The tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon happened live.  As cell towers struggled with traffic and calls couldn’t get through, the conversation moved to Facebook, Twitter, Google.  Beyond the heroism of the first responders, we were able to see the Google Docs created by Bostonians who opened their homes to the displaced, the neighbors who gave out juice, shelter and solace, and the dozens of bystanders who – in the tumult of the explosions – ran not away from, but towards the blasts.

All this paints a different picture of humanity than the one that rocked the nation in the 1964, when a young woman was murdered in sight and earshot of thirty-some neighbors who did not step in to help.  The Kitty Genovese case gave rise to what is now known as the “bystander effect”.  Top on the list are scenarios where lots of bystanders watch, expecting that someone else will help, or when the victim is not someone they identify with personally.

Science writer Eric Michael Johnson recently looked at this question in a 2012 Slate article, “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies,” pairing recent studies of human societies still living as our ancestors did (such as the Inuit of Northern Alaska) with the hypothesis about the selfishness of human nature described in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Johnson cites a study by USC Professor Christopher Boehm which came to the following conclusion about societies still living as our ancestors once did (called LPA or Late-Pleistocene Appropriate societies):

What [Boehm] has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand’s selfish ideal. For example, in 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values.

Not only this, but what keeps societies favoring altruism? Of all things, Johnson argues, it’s gossip. Gossip, Johnson writes, allows societies to privilege those with a ‘good’ reputation—and someone who does seemingly altruistic deeds likely gets credit for doing so.

But what mechanisms do gossip and public shaming ultimately offer, and how do these effectively moderate ‘good’ behaviors like altruism? A scientist and an economist worked together in a study on this very subject, the results of which are published in the article “The Economics of Altruistic Punishment and the Maintenance of Cooperation.” The study uses financial gains (actual money) to test altruistic behavior through punishment mechanisms. In other words, the study finds that altruistic behavior is most likely when the cost to the punisher (a subject punishing uncooperative behavior) is low and the impact on the punished (subject not acting altruistically) is high. The investigators write:

In conclusion, we find that altruistic punishment enforces cooperation only when its effectiveness is relatively high. Additionally, individual and group payoffs are relatively low even if cooperation is successfully enforced. Other studies and real-life examples suggest that mechanisms involving repeated interactions, such as reciprocity, reputation, exclusion, parochialism (Bernhard et al. 2006b) and also opting out (Fowler 2005; Brandt et al.2006) can have strong cooperation-enhancing effects. Taken together, the evidence indicates that altruistic punishment may be important in the evolution of cooperation only in combination with such other cooperation-enhancing mechanisms.

Such studies may actually shine light on recent news reports out of places like China that question the altruism of Chinese citizens (as in the incident of a toddler run over by a van ignored by passersby). In fact, based on these studies, the issue may not be a question of human nature, but of punishment—a ‘Good Samaritan’ law has yet to be established in China, thus potentially putting altruistic individuals actually in more harm than benefit in any given situation.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t take a revised look at altruism and its tenets (this New York Times blog examines the question: Is Pure Altruism Possible?). As shown in these studies, the benefits to human societies that favor altruism over individualistic tendencies are evidenced in acts of heroic teachers during the Newtown shootings and Boston residents opening their homes to those stranded by the recent tragedy. In the case of Boston, a city harboring a reputation for being somewhat unfriendly to outsiders, this is now being redefined, and the city elevated due to the altruism of its inhabitants.

In disasters, the great majority of people behave well. In some ways, they behave better than in ordinary life and in some disasters people find [out about] the meaningful role of deep social connections and see their absence in everyday life.

— Rebecca Solnit in Time Magazine

“No one should accuse us of being unwelcoming to outsiders again,” writes Eric Randall in Boston Magazine. He continues: “But when it counts, people here care for the strangers in their midst.” Such public announcements of Bostonians’ altruism raise the city’s positive profile in the midst of such a horrific tragedy thereby allowing the city, and its most altruistic residents, to serve as examples to others. Ultimately this perpetuates the necessity of altruism over individualism in service of the whole, but also, in its own circular way, service to the self as well.

On that note, we leave you with a beautiful and succinct poetic rendering of the meaning of altruism, by poet Molly Peacock.

Image credit: Steve Evans via flickr

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads

Kaitlin Solimine, Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads