SCIENCE: The Dark Side of Altruism
In part one we briefly looked at how altruism can help society. In this post we’ll briefly look at the darker side of altruism: how the cults use a person’s goodwill.
Altruism is a trait that helps a group. Although animals may show it to an extent, altruism seems to be a uniquely human trait where we would even sacrifice our lives for the good of a group. However, people can, and are, often taken advantage of. Sometimes to deleterious effects of the individuals that show altruism.
All the cool kids are doing it.
Frey, B., & Meier, S. (2004) noted an experiment in Germany looked at how people might donate a small amount of money when told what their peers were doing. During this experiment they would ask university students to donate one of two donation amounts to a cause. Depending on what the students were told about the tendency of their peers, the students would donate either more money or less money. More money if the tendency was towards more, less if the tendency went the other direction. The next year that if a person is naturally altruistic towards the society, they may continue their contributions if the others are doing so as well.
In this experiment the students weren’t lied to. The researchers either told the students an upper range or a lower range of donation tendencies. It is easy to see how a lie, or even a marketing scheme that blows things out of proportion, can tap into people’s desire to do good if they see others are also donating time, money, and other resources to a cause.
Exuberant sacrifices for the charismatic ones
This same altruistic trait that pulls people to do good is also exploited by a charismatic group, as Marc Galanter notes in Cults: faith, Healing, and Coercion. It’s exploited by these cult leaders by calling for greater and greater sacrifices to make for the good of the group. This can be giving up their worldly possessions, but also their freedom and identity to the group.
This can become harmful when it causes chaos to a society, such as extremist destroying property and starting fist fights under the guise of “liberty”, “human rights”, or even just because a charismatic leader convinced them it was the right and proper thing to do. It can be ruinous to the individual when they are asked to sacrifice themselves for the cause ─ even if that means severe maiming or death.
Altruism is a powerful thing.
Everyone shows selflessness from time to time. It can bring both amazing and horrible things about in one’s personal lives, and even has the a ripple out effect into society. When you help one person, you might also be helping their families. When an unscrupulous person individual comes along with an idea for the vulnerable, they could take advantage of them for the worse, using the giver until their usefulness is at an end.
Everyone has altruism to one degree or another, so don’t start pointing at one political agenda or another. It’s about a person being vulnerable and finding something that sings to them. It makes them feel whole enough to want to stick with it and give it more. While it shows up often in religious and political factions, it can be even in childhood cliques.
Frey, B., & Meier, S. (2004). Social Comparisons and Pro-social Behavior: Testing “Conditional Cooperation” in a Field Experiment. American Economic Review, 94(5), 1717-1722.
Galanter, M. (1999). Cults: faith, healing, and coercion (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.