Dr. Stephanie Preston, Professor of Psychology

The Altruistic Urge: Using Brain Evolution to Predict and Improve Human Helping

Ordinary people can perform astonishing acts of altruism, but what drives this behavior? Under the right conditions, humans may altruistically assist someone in need, sometimes even heroically placing their very life on the line. For example, a pregnant woman saw a dorsal fin and blood in the water and dove right in to pull her wounded husband to safety. Even complete strangers sometimes provide life-saving aid, like the New York father who jumped into the subway tracks to save a young man who had fallen in front of an oncoming train. Similar behavior can also be observed in other species, suggesting that these strange acts of kindness may reflect our shared evolution and neurophysiology. This talk describes Dr. Preston’s theory of the “altruistic urge,” which explains our surprisingly powerful drive to help the vulnerable. The machinery that evolved to ensure that we safeguard our own offspring also motivates us to save complete strangers in similar situations (e.g., when the victim is helpless, distressed, and needs urgent aid that the observer can provide). Eye-catching dramatic rescues bear a striking similarity to how other caregiving mammals retrieve their young and can explain more mundane but important decisions to help other people, animals, and the earth with our money and time. If we understand what makes us want to help, we can promote care where it is most needed.

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