The Neuropsychology of Altruists, Heroes, and Psychopaths

His eyes swelled with uncharacteristic tears as he recounted a tender childhood memory. Reminiscing on playing games with his older brother, he shared, “I saw how much winning meant to him – how happy it made him – so sometimes I would lose on purpose. I liked winning, but I liked seeing my brother happy more.”

An innocent, endearing, and tiny, but no less profound, example of altruism.

Granted, a hit like this is much easier as a child. A time when long-built egos, careers, paychecks, relationships, and reputations aren’t at risk. A time when you have far less to fall, quite literally. But it spoke to the instinctive, organic altruist latent inside even the tiniest of humans.

This conversation left altruism knocking around my head for a few days – how we define it, how it manifests in day to day life, and if it even exists in a true, pure form. Once we acknowledge something or someone as altruistic, does it immediately destruct like a secret message that dissolves once exposed to the air? When the good deed falls, is it only altruistic if no one is around to hear it?

While his story was undeniably sweet, is this act of altruism equal to the dramatic, self-sacrificing stories of blind compassion we hear on the news? A separate conversation a few days later about altruism’s role in war made we wonder if all selfless deeds are made of the same stuff.

Evolutionary biology defines altruism as a behavior that benefits another organism, at a cost to the do-er. By surrendering its own wellbeing, the altruistic organism boosts the reproductive fitness of its peers. Like the male baboon that instigates predators and covers the rear as its troop retreats, the exchange is, I go out on a limb for you, and in doing so, I fall off the limb myself.

Alternatively, social psychology suggests that human altruism is a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. There is no implication of morbidity, morality, or suffering to the do-er. I scratch your back, and don’t expect a scratch in return — but maybe karma will come back around.

But I had to ask myself — what about heroes? The people who throw themselves in front of bullets or busses, the firefighters and soldiers. They seem qualitatively different than the altruistic philanthropist, vegan, or volunteer. Are they extreme altruists, or are they something else…?

These individuals are not only self-less, but self-sacrificing. They are much more like the baboon than the good Samaritan who returns a lost envelope of cash. Against the grain of classically defined human altruism, is heroism an ultimate human achievement, or is it pathologically misaligned with Darwin’s survival of the fittest?

Turns out, I’m not the only person to wonder. So I went digging into my old neuroscience research…

We’re all born with empathy circuitry. From mirror neurons (empathetic people are more likely to yawn when they see another yawn) to intoxicating reward-pathways that make us drunk on dopamine when we lend a hand, humans are wired to do good. When the neural underpinnings of empathy are off, we see pathology, like autism, or psychopathy, like anti-social personality disorder.

But some of us are also born with a tendency to be novelty-seekers. We all know those people — they clamor for a spot at the epicenter of stressful situations, have an intense desire to experience new sensations, and display an elevated threshold for arousal. These are the skydivers, the test pilots, the journalists in war-torn regions, the trauma surgeons.

If a desire to do good is present, almost anyone can be an altruist. But if you combine a willingness to help with a novelty-seeking personality, you have the conditions to create a hero.

Andrea Kuszewski wrote a fascinating piece on heroes, who she calls X Altruists, citing a few consistencies. These individuals typically display low impulse control, high novelty-seeking, low remorse (despite potential guilt, they would still repeat the heroic act “in a heartbeat”), an uncanny ability to temporarily detach from crisis situations, cognitive flexibility to defy authority if necessary, strong ego resilience, and an impulse to serve the common good. And here, we start to see a consistent picture of heroes – thrill seekers with a high degree of empathy.

For example, an altruist might organize a blood drive. But individuals high on the sensation-seeking scale are more likely to donate blood (Rushton, 1986). Whereas more risk-averse, “altruistic” peers might choose acts of kindness free of physical risk or injury, novelty seeking do-gooders are less squeamish. Clearly, this can be naturalistically extrapolated, where donating blood turns into giving blood — or life. 

Unsurprisingly, people love to replicate the hero. In a laboratory experiment with college students, men in male-male-female groups who had to sacrifice a team member to submerge their arm in a painfully cold bucket of ice water actually fought to play the victim (McAndrew, 2012). They jumped at the opportunity to be seen as a hero, with the female presence facilitating this courage.

Real heroes, on the other hand, seem to act out of instinct. Out of impulse. Almost as if they can’t help themselves. Whether someone is looking or not, Jennifer Taylor PhD of McLean Hospital-Harvard Medical School says, “If a person feels there is something they can fight against, that there’s a chance they can help somebody and make a difference, it’s almost automatic. They don’t stop to think. They are just impelled to do something.”

The question must be asked if an act is still altruistic if fueled by automaticity, instinct, and almost a self-induced obligation. Human altruism is defined by its conscious intention, whereas instinctive action of many heroes transcends any reasonable cost-benefit analysis as to border on psychopathy.

Indeed, behavior geneticist David Thoreson Lykken proposed that, “the hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch.” Heroes, as defined by Kuszewski, and psychopaths share many of the same bold and aggressive traits, with the delicate differentiator being empathy and sensitivity to the greater good. Just a hairline away in their genetic composition, with tremendously distinct outcomes.

We have the altruists, the heroes, and the psychopaths. One of these things are not like the others, and it’s not the one you’d expect. It seems that heroes and psychopaths are more similar than heroes and altruists, but in no way does this diminish the profound good that heroes serve. Maybe even a degree of good surpassed by altruists. Anyone could act altruistically, but the genetic lottery predisposes some of us to heroism.

So, is all good created equal? Perhaps it’s about who’s watching. Whether you’re an altruist or a hero, a good deed’s validity has an inverse relationship with its social media views. It’s sexier when others watch, but try it with the lights off. Or perhaps it boils down to intention. Whereas an altruist will consciously intend to do good, a hero will do good in spite of himself.

Or perhaps it doesn’t matter where good comes from, so long as good is done. Whether it’s biology or spirituality, impulse or conscious intention, the genesis of good is less important than its execution. Be a good samaritan, be an altruist, hell, be a hero if you have it in you. Just don’t be an asshole. 

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