DiscoverTED Radio HourWired For Altruism

Wired For Altruism

Update: 2017-05-2615
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Helping others feels good, but why do some go farther than others? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas about altruism — what motivates us to be altruistic, what limits us and do we ever go too far. TED speakers include psychologist Abigail Marsh, clinical psychologist Cheryl Steed, philosopher Peter Singer, and writer Larissa MacFarquhar.

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support for this podcast and the following message come from Prudential Prudential believes life is filled with moments that test our courage their new podcast everyday bravery celebrates those moments go to everyday bravery dot com or subscribe to everyday bravery Rav or podcasts are available this the is the Head Radio Hour each week groundbreaking had talked the Ted Technology Design at Stanford delivered and Ted conferences around the world gift of the human had to in impossible the true nature of reality beckons just beyond those talks those ideas adapted for radio NPR guy rise so back in the mid nineteen nineties I was nineteen Abigail Marsh was driving home to Tacoma Washington area you actually at the rate I do the ACA Babin for only like high school teachers Chloe Abigail that's right and British people for food so I drive home on the Interstate five freeway it's a big busy freeway a basin states have the experience something that has stayed with her ever since Darren midnight and I was crossing over a bridge and a little dog darted out from my car I was still pretty new driver I did the thing are not supposed to do which is swerved to try to avoid that and the combination of us were bang and then officially hitting sent the car into the span across the freeway that I finally came to stopping the fast lane so the car comes to a halt and what's next thing you remember well I remember that it had died and I don't know why a then do a dive from doing donuts for the dead I remember the windows were down because of the summer night and heard a knock on the passenger side and I turn on AC man standing there and he'd always I was you like if you somehow think I can in your car says okay and then he hopped in the car figured I was on dry which is why wouldn't turn on then gunned us across the freeway and parked behind his own car which I remember being a nice scenario and then he to me was like the hanging the fall you feel about all I can ever say is now on to be a catch the OK to carry self the name God beckons car and drove on the it only serve Man because it was such a puzzle I never think it is for a lot of people why would somebody risked their life anonymously and you know clearly with no The hope in it for any kind of acclaim head off and on and he took the rest they say just you know why would anybody do that the the shed today ideas about why we help others what motivates us to do it and why are some people just more interesting than the rest of us the like the man who helped Abby who darted in and out of traffic on a freeway to save someone he didn't even know the answer to Can you tell us what you do now for living yes I'm a psychology professor at Georgetown University and your pack is best known for studying I both like apathy and The and here's Abby Marsh on the stage the the the event for the change the course of my life to some degree I became a psychology researcher I've devoted my work time understanding the human capacity to care for others the actions of a man who rescued me make the most stringent definition of altruism which is a voluntary costly behavior motivated by the desire to help another individual so it's a selfless act intended to benefit only the other what could possibly explain action like that one in his compassion obviously which is a key driver of altruism but the question becomes why some people seem to have more of it than others and the answer may be the brains of highly autistic people are different in fundamental ways but to figure out how I actually started from the opposite ends with I could pass the common approach to understanding basic aspects of human nature like the desire to help other people is to study people and who might desire is missing and psychopaths are exactly such a group the the soul they are characterized by law to think that some of the most consistent findings about them is that they're very bad at recognizing fearful facial expressions so basically they see somebody in a vulnerable situation today doesn't compute yes and there's a region of the brain under the court acts cause the email A that we've known felon time is really important for recognizing other people's fear as people who have lesions in this area show very specific selective deficit and recognizing other people's fear and what is the email or look like in success so if people talk about it tends to be too small and sometimes maybe twenty percent smaller than that of healthy people how to add them and we know from brain imaging studies that most people show a strong increase in activation of the mega when they look at somebody who's afraid whereas people are psychopathic don't ok so that was a baseline and then will your theory that you came up with well over the years people have been coming to the conclusion that it's not like there's two kinds of people the world second pass and everybody else yet SEC apathy like a lot of psychological disorders exist and continue American people the very far and to our church mass most psychopathic and then people who were just the little psychopathic and then both the people the mill who are not particular about the race but that contain them suggest that might be only half the equation might be that the continuum keeps going the other direction so that you have highly psychopathic people in one and average people Melanie and yet people who are in a psychopathic who are unusually sensitive to other people's distress an unusually caring and so that suggested to me that maybe if you study the people who are extraordinarily optimistic their brains and looks like the psychopathic brains the heavy test this theory out so she gathered a group of people you might call extraordinary all tourists put a bunch of recruitment advertisements out on the link in the basically people who had donated a kidney to a complete stranger we flew about twenty of them into Georgetown and put them and that my scanner and she tracked their brain activity all while showing them the scene photos that they had used with the group of psychopaths should the owner a picture of the fearful facial expressions and then how Jeremy Taylor reacted to these every game exactly said after I measures blood flow in the brain and so we look to see if there is an increase and how much blood was recruited to the mandala and did you see like one wildly active levels we saw increases in activation email I wasn't like they were totally non overlapping distributions down but yes on average women live to twenty adults who have never donated a kidney to anybody but were similar to the altar as an every other way that we think of measuring on average the ultra showed increasing mental activity relative to those controls the size and bigger till the the present the the that what makes it straight out of it so different is not just that they're more compassionate than average they are but with even about that they're compassionate and altruistic not just rich people who are in their own innermost circle of friends and family right because have compassion for people that you love and identify with is not extraordinary truly extraordinary actress compassion extends way beyond that circle and had opportunity now to ask a lot about sophisticated others how is that they managed to generate such a wide circle of compassion that they're willing to give a complete stranger their kitty and I found really difficult question for the answer by saying you know how is that they're willing to do this thing and so many other people don't you're one of fewer than two thousand Americans who's ever given a kidney to a stranger what is it that makes you so special and what a sad room they say nothing there's nothing special just the same as everybody else the the strong biological component to altruistic behavior in other words mean is it connected to this idea that we need to perpetuate and strengthen our species we needed to make sure it survives and therefore we behave this way because who we assume others will behave this way towards us in times of need so the idea is that because you know we humans were group living species and really very surreal physically vulnerable and so yes a species when we never would've survived unless we had developed these strong impulse is to provide care for the vulnerable and needy so those capacities exists but it gives us the capacity to feel true care for others' welfare as psychological level that doesn't have any of this is going to benefit me in the long run had two other species demonstrate altruism while there isn't really cool studies looking ultra severe droughts where rats will help one another when they're trapped in water attracting little clue the rats I don't work for them myself but I write researchers of June is made about typical and rats are very good mothers their wonderful studies of how rats will walk across electrified grids to retrieve their babies the the Lia exactly where Maria was wrapped so his arrest at such a sick what other species are all just a lot of the higher primates are dolphins are certainly dogs are dogs or ll love the example of Omni love no such beast just other puppies doesn't have any species you give them their fantastic stories of dogs that have been given baby skunks baby owls you name it and they have a tremendous mothering instincts it's interesting because clearly those animals are not doing it for selfish reasons like a dog is not looking after a cute little baby animal and saying Hey you recognize me for all this great cultures and countries like the dogs is re doing it is just behaving that way yeah you see this creature in need than can't help but want to care for it that's now that's how people are I would argue that almost everybody has had experience of encountering a baby and a mall or young child in need somewhere that they didn't know and you're just insane urges the House of Yes those are as yet but the thing that I wonder about the research that you that you carried out is this is the skin question I'm scared to ask you is does this mean that some of us are just wired to be better than others well there was a big study that came out because last year and Nature genetics that looked across all of the genetics that is that a man down across the last several decades and they fell on average across almost every human trait the amount that's dictated by genetic variation is about fifty percent I think the same is probably too felt or the fact there was one study it was just one but it did suggest that variation in human cultures to tendencies that is about fifty percent due to genetics as well known genetic destiny there I think it almost certainly true that most people can become more altruistic really the way it was probably I mean we know so we know that society is becoming more altruistic overtime so that suggests that this has to be something that can change the the you know we as a peep all been in the surge mater rather be living care so much more about the welfare strangers than we did in the passing of the fact that we care about the plate of strangers in two thousand miles away from us is actually something really remarkable as we do care the the we can always cash together to do is to be done but it's like yes there are some people suffering but we really even met and will never the is not amazing still care and the Marsh she's a professor at Georgetown University you can see a full tuck had caught the show today D is that altruism guy rise in your listening to the Ted Radio Hour from NPR o Just a quick thanks to two of our sponsors who helped make this podcast possible first Alfa Romeo with the all new Julie a sport sedan here's head of global design Ralph healed describing how design details of the Julie A make it stand out from the crowd the celebration of performances immediate starting with the way you sit in the car gauges are oversized which sits on its wheels all that is really about performance it's really about the unadulterated good looks all new Alfa Romeo Juliet or more it out for a male USA com Thanks also to Capital One believes good credit score can keep your mind at peace you work hard making smart financial decisions at every point keep your credits wrong with credit wise AB Capital One credit wise you can view your trans Union credit score and get alerts each time your credit is pulled and when your credit report changes and credit wise is free for everyone whether your capital One customer or not so download the free credit lies abt today to find the State of Credit enlightenment it's the Ted Radio Hour from NPR guy rise and I should say ideas about vulture ism and whether certain people are just more altruistic by nature or whether altruism can be learned the show can you introduce yourself please my name is Doctor Cheryl Steve I am a senior psychology specialist at the California Men's colony and describe describe the California Men's colony what is it it's a medium security prison by four men and we have inmates who have commited every single crime that you can think of the president is really a place where you might expect to find a lot of vultures and before Cheryl started working there she pretty much stopped the same thing Cheryl picks up the story from the Ted stage I expected to see a facility full of muscular tattooed intimidating young men but I quickly realized twenty percent of California's male inmate population is over the age of fifty many inmates are in their sixties seventies even eighties eventually many of these aging inmates will be diagnosed with dementia take a moment and imagine what this would be like for someone with dementia to live in such an environment and not remember you got there or why when you can go home even if you can go home keeping elderly inmates especially those with dementia safe and healthy is an enormous task but at the Men's colony someone to tackle this challenge about twenty years ago Katherine Evans was a visionary recreational therapist she created the Gold Coast program they assign high functioning general population inmates to serve as assistant caregivers to some of the prison's most vulnerable populations they're called gold coats because the inmates wear gold colored jackets over their blue prison uniforms the the the today twenty years later the goal ko program is under Cheryl direction she says the day to day job of the gold coat in prison is a lot like the job of the caregiver anywhere else they get up every single morning nice and early go and assist the inmates who need the help with that getting up getting dressed the escort them to the dining hall and sit at the tables with them to help them open the milk carton and encourage them to eat sand throughout the day they escort them to their various appointments that they have medical appointments taken to the library help them you know write a letter to family or just walk laps with them you know somebody has an accident because they're in continental help them get back to their room and get changed and cleaned up that kind of thing they assist them in and coach them and guide them and act as a presence with them throughout the entire process and the girl could want why are they in prison all of the ones that I work with are currently incarcerated for murder maybe advice is outside observers would have a hard time reconciling these men's two identities someone who is capable of committing a horrific crime against another human being and somebody who helps gently Qaeda an elderly man through the process of showering dressing and eating being of gold coat as with any caregiver requires incredible patience flexibility frustration tolerance for these men these attributes were not part of their skill set at the time they committed their crime but the benefits of the Gold Coast program don't stop with the inmates who receive the assistance program has a significant positive impact on the Gold Coast themselves the experience can be incredibly transformative in the It sounds like they've become more altruistic by helping other people who are vulnerable absolutely and they talk about you know developing patience and tolerance and empathy you know they they talk about how in their younger days they would have seen somebody who is mentally ill or demented and they would not have taken the time to understand better figure out if needed to help they would have just that guy's crazy kind of thing they've learned why that person really needs help as opposed to somebody turning away from them I mean these are prisoners who committed murder when they were younger and they are now a position where they are showing incredible empathy and kindness and patience yet what motivates and what it When you ask them why he do this when they tell you you know the overarching reason that I hear from the inmates is they want to give back for their crime they do get paid a very small amount of money for their scheduled hours which is just you know open Monday through Friday regular workday kind of hours but I don't think they see it that way and they all just say and need to make up or you know give back to society for what I did and this is one way that I know how to do that you know I guess somebody hearings could say well not really sure if this is a selfless act because they have special privileges in these cool cars are being paid and maybe they'll they will get you know of some benefit when they're up for parole but to wonder whether over time what they do does become an act of selflessness I think it really does and I think that's demonstrated in their their willingness to volunteer outside of their regular work hours and while they do get paid is very small they get paid twenty four cents an hour which comes out of thirty six dollars a month and there it is not by far not the highest paying job in the prison and they work much harder for a lot less money than a lot of inmates to calm some other inmates sometimes give him a hard time and say Oh you're just doing that so that the parole board will view you favorably but it's really not that that does not necessarily make a difference but just the fact that they say OK I'm still here on the weekends on the holidays on the evenings in the middle of the night you know that that's to me speaks volumes about Messer of selflessness and that our truest take aspect of of the work that they do because they know B says that they have to do that they just do it I and working with the goal coach has changed me as well every week I meet with incarcerated men who are finding something new in themselves something that eludes easy categories and transcends their old identities how do you explain the fact that a man who once took a life is now a caregiver to someone who inflicted great pain is now dedicated to relieving pain which version of this person is the truth caregiving is exhausting often thankless work yet every morning these men get to assist the inmates was to mention seeing the changes in them changes how I view all of us as human beings I think I think a lot of people think of all terrorism as something in a trite but this seems to suggest that you can teach it but you can actually teach a grown man or woman to behave in this way this is somebody who maybe wouldn't be altruistic otherwise right yeah I think I think they must of have some curl of something there that maybe has never been nurtured that we nurture it and is through working with the Gold Coast that I've realized whoa we can take somebody who was you know what people would call a hardened criminal or mean or murder or something like that and bring this whole different aspect of themselves to light they talk about you know developing empathy in and realizing Oh you know my behavior has an impact on somebody else's not just all about me it's about somebody else and somebody else's needs before mine is certainly challenge my section when I first walked in the Door of No gosh he's just all criminals they're not human beans and it's really important to remember that Cheryl steed she senior psychologist at the California Men's colony in central California you can see that full talk at Ted med com I want to ask you about this really famous Talmudic notion the ex might be in the Koran as well it's idea that you know if you say life than you've of humanity I guess if it's somebody who knows maybe it's different as well and do you think that's just total nonsense sadly yes I do this is the renowned somewhat controversial philosopher Peter Singer he teaches at Princeton I mean of cos if it's encouraging people to say one person rather than not to save anyone that's that's a good thing but if you really take it literally I dun see how anyone could really think that if you have a choice between saving a life of one person and saving the society decided the one whom you really take that seriously on for decades Peter Singer has asked really big ethical questions specifically about suffering and how we should all work to reduce it which has brought into a very diffrent definition of altruism Peter explained his idea on the Ted stage by starting out with a news clip and you may remember this horrific incident in China a few years ago when a van ran over a toddler than two minutes three people passed two year old when you buy the first walks around the badly injured toddler completely others look at her before moving off there are other people who walk past a new forestry plan to raise the alarm she was rushed to hospital but it was too light she died I wonder how many of you looking at that said yourselves just now I would not have done that I would have stopped to help as I thought that's most of you and I believe you ensure your eye but before you give yourself too much credit UNICEF reports that in two thousand and eleven six point nine million children under five died from preventable poverty related diseases six point nine million is nineteen thousand children dying every day doesn't really matter that we're not walking cost them in the street doesn't really matter that they're far away I don't think it does make a morally relevant difference the fact that they're not right in front of us because of their of different nationality or rice none of that seems morally relevant to me what is really important is can we reduce that they thought can we save some of those nineteen thousand children dying every day and the answer is yes we can each of us spends money on things that we do not really need you could take the money you're spending on those unnecessary things and give it to this organization the Against malaria Foundation which would take the money you've given and use it to buy nets to protect children and we know reliably that if we provide nets they used and they reduce the number of children dying from malaria fortunately more and more people are understanding this idea and the result is a growing movement effective altruism it's important because it combines both the hot and the hid the hot of course you felt and felt the empathy for that child but it's really important to use the head as well to make sure that what you do is effective and well directed for Peter effective altruism is the most efficient way of giving money that will have the maximum impact and benefit which means finding organizations that will make the most out of your contribution to save the most lives or to alleviate the most amount of suffering most people don't think about that and they don't realize that if they thought a little bit about which charities to direct the time and money and resources to they could do ten times perhaps a hundred times perhaps in some cases even a thousand times as much good charitable giving is a huge sector in the United States in the Masters three hundred and fifty billion dollars a year and yet I can't help feeling that a lot of that is wasted because people have not been thinking about how to do it as effectively as possible the take for example providing a guide dog for a blind person that's a good thing to do right oh right it is a good thing to do but you have to think what else you could do with the results is it cost about forty thousand dollars to trying a guide dog and trying the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person it cost somewhere between twenty and fifty dollars two Q a blind person in a developing country if they have to time so you do the sums and you could provide one guide dog for one blind American or you could queue up between four hundred and two thousand people of blindness I think it's clear what's the better thing to do
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Wired For Altruism

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