People who engage in extraordinary acts of altruism are less likely to believe that some humans are irredeemably evil, according to new research published in the Journal of Research in Personality. The new findings indicate that particular beliefs about human nature are more important than religiosity or spirituality in explaining altruistic actions toward strangers.
“We started with a big question: ‘What do we owe to strangers in need?'” explained study author Paige Amormino, a graduate student at Georgetown University.
“Moral philosophers may try to answer this question by examining the capital T ‘Truth’ of morality. But as moral psychologists, we take a different, descriptive approach toward answering a similar set of questions––one which we can measure empirically: ‘What do we think we owe to strangers in need? And what is it about who we are that dictates how two seemingly similar people can arrive at two very different senses of moral obligation?’
“To answer these questions, we compared both the religious beliefs and the beliefs about humanity between those who have engaged in costly altruism toward a needy stranger (in this case, donating a kidney to a stranger in need) and those who were demographically similar in terms of age, race, education, and income, yet have not engaged in such an altruistic act,” Amormino explained.
The researchers contacted transplant organizations and used online advertisements to seek out individuals who had donated one of their kidneys to a stranger. The total number of these altruistic donors is quite small — fewer than four thousand adults in North America. The study’s final sample consisted of 56 altruistic kidney donors and 75 demographically similar controls who were recruited from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area
The participants completed assessments of empathy, religiosity, and spirituality. They also completed the Belief in Pure Evil Scale and the Belief in Pure Good Scale.
Altruistic kidney donors did not exhibit increased empathy, religiosity, or spirituality. The researchers found that one factor distinguished altruistic kidney donors from their counterparts: a reduced tendency to believe that humans can be purely evil. In other words, they were less likely to agree with statements such as “Evil people have an evil essence, like a stain on their souls, which is almost impossible to get rid of” and “Evildoers want to destroy all that is good in this world.”
“What I find most exciting about this study is that we were able to attain a sample of geographically diverse, altruistic kidney donors from all across the country and find a common thread in their psychology: They are less likely than the average person to believe that pure evil exists in the world and in humanity — and this finding holds true even when controlling for demographic variables and religiosity,” Amormino told PsyPost.
“The biggest takeaway has to do with cynicism and seeing some good in the bad, because taken together, this is what our evidence suggests: highly altruistic individuals believe that others deserve help regardless of their potential moral shortcomings.”
Surprisingly, the researchers observed no significant differences between altruistic kidney donors and the control group when it came to belief in pure good. People who score high on the Belief in Pure Good Scale agree strongly with statements such as “There is such a thing as a truly selfless/altruistic person” and “Selfless people help anyone in need, even their rivals.”
“There is one hypothesis that the data did not support,” Amormino said. “We predicted that these extraordinary altruists would be more likely than controls to endorse the belief in pure good. That altruists are not more optimistic about humanity (which likely includes the strangers they’ve helped) may seem counterintuitive.”
“But our findings suggest that the willingness to provide costly aid for anonymous strangers may not require believing that others are purely good (i.e., that morally infallible people exist), but rather believing that there is at least a little bit of good in everyone. Thus, extraordinary altruists are not overly optimistic about the moral goodness of other people but are willing to act altruistically towards morally imperfect people anyway.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“A major caveat is that our study design is correlational in nature,” Amormino explained. “We cannot say that these less cynical beliefs about the world will turn one into an extraordinary altruist. We’re simply describing the population of extraordinary altruists using demographically-similar control subjects and hypothesis testing to make predictions about group differences between these two samples.”
The study, “Beliefs about humanity, not higher power, predict extraordinary altruism“, was authored by Paige Amormino, Katherine O’Connell, Kruti M. Vekaria, Emily L. Robertson, Lydia B. Meena, and Abigail Marsh.