WASHINGTON — Stories of extreme altruism or heroism, such as donating an organ to a stranger or running into a burning building to help others escape safely, serve to inspire others. Still, many can’t help but wonder exactly what motivates certain people to throw caution to the wind during these situations. Now, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center are mapping out the psychological profiles of a wide range of extreme real-world altruists.
Examples of altruists assessed for this study include heroic rescuers, humanitarian aid workers, and people who donated organs or bone marrow to strangers with no benefits to themselves.
“After evaluating more than 300 extreme altruists, and comparing them to a baseline cohort of typical adults, we found that exceedingly generous people are best distinguished from typical adults by their unselfish traits and preferences,” says Abigail Marsh, the paper’s senior author, in a media release. “But they are not different in a lot of other ways. They are not more agreeable or conscientious, they are not insensitive to risk in general, and they don’t even report higher levels of empathy. Instead, their choices reflect the fact that they appear to truly value the wellbeing of strangers and the welfare of their communities.”
The research team, which included scientists from both MIT and Linfield University, put together a plethora of personality tests, psychological screenings, and economic tasks for a group of extreme altruists to complete. This cohort featured donors who gave up kidneys, livers, bone marrow, and hematopoietic stem cells to strangers, as well as humanitarian aid workers and volunteer rescuers.
A sense of selflessness is key
All those tests revealed that extreme altruists tend to display consistently high levels of Honesty-Humility, a personality trait defined by the HEXACO model of personality structure. According to Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton, the original developers of the HEXACO model, this type of personality trait is characterized by “the tendency to be fair and genuine in dealing with others, in the sense of cooperation with others even when one might exploit others without suffering retaliation.”
Typically, those with high levels of Honesty-Humility have a lower sense of self-importance and are thus unwilling to use, exploit, or harm others to benefit themselves.
“In some ways, it seems intuitive that the trait that really distinguishes extraordinary altruists from other people is unselfishness and valuing others’ welfare,” Marsh explains. “But we actually know it’s not intuitive, because we polled a second group of adults and asked them to predict what traits would distinguish altruists. Interestingly, they predicted that extreme altruists would be better in basically every way–more agreeable, more conscientious, more open, and so on. They sort of think that altruists are perfect people, even superhuman. I think that’s why you so often hear altruists referred to using supernatural terms like ‘saints’ and ‘guardian angels.’ But they’re not! It’s so important to know that really altruistic people have quirks and flaws just like anyone else. They are just genuinely less selfish.”
Human nature isn’t always about selfishness
Marsh’s lab at Georgetown, the Laboratory on Social & Affective Neuroscience, works to study both ends of what she refers to as the “caring continuum,” which encompasses both those with extraordinary levels of empathy and others with a “deficit” when it comes to compassion, such as people with psychopathy.
On a related note, two of this study’s co-authors, Shawn Rhoads and Marsh, recently contributed a chapter to the United Nation’s World Happiness Report, which assessed the relationship between altruism, happiness, and well-being.
“These results call attention to some common assumptions about human nature as selfish,” concludes Shawn Rhoads, the paper’s first author. “While self-focused motives for prosocial behaviors certainly exist – such as helping others in order to receive something in return or to improve one’s reputation – these data suggest that acts of real-world self-sacrifice, even in extreme cases, can reflect unselfish motivations and preferences as well.”
The findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.