Complex (and Simple) Acts of Kindness

Altruism, it is held, is never completely unselfish. So then what really motivates us to do good? And does it really matter?

Since studying dysfunctional behavior can be tedious beyond a certain point, psychologists have also placed altruism under their research lens. They have concluded that it is never completely selfless. There are many theories that are used to support this belief. There is the kin selection theory that holds that we are more charitable and helpful to those we are related to because this increases the chances of our genes being transmitted into the future. Another theory suggests that it is driven by neurology and the positive feelings that are harnessed by reaching out to others. The theory of reciprocal altruism goes all out in claiming that we are only altruistic when we expect a decent pay-off from these actions.

It is hard to see how gene preservation can be a very important consideration in keeping an aged relative from tumbling down the stairs. Still, the kin selection theory is not that far-fetched and we might expect to see it playing out in the animal world where behavior and its motivation are a lot less complicated.

But even here, there are some surprises. Meerkats, for example, show altruistic behavior but not in the way one would expect. These animals live in a highly cooperative society where pups are often fed by adults other than their parents. This community-oriented conduct takes on more significance when you consider how hard it is for these animals to find food in the harsh habitats they live in.

Psychology aside, the fact remains that a majority of us are motivated to do good and make a difference in the world around us. If we had a gadget to rate our good deeds based on their impact and the level of personal sacrifice involved, we could run them through this altruist-o-meter to see how they measure up.

So, dropping a few coins into a panhandler’s tin may register a 2 on a 1 to 10 scale, in light of the dilemma of whether or not one should encourage begging. Giving up a seat on a bus may move us further up the scale.

Volunteering may place us somewhere in between, depending on the time and effort we put in. If personal sacrifice is one of the factors used to determine this score, then a large charitable donation by a very wealthy individual may not register a very high score. But the kinds of heroic acts that one reads about in the papers where people endanger their own lives to save those of strangers may take us off the scale.

There is now a new movement in the thriving self-improvement industry that is based on performing random acts of kindness on a daily basis. There are whole lists of these available for the googling. Most of them seem easy – smiling, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, holding a door open for someone. Others are more difficult – forgiving someone, listening well to others, or voluntarily choosing the middle seat on a plane.
And if all these real life examples of altruism make our heads spin, then it might be therapeutic to see how movie characters – and specifically those in animated movies – go about this.
Disney movies have been criticized for many things, including propagating gender and beauty stereotypes. But they are filled with instances of ‘pros-social’ behavior, or ‘voluntary behavior intended to benefit another’, according to a study conducted by Brigham Young University in the US state of Utah. The study also identified pure altruism as the primary driver for many of these pro-social actions.
Several heartwarming examples in these movies come to mind, including the scene from ‘Finding Nemo’ that is often cited as an example of how a group can converge to do the right thing. In that scene, the fish trapped in a dentist’s tank agree to help Nemo escape even if it means forgoing their own freedom.

For anyone who has sat through a lump inducing scene such as this, it is apparent that all the cold and objective analysis of what motivates us to do good does not fit in this warm and fuzzy space. Perhaps we are worried about the future of our genes. Possibly we may be motivated by the emotional satisfaction it provides. Maybe we are looking for something in return. But mostly we do good because it just seems like the right thing to do.