Category: Georgetown Magazine, Spring 2024

Title:Analyzing altruism

Author: Patti North
Date Published: April 8, 2024
a headshot of a blonde woman who smiles at the camera in front of a wide green lawn
Abigail Marsh, professor of psychology and co-director of Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Concentration in Cognitive Science. Photo: Georgetown University

When Abigail Marsh was a teenager, she was on a busy highway one night and swerved to miss a dog. Her car spun into the fast lane and the engine died. A stranger stopped his car and ran across four lanes of traffic to help her.

She never saw him again, but that experience inspired her to become the psychologist she is today, researching and teaching about altruism and psychopathy—both ends of what she calls the “caring continuum.”

Her research, featured on 60 Minutes, is unlocking the mystery of why some people, with nothing to gain, risk their lives for a stranger. Marsh is studying what is known as “extreme altruism” in people who have donated their kidneys to strangers or have committed extraordinary acts of heroism, as well as humanitarian aid workers.

Marsh found that extreme altruists have a larger than average amygdala, and their brain scans show more activity when looking at photos of fearful people. She and her co-authors study identified traits that are common in extreme altruists: honesty, humility, reduced levels of social discounting (where generosity doesn’t decline as social distance increases, as it does for most people), high valuation of other’s outcomes, and reduced personal distress in emergencies. Marsh says there are some gender differences in altruists—men are more likely to undertake heroic acts, but women are more likely to donate a kidney to a stranger. In risky situations, “Your brain can quickly calculate what your chances for success are,” she says, “and men tend to be stronger, less anxious, and more impulsive.”

people stare at an array of computers that feature pictures of brain scans
Photo: Georgetown University

Her research also suggests that as people’s health, wealth, and education improve, they become more altruistic. Altruism and empathy are generally increasing, though many people nonetheless perceive the world as increasingly cruel and inhumane. It may be that our perceptions don’t match reality because media coverage of crime and violence has increased substantially, though violent crime has been steadily decreasing for the last 30 years. “People are convinced they are seeing big increases in immoral and violent behavior, even though the real trends show the opposite.”

Are there ways to make people more altruistic? Marsh thinks so. “Empathy induction doesn’t work,” she says “because we only empathize with people we care about. We have to find more ways to get people to care about each other, and empathy will follow.” Marsh also says that, contrary to most people’s perceptions, altruists aren’t “nicer” or more agreeable than anyone else. “But they do look for the best in people, genuinely care about others’ welfare, and think they should be even more altruistic. I’ve learned a lot from them,” she says.

More Stories

person playing piano

Evolving from scholastic and sacred roots, music at Georgetown today showcases a vibrant range of forms and genres Professor, composer, and pianist Carlos Simon (above) performs “Requiem for the Enslaved”…

a man and a woman with binoculars look for birds in bright autumn foliage

Photo: Lisa Helfert How nurse-bioethicist Christine Grady (N’74, G’93) and her husband, new faculty member Anthony Fauci, live their commitment to public service, health, and each other In May 2023,…

students playing instruments

Students settle in for the journey from campus to the Calcagnini Contemplative Center, which opened in 2013. Photos courtesy of Georgetown University/Georgetown ESCAPE Calcagnini Contemplative Center celebrates 10 years Late…