Sociology of Altrusim

The Bad Chemicals, Sharing is Caring

In a vexing new twist on the established theories of altruism, a neurologist, an engineer and a veterinarian argue that ‘selflessness’ can be ‘pathological’. They’re talking about human behaviour, even though they are not social scientists who are trained to study the social consequences of human behaviour. Natalie Angier’s New York Times article interviews the researchers about their upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which will explore the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research used to exemplify ‘pathological altruism’ includes:

  • highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
  • anorexic patients in hospitals,
  • victims of abuse,
  • so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).

There are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence. Provocative, yes. Helpful? Probably not. The sociological study of altruism reveals why this is the case.

‘Pathological Altruism’

Only one of the researchers cited is a social scientist – a clinical psychologist who studied anorexia. One of the editors of the book on Pathological Altruism, Barbara Oakley, is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. Oakley says that medical and social scientists haven’t been receptive to her research. She said: ‘people looked at me as though I’d just grown goat horns’. Oakley says these social and medical scientists protested to her work on the grounds of conceptual incongruence. According to Oakley, these other scientists said ‘But altruism by definition can never be pathological’. Oakley looked at altruism through the lens of engineering:

I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high… I’m looking at it as an engineer.’ And by the first rule of engineering, she said, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.’ If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.

The investigation of the negative consequences of altruism is a worthy topic of research. The problem with the scientific inferences that inform the work of non-social-scientists who apply natural/physical/engineering principles to complex social behaviour without knowledge and training in cultural and social processes. In this case, the researchers seem to apply a version of the free riders principle to psycho-social illnesses and abuse. It is always a worry when physical scientists think they can dabble in social science issues without examining maladaptive behaviour outside its social context. That is, how and why do social and institutional factors contribute to the negative experience of altruism? How do these experiences change across time and place?

Sociology of Altruism

Sociologists understand altruism as a ‘principle of unselfish regard for the needs and interests of others‘.  Durkheim studied some forms of suicide a category of altruistic sacrifice some individuals make for their societies in particular contexts, whether it be due to a strong sense of social cohesion or tradition. Perhaps Durkheim’s theory of altruistic suicide might represent a form of pathological altruism, given that people give up their lives to maintain collective norms. Fire fighters and first responders who attended the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 immediately following the terrorist attacks, or emergency crews who respond to natural disaster sites also represent sociological examples of altruism. There are negative health outcomes as a consequence of the altruism of many first-responders, as I wrote about previously, but is their drive to help others in the face of danger pathological? Labelling this a “pathology” does not help explain altruistic behaviour.

Sociology of Altruism. By
Selfess concern and action on behalf of others. Durkheim studied some forms of suicide as a type of altruistic sacrifice

The concept of altruism in sociology is specifically used to study why certain individuals in particular societies risk or endanger their health and wellbeing for others, including people who choose to sacrifice their time, knowledge and resources for people outside their immediate family. Norms of reciprocity (the social rules that guide our choices about when to help others) are studied by economic sociologists and other researchers interested in cooperation within social networks. This includes James Coleman’s theory of social capital and Robert Putnam’s work on civic society.


Sociobiology, a branch of social science, also offers social evolutionary and biological theories of altruism. This field offers some intriguing insights but often overstates its case, by generalising from a specific sub-group in one society, to derive (false) universal norms. See Frank Kemp Salter’s (2004) Welfare, Ethnicity and Altruism which examines ‘ethnic altruism’.

Social Psychology

Sharing is Caring
Sharing is Caring

Social psychology is a related field that studies how biological development (but not biology per se) can impact social behaviour and personality. A new study on altruism headed by psychologist Jessica Sommerville from the University of Washington. The study suggests that 15 month old babies ‘learn about the value of generosity by observing those around them‘. The experiment had 47 babies watching videos of adults sharing crackers and milk in two settings: in one, the adults received equal portions of food and drink, and in the other, one person was given less than the other. Later, the children were given legos to play with; one third of the babies shared their favourite toy. These babies had stared longer at the unequal distribution of food. The researchers call these ‘altruistic sharers’. The kids whose attention had been more captivated by the adults sharing equal amounts of food seemed only prepared to share their least favourite toy (‘selfish sharers’).

Sommerville said altruistic sharers ‘were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task’, while the selfish sharers exhibited the reverse behaviour. She argues:

‘It’s likely that infants pick up on these norms in a nonverbal way, by observing how people treat each other’.

In other words, altruism is not biological or innate; it is a learned behaviour influenced by culture and social context.

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