Human altruism

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 1.36.18 PM.pngHuman beings are altruistic! We’re motivated by a lot more than money and success.

In today’s world, this claim may seem dubious. However, there’s overwhelming evidence – we are not just economic rationalists out to maximise our own personal wealth at any cost.

Frequently, this evidence shows we will happily ignore simple profitable activities – for example energy efficiency. A simple illustration – would you walk past a $50 note on the pavement and not pick it up? In our own homes, companies and organisations we do the equivalent of this all the time!

While that may sound like a double negative there’s plenty of collaborative evidence.

We often behave in ways that are in everyone’s interests rather than just our own. Looking after common resources is a good example. We cooperate to equitably share limited resources and protect supplies of these – it is not uncommon for human created fair sharing systems to be effective over decades and generations. This is well known – e.g. the Nobel prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom.

Perspectives on altruism, not seeing the realities in our world today, are to our detriment. Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks highlights this. He says “by assuming that people are selfish, by prioritizing arrangements based on selfishness, we have encouraged selfish frames of mind.”

“Maybe it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good” he says. Fortunately we are seeing some of this – acting on our knowledge – for example, at the Paris Climate Change agreement.

Clearly there’s scope for more and to shift cultural views. These often seem to privilege the idea we’re always chasing money and power.

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