Obama and the Science of Altruism

Why would we have evolved to feel each other's pain? Two aspects of empathy can help explain this, and the reason that evolution may have selected for strong empathizers in the first place.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Last October, eight-year-old Missourian Karina Encarnacion wrote to then presidential candidate Barack Obama, offering him advice on the type of puppy he should get for his daughters, were he to be elected. In a surprise response, Mr. Obama offered Karina some pieces of advice for making her life more fulfilling. Among these was the following: "If you don't already know what it means, I want you to look up the word 'empathy' in the dictionary. I believe we don't have enough empathy in our world today, and it is up to your generation to change that."

Obama has appealed to empathy more than any recent presidential candidate. While Bill Clinton famously advertised his own empathy for the pain of voters, Obama has asked his supporters to tap into their own, in the hopes of igniting a broad sense of responsibility to society, and -- as described in his acceptance speech in November -- getting everyone to "pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other." Throughout his campaign, Obama has made a similar call for a "new age of service," marked by changes such as doubling the size of the Peace Corps and aiming for public school students to complete 50 hours of community service a year. On Martin Luther King day, one day before his inauguration, the Obamas and their staff began this organization formally, calling for as many Americans as possible to engage in a nation-wide "day of service."

Such proposals from Mr. Obama, often described passionately as a chance to change the average person's role in society, have drawn criticisms as naïvely idealistic, or self aggrandizing -- think Hillary Clinton's parody of Obama's rhetoric: "we'll all come together, and celestial choirs will sing." In most stump speeches, candidates avoid discussing the sacrifices individuals should make to society, and instead emphasize how candidates will protect voters' personal interest, presumably because most voters simply don't want to give up time, money, and energy to something so vague as helping perfect strangers.

Or do they?

Investigations in social psychology and neuroscience may support Obama's ideas about people's willingness to pitch in. By stirring the emotions of new voters while at the same time asking them for increased service to their country, he has tapped into a set of complementary ideas about human psychology: that empathy is a deeply ingrained human tendency, and that it leads naturally to a desire to help those we feel empathy for.

Perhaps unexpectedly, some of the first writing about empathy came from the father of capitalism, Adam Smith. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he claimed that when we see someone else suffering, we "bring their pain home" to ourselves, feeling the same sensations as that other person, recoiling if she stubs her toe and trying to keep our balance while she walks a tightrope. In the last few years, cognitive neuroscience has confirmed some of Smith's intuitions: as it turns out, many of the neural systems involved in experiencing pain, disgust, and touch are also brought online when we witness other people experiencing those sensations, suggesting that we naturally take on the internal states of those around us.

Why would we have evolved to feel each other's pain? Sharing other people's experience could be more trouble than it's worth, given the amount of suffering any newspaper-reader is exposed to daily. In evolutionary terms, empathy could decrease an individual's fitness, for example by preventing him from harming others in competition for vital resources. Even now, it's hard to imagine, for example, a linebacker tackling an opposition quarterback effectively while at the same time experiencing his pain. However, two aspects of empathy can help explain its utility, and the reason that evolution may have selected for strong empathizers in the first place.

First, while sharing others' feelings may decrease an individual's evolutionary fitness, it also motivates that individual to act prosocially, helping others with no benefit -- or even at a cost -- to themselves. This type of behavior, in turn, can increase the evolutionary fitness of a group through the ability of multiple individuals to cooperate.

Evidence that empathy leads to prosocial behavior is decades old. For example, in several studies, Daniel Batson and others had college students read stories about a classmate who had suffered a personal tragedy (such as breaking both legs or losing her parents in a car accident), and then offered readers an opportunity to volunteer their time to help the distressed student. Critically, before being exposed to these stories, some readers were induced to empathize with the story's protagonist, through instructions to "imagining how he or she feels about what has happened and how it has affected his or her life," while others were not. In a typical finding, empathizing readers chose to help the suffering student seventy percent of the time, more than twice as often as non-empathizing readers.

A recent neuroimaging experiment helped clarify the mechanisms behind such effects. People who had taken the perspective of a social target engaged the same brain areas when thinking about that target as they did when thinking about themselves, suggesting that a simple empathizing exercise can help us see others as being "like us." Obama seems to understand this, often presenting unusually vivid narratives about the troubles of people across the country. His "infomercial" was just one recent example; by making the internal states of suffering families clear to viewers, he made empathic responses towards those families difficult to avoid.

A second important quality of empathy is its flexibility. For example, it is easier and more reflexive for us to share the emotions of people in our social group than for strangers or outgroup members. Indeed, soldiers or linebackers can only perform their jobs through divisiveness, seeing their opponents as dissimilar others whose feelings they do not have to be concerned with.

Does this mean that we are destined to feel empathy -- and to help -- only people who are like us, while dismissing people from different groups or political parties as latte-sippers or gun-clingers? Luckily for bipartisans, this is probably not the case. Work in psychology has demonstrated that the way we define our groups is quite flexible: in one experiment, perceivers who learned about social targets who shared their opinions about relatively unimportant things like the television show South Park began to assume that those targets were similar to them in other ways. Other recent studies suggest that we are can change or expand our "ingroup" depending on the ways we define ourselves. For example, a person could, within seconds, see themselves as an Omaha resident, a Nebraskan, a Midwesterner, or an American; alternatively, they could identify as a shortstop, James Bond fan, or a Sousaphone player. Each of these self-images affects the way that person will define their groups, and who they will be motivated to empathize with.

Obama has appealed to this flexibility since his breakout speech at the Democratic national convention in 2004. By continuously encouraging people to see past their political party membership, and constantly employing the first person plural - most famously, "yes we can" -- Obama has unabashedly aimed at reorganizing our concept of groups. Either purposefully or by coincidence, this strategy fits perfectly into a plan of increasing empathy and prosocial behavior more broadly.

Regardless of one's opinions about Obama, it is difficult to argue against the fact that he has engaged the emotions of a generation of first time voters, and motivated millions of people to at least one kind of selfless behavior: donating their time and money to his campaign. Will this translate into a new age of service, in which once apathetic young people will start pitching in for their country? When asked, during a primary debate, about Hillary's mocking assertion that angelic choirs would mark a transition into such a new Obama age, Obama responded: "sounds pretty good." And it does. But Obama's ideas about altruism are also not scientifically implausible. By recruiting an increase in empathy among a younger generation, he may be able to tap into a deeply ingrained, even hard-wired tendency we have to help each other.

Popular in the Community