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Health and Sanity

Valentina Nicolae
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piqer: Valentina Nicolae
Saturday, 02 February 2019

Wired For Altruism

This episode of TED Radio Hour explores the idea of altruism. Why we do it, why some people are more giving than others, and can there be such a thing as too much altruism are only a few of the questions dealt with in this hour.

The show introduces us to four speakers, each of whom looks at altruism from a different angle. Psychology professor Abigail Marsh studied psychopathy and altruism, and, more exactly, the brains of people with these characteristics. She wanted to know more about the biological component of unselfish behaviour, and the results of her research showed selfless people’s amygdala is bigger and gets more activated when looking at someone in distress than the amygdala of psychopathic persons.

The second guest is a psychologist at a medium-security prison and head of the Gold Coat program. The prison has many inmates over the age of 50 who are, at some point, diagnosed with dementia and thus unable to care for themselves. In the Gold Coat program “they assign high-functioning general population inmates to serve as assistant caregivers to some of the prison's most vulnerable populations". The interesting takeaway is that even people who had committed horrible murders can learn to be altruistic and dedicate themselves to caring for a stranger without any (or very little) payoff.

Now that we’ve seen we can learn selflessness, the question arises of whether we can also learn how to be more effective altruists. Philosopher Peter Singer offers a few possibilities to achieving that goal. Lastly, a New Yorker staff writer, who researched intensely about people who dedicate their entire lives to helping others—even when that means putting themselves at risk—talks about the cases of a few extreme altruists and the ambivalent feelings they stir in most people. 

Wired For Altruism
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