- Publication Year: 2011
- Publisher: Oxford University Press
The benefits of altruism and empathy are obvious. These qualities are so highly regarded and embedded in both secular and religious societies that it seems almost heretical to suggest they can cause harm. Like most good things, however, altruism can be distorted or taken to an unhealthy extreme. Pathological Altruism presents a number of new, thought-provoking theses that explore a range of hurtful effects of altruism and empathy.
Pathologies of empathy, for example, may trigger depression as well as the burnout seen in healthcare professionals. The selflessness of patients with eating abnormalities forms an important aspect of those disorders. Hyperempathy – an excess of concern for what others think and how they feel – helps explain popular but poorly defined concepts such as codependency. In fact, pathological altruism, in the form of an unhealthy focus on others to the detriment of one’s own needs, may underpin some personality disorders.
Pathologies of altruism and empathy not only underlie health issues, but also a disparate slew of humankind’s most troubled features, including genocide, suicide bombing, self-righteous political partisanship, and ineffective philanthropic and social programs that ultimately worsen the situations they are meant to aid. Pathological Altruism is a groundbreaking new book – the first to explore the negative aspects of altruism and empathy, seemingly uniformly positive traits. The contributing authors provide a scientific, social, and cultural foundation for the subject of pathological altruism, creating a new field of inquiry. Each author’s approach points to one disturbing truth: what we value so much, the altruistic “good” side of human nature, can also have a dark side that we ignore at our peril.
"This book offers a well-balanced sense of how altruistic acts can cause harm to the self, to
any intended target(s), and to society at large. Although not organized into these categories,
Pathological Altruism highlights the problems that can emerge when personal, civic, and
civil agendas are left unchallenged."
"Apparently not, at least for a lot of people. One of the best pieces in Pathological Altruism is David Brin's chapter on addiction to indignation: "Self-addiction and Self-righteousness." You might see why looking to feel outraged as often as you can is pathological, but how could overweening, self-righteous huffiness ever be described as altruistic?"
- Los Angeles Review of Books
"It will lead the way for future investigators and scientists to open the doors of inquiry into a new and most interesting field of inquiry. It is well done, reader friendly, and highly praised by leaders in the scientific and educational communities. I will add my praise to those and recommend it highly."
- Lois Bennett, Ph.D , New York Journal of Books
"Read this book. You will learn much that would be new to you, whatever your expertise or interest. And I would be surprised if you don't enjoy this voyage of discovery."
- Francisco J. Ayala , Templeton Prize Laureate and University Professor, University of California, Irvine
"What most of us perceive as unmitigated evil, its perpetrators sometimes regard as self-sacrifice in the name of some delusional cause. Suicide bombers, terrorists, messianic cult leaders guiding their following to self-destruction usually think of their heinous acts as benefiting humanity at the cost of self-deprecation. So did Adolf Hitler. To understand such behaviors, it is necessary to understand 'pathological altruism' in its many manifestations. This volume is unique in examining 'pathological altruism' from various angles with unfailing insight and depth. The book will be an invaluable source for psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, historians, criminologists, as well as fascinating reading for the general educated public."
- Elkhonon Goldberg , Clinical Professor of Neurology, New York University School of Medicine and author of New Executive Brain, Wisdom Paradox, and Executive Brain
"Pathological altruism? Sounds like an oxymoron, but this fascinating book quickly convinces you that altruism can go seriously mad and bad. The great breadth and quality of contributors to this book from psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy - and that's just the 'P's' - shed light on the dark side of our evolutionary propensity towards altruism, which can be subverted to a wide range of pathologies such as survivor guilt, drug co-dependency, personality disorders, and eating disorders. When within-group altruism is exploited to between-group hostility, it can lead to suicide martyrdom and genocide."
- Robert Plomin , MRC Research Professor and Deputy Director, Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London; author of Behavioral Genetics (now in its 5th edition), and past-president of the Behavior Genetics Associatio
"WOW-what a book! Can one be too nice? In this fascinating volume Barbara Oakley and her collaborators show how altruism can bleed into misplaced, excessive, self-righteous, or self-serving pathologies. Why this occurs and its societal implications make this book essential reading for anyone who truly cares about helping others."
- Paul Zak , Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University, co-editor of Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy
"Can there be too much of a good thing? Surely, eating too many chocolate chip cookies will lead to a sore stomach, but too much altruism bringing about harm?! In Pathological Altruism, experts in diverse fields consider the phenomenon of radical altruism, from battered women to suicide martyrs, and from autistic people to foreign aid givers, and all the way to Mahatma Gandhi. Is pathological altruism a disease, an addiction, an evolutionary relic, or perhaps a mirage? This is a wonderfully engaging and thought provoking book: you may not agree with all of its arguments, but you'll never look at kindness quite the same way again."
- Oren Harman , hair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University, Israel, and author of The Price of Altruism
"It is rare-actually, probably unprecedented-to find in a single volume discussions of the moral right to sell one's kidney, of friends who enable an alcoholic's benders out of a misplaced sense of empathy, of people who hoard animals (the not-at-all apocryphal crazy neighbor who lives with 87 cats), of the psychological motivations of suicide bombers, of the genetics of individualism and collectivism, and of the frequent failings of well-intentioned foreign aid programs. This is that rare, if not unique, volume. It manages the impressive feat of pulling together the best research from psychology, genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and law on well-meaning but ultimately harmful forms of self-sacrifice. It will forever change the way you look at altruism."
- Sharon Begley , Science Editor, Newsweek, and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
"Is pathological altruism a disease, an addiction, an evolutionary relic, or perhaps a mirage? This is a wonderfully engaging and thought provoking book; you may not agree with all of its arguments, but you'll never look at kindness quite the same way again."
- Oren Harman , Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society, Bar Ilan University, Israel, and author of The Price of Altruism
'''Be careful what you wish for' might be one way of summing up the take-home message of this strikingly original book, highlighting the fact that 'more is not always better' when it comes to either being the altruist or the recipient of altruism."
- Jay Belsky , Professor of Pyschology; Birkbeck University of London
"This volume is unique in examining 'pathological altruism' from various angles with unfailing insight and depth."
- Elkhonon Goldberg , Clinical Professor of Neurology, New York University School of Medicine, and author of The New Executive Brain,The Wisdom Paradox, and The Executive Brain
"What is grand about the collection is that light pours in through every contribution, and even the glare of competing views can reveal dark assumptions."
- Robert J. Richards , Morris Fishbein Professor of Science and Medicine, The University of Chicago, and author of Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (winner of the Pfizer Prize in History of Science)
"An essential reading for anyone who truly cares about helping others."
- Paul Zak , Professor of Economics, Claremont Graduate University, and co-editor of Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy
"This unique volume manages the impressive feat of pulling together the best research from psychology, genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and law on well-meaning but ultimately harmful forms of self-sacrifice. It will forever change the way you look at altruism."
- Sharon Begley , Science Editor, Newsweek, and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
"The coverage of topics is breathtaking.... The reader will emerge with a much deeper and nuanced understanding of altruism in reading this book, the best on altruism in the last 15 years."
- Dacher Keltner , Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley; author of Born To Be Good: The Science of A Meaningful Life
"What a wonderful book! This is one of the few books in evolutionary biology I've read in the past ten years that taught me something completely new."
- Edward O. Wilson , Pulitzer Prize Winner and Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
"A scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume...The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous 'how can I help you?' behavior is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodized, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive."
- Natalie Angier , The New York Times