study supports my friend's notion. But Mrs. Roosevelt might argue that society becomes more livable when people feel good about being sympathetic and generous, rather than hard-hearted and ruthless.

If Mrs. Roosevelt could look around today, she probably would not think tenderness had flourished in the world since her death in 1962. But she may be heartened to know about research that demonstrates "altruism" or conscience as a naturally emerging property of human societies. We humans do seem to have the capacity to play fair, even if we sometimes need the fear of punishment to help us stay fair.

Henrich J, McElreath R, Barr A, et al. "Costly punishment across human societies." Science. June 23, 2006;312(5781):1767-1770.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is Editor in Chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. He is also associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been practicing psychiatry for more than 25 years and teaches in the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Program.


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