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Good Intentions and the Road to Hell
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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.

As Oakley explains:

“Good government is a foundation of large-scale societies; government programs are designed to minimize a variety of social problems. Although virtually every program has its critics, well designed programs can be effective in bettering people’s lives with few negative tradeoffs. From a scientifically-based perspective, however, some programs are deeply problematic, often as a result of superficial notions on the part of program designers or implementers about what is genuinely beneficial for others, coupled with a lack of accountability for ensuing programmatic failures. In these pathologically altruistic enterprises, confirmation bias, discounting, motivated reasoning, and egocentric certitude that our approach is the best—in short, the usual biases that underlie pathologies of altruism—appear to play important roles.”

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