Craig D. Marker

Craig D. Marker Ph.D.

Face Your Fear

Altruism, Heroics, and Extreme-Altrusim

Do extreme altruists share traits with psychopaths?

Posted Jan 29, 2010

A common contrast to altruistic acts are acts of psychopathy.  Psychopaths are people who have little or not remorse for their actions.  They are thought to not feel empathy for others.  Thus, they act in very selfish ways to promote their own welfare.  Thus, it would seem that people who we would consider to be prototypes of altruism (e.g., Mother Teresa or Gandhi) would be considered as complete opposites to psychopaths.  However, a great article by Andrea Kuszewski points out some similarities between what she calls extreme-altruism and psychopaths. 

She describes people who have extreme-altruistic personalities as someone who goes out of their way to help others, even at the expense of their own welfare. 
Someone who goes out of their way to help others, even at the expense of their own welfare, is actually more likely to break rules than the average person. Think of Dr Ross from the early days of the TV show "ER". He was constantly pushing limits, breaking the rules, throwing caution to the wind, all for the sake of the child-patient, even when it ultimately meant getting fired. On 9/11, after it was apparent that the buildings were about to collapse, teams of firefighters were called back, yet they disobeyed orders and pushed on anyway, only to perish in the quest to possibly save even one more life. Those are the actions of a hero, or an X-altruistic personality type. But consider the type of rule-breaking that the X-altruist engages in- would you classify it as criminal, or even unlawful? How does motive factor in?

X-altruists are compelled to good, even when doing so makes no sense and brings harm upon them. The cannot tolerate injustice, and go to extreme lengths to help those who have been wronged, regardless of their personal relationship to them. Now, I am not speaking of the guy who helps an old lady cross the street. I am speaking of the guy who throws himself in front of a speeding bus to push the old lady out of the way, killing himself in the process. The average, kind, thoughtful person does not take these kinds of extreme personal risks on a regular basis. 

It is an interesting idea to point out similarities with extreme-altruism and psychopaths.  Some of the similarities include impulsivity, need for novelty, and the tendency to break rules.  However, the differences are what fundamentally define these two types of people.  People who are altruistic can empathize with others or imagine themselves in the other persons shoes.  Whereas, people who are psychopaths cannot empathize and lack remorse for their actions. 

An interesting question brought up by this article is how many people are extreme altruists compared to the every-day person who does altruistic acts?  Or are there many people who are extreme altruists compared to the people who give their whole lives to being altruistic?

I don't have time to answer these questions because I need to rush into this burning building to save small children.

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