Barbara Oakley is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers and a recent vice president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. She has recently shaken up the academic community and the popular press by suggesting that there are limits to being a do-gooder, and that an inability to see beyond good intentions to adverse consequences may be more than a moral failing or an intellectual shortcoming. We are lucky to have her speak about her work to The Freeman.
The Freeman: When I first saw the term “pathological altruism” it was, for me, as if the two words were like peanut butter and jelly—rather like “enlightened” and “self-interest.” But can you give our readers the basic idea?
Oakley: It’s really the simplest idea around—pathological altruism is merely altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm. Altruism, in other words, isn’t an unmitigated good. In fact, it can have horrific consequences. The old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is all too true. What the concept of pathological altruism does is to put the aphorism’s essence onto scientific footing, so we can examine it more carefully and truly understand its effects.
In a remarkably interesting new paper, “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oakland University systems engineer Barbara Oakley argues that intentions to help people all too often hurt them. Unintended harm is the outcome of she what calls pathological altruism. She defines pathological altruism “as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.” In her study Oakley explores the psychological and evolutionary underpinnings of empathy and altruism and how they can go wrong. It turns out that pathological altruism is a pervasive problem affecting public policy.
We don’t think we’d ever heard of Oakland University, a second-tier institution in suburban Rochester, Mich., but Barbara Oakley, an associate professor in engineering, may help put the place on the map. Earlier this week Oakland’s Oakley published a fascinating paper, “Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The paper is a concise summary of an innovative idea that informed Oakley’s two recent books: “Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts” (Prometheus, 2011) and “Pathological Altruism” (Oxford University Press, 2012). The former has been described as a true-crime thriller; the latter is a dense, 496-page collection of 31 academic papers, edited by Oakley and three other scholars.
The PNAS paper has the virtue of brevity, running only eight pages despite including 110 footnotes. Yet it’s remarkable for its breadth and depth. It introduces a simple yet versatile idea that could revolutionize scientific and social thought.
Oakley defines pathological altruism as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, “an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.” Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn’t pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is.
…Barbara Oakley, an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan and an editor of the new volume, said in an interview that when she first began talking about its theme at medical or social science conferences, “people looked at me as though I’d just grown goat horns. They said, ‘But altruism by definition can never be pathological.’ ”
To Dr. Oakley, the resistance was telling. “It epitomized the idea ‘I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological,’ ” she said.
Indeed, the study of altruism, generosity and other affiliative behaviors has lately been quite fashionable in academia, partly as a counterweight to the harsher, selfish-gene renderings of Darwinism, and partly on the financing bounty of organizations like the John Templeton Foundation. Many researchers point out that human beings are a spectacularly cooperative species, far surpassing other animals in the willingness to work closely and amicably with non-kin. Our altruistic impulse, they say, is no mere crown jewel of humanity; it is the bedrock on which we stand.
Polyglot polymath and scholar Barbara Oakley takes a incisive look at the cult of the victim. Matthew Reisz reports
When the National Enquirer reported on a Utah trial in April 2007 under the lurid headline “Woman Marries for Love – THEN KILLS FOR SURVIVAL”, it seemed to be exactly what Barbara Oakley was looking for.
She had gone straight from high school into the US Army, took a degree in Slavic languages and literature and then completed her service as a signal officer. Although she had always enjoyed learning languages as a way of seeing the world through new eyes, Oakley recalls, she came to the realisation that “there was nothing more alien to my personality than being an engineer. If I really wanted to have a fresh perspective, that was the thing to do.”