A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Self-Sacrifice: For the Good of the Kin

Are humans really as selfish as they appear to be?

If people are basically selfish and our biological imperative is to survive in order to pass down our genes to future generations, how do we explain the willingness of so many people to die for their country or their clan in a war? 

Throughout history, hundreds of thousands of men have marched headlong and almost without flinching into enemy spears, arrows, gunfire, and bombs, all the while watching their friends and comrades killed or maimed right beside them. 

Individuals who die in battle are glorified by most societies as heroes. Mothers who send their sons off to war are also honored. In the United States, women whose sons die in war are hailed as "Gold Star Mothers." When I was growing up in the 1950s, other boys would come up to me and ask me if I was willing to die for my country in a war. Saying no meant being socially ostracized. 

The idea that maybe one should not always be willing to do that was rarely questioned on a large scale anywhere in the world until wide-scale opposition developed to the Vietnam War in the United States in the mid-1960s.

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How do we explain the willingness of so many people to die for their families when they believe their families are under threat? Almost any one of us is willing to take a bullet to protect at least someone to whom we are strongly attached. 

On the other hand, if we are strongly motivated for our progeny to survive, how do we explain mothers in China who kill their own baby daughters in response to China's one child policy? How do we explain the so-called honor killings in the Middle East, where otherwise loving fathers or brothers murder their own daughters or sisters because of social infractions that we in the United States consider minor or not infractions at all? 

In a similar vein, what selfish explanation can be evoked to explain the behavior of Serbs, Croats, and Albanians in Yugoslavia as that country broke apart starting in the 1990s.These ethnic groups had lived together in peace for the previous 40 years. They had been close neighbors and good friends, socialized together, and intermarried. Not too many years after the dictator Tito died, they turned on each other, killed each other, and ethnically cleansed entire cities.

These seemingly odd behaviors, where large numbers of people sacrifice themselves for their social groups and are perfectly willing to kill other people -- even some from their own family -- despite their own best interests is extremely common historically. They must come very naturally to us Homo sapiens. Are they in our genes? 

Although we now know that genes do not determine specific behaviors, they do cause us to have certain tendencies. We can override these tendencies, especially since we have evolved the ability to anticipate negative consequences to our behavior and change it accordingly. Still, if a behavior is as common as wars have been, and people often ignore all reason as they march off to them, we all must have some sort of strong genetic tendency to explain it.

If Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection -- the passing on of genes due to the survival of the fittest -- is a valid explanation for the phenomenon of evolution, then these behaviors must have evolved because the genes that predispose human beings toward them are more likely to be passed down than genes that do not. 

But how is that possible? Surely if you sacrifice yourself, you are less likely to pass down your genes. Ditto if you kill your own daughter. And going to war because of old historical injustices after enjoying the benefits of peace certainly endangers one's chances to reproduce in the future. Surely the people involved could easily remember the good times.

Darwin actually addressed this issue. At first the characteristic of altruism, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the seeming good of one's ethnic or kin group, seemed to him to be at odds with his theory of natural selection. He then realized that this paradox would disappear if he changed his focus from the individual with a good genetic adaptation to the group to which the individual belonged. A single individual with a genetic mutation that is highly desirable and adaptive may still die before reproducing. 

If a group such as a family, a herd, or a tribe has many individuals who share the adaptation, then the propagation of that gene becomes far more likely. The survival of a genetic adaptation is dependent on the size of the number of individuals who share the genes, not just on the presence or absence of the gene in a single individual. If the individual organism's sacrifice of itself or its offspring helps a whole group to survive, the genes that predispose it to this behavior are selected for over time. 

For example, if an individual deer in a herd breaks a leg and demands the attention of its family, and its relatives and the rest of the herd lovingly wait around for it to heal, then they all become easy target for predators, and the whole group may not survive. If, on the other hand, the injured deer's genetic predisposition allows it to altruistically sacrifice itself by going off into the forest to die, and the herd's genetic propensity is to metaphorically wish it good luck and move on to safer areas of the forest, the whole group is more likely to survive. 

The kin group of all the animals containing these genes becomes more likely to reproduce and pass on their altruistic genes to future generations. Under some circumstances, killing off one's own progeny will lead to enhanced survival for the group as a whole, so genes that predispose towards that behavior under some environmental contingencies would also be selected for through the forces of evolution.

In biology, this idea is known as kin selection. It remains controversial among evolutionary biologists and is not widely accepted by them, but I believe that its lack of acceptance has less to do with science and more to do with politics. Many biologists fear that the idea of kin selection could be misused in the way that the Nazi's misused eugenics -- to justify the killing off of weaker members of society or committing genocide against other ethnic groups who are viewed as genetically inferior. It could also be seen as a rationale for social Darwinism.

The idea that we may be willing to sacrifice our own interests for the good of our kin group is particularly difficult for Americans to accept. Because of the relative emphasis on individualism versus collectivism that has for so long been a defining characteristic of American culture, many of us find this idea almost ludicrous. We tend to believe that people are motivated entirely by selfishness. Even if people appear to be altruistic, we tend to think that they have some ulterior motive. Maybe they engage in selfless activities because it will gain praise for them, or will get them into heaven. Maybe even Mother Teresa did what she did entirely for the glory.

For centuries, societies have punished people who break the rules by exiling them from their communities. Today, families still disown wayward children in a way that parallels political exile. For many people, being thrown out of their kin or ethnic group or country is one of the most horrible punishments imaginable. It is literally a fate worse than death. Despite our fear, we can still choose to accept that fate rather than give in to the demands of our social network, but few of us are willing to make that choice. 

If people are exiled or disowned, they often feel terribly alone and confused about who they really are. They begin to doubt their own choices, desires, and even their perceptions. They may become depressed or suicidal. I knew of a woman from India who defied her parents' desire for her to have an arranged marriage by planning to marry the American she fell in love with. She killed herself before she could follow through with her plan.

So, despite all appearances to the contrary, altruism continues to be the most potent of motivating forces. However, precisely because altruistic intent is not generally accepted by the people around them, individuals are easily able to disguise their altruistic motives. Individuals within the context of the family system can and frequently do use selfishness as a cover for altruism.

Mara Selvini Palazzoli
The family systems therapy pioneer Mara Selvini-Palazolli was the first to note that children act out certain roles in their family of origin in order to try to emotionally stabilize parents who are themselves emotionally unstable. Doing so also has the effect of maintaining dysfunctional relationship patterns so that the family operates in predictable ways, also called family homeostasis. Family homeostasis is defined as the tendency of a family system to maintain the stability of the rules by which it operates, and to resist change.

Family homeostasis is maintained through feedback loops in which deviation from the culturally derived rules are stopped or damped down by the collective behavior of the group. A family that operates by traditional gender rules, would attack any female family member who was ambitious and tried to outdo men in the career world. The family gives a strong message to an offender, "You are wrong. Change back."

The concept of children acting out specific roles to stabilize family homeostasis was first described by psychoanalyst Sam Slipp in his 1984 book, Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment. I subsequently enlarged his catalog of roles to include, among others, the role of spoiler. This role is the basis for the problematic behavior of individuals with borderline personality disorder.

In later posts, I will describe the nature of and the reasons for many of the various dysfunctional role behaviors exhibited by those with personality disorders and other forms of repetitive self destructive behavior: the spoiler, the savior, the avenger, the go-between, the defective, the little man, the monster, the circuit breaker, and the switchboard.

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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