“Pathological Altruism”

Is it too soon to add this person to my list of heroes? One Barbara Oakley has researched something desperately needing research (emphasis mine):

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.

From Best Of The Web: Pathological Altruism:

“Empathy,” Oakley notes, “is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others.” It also can produce bad public policy…

I say ‘heroic’ because, in order to select this research subject, she has to violate a powerful taboo – a taboo that Oakley speculates as being linked to why researchers have neglected to study the downsides of empathy, altruism, and “codependency”:

…[Oakley said,] “It is reasonable to wonder if the lack of scientific research involving codependency may relate to the fact that there is a strong academic bias against studying possible negative outcomes of empathy.”

Not all altruism is pathological. It is important to note that there is a difference in kind between desirable altruistic tendencies and “pathological” ones.

…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….

(emphasis mine):

…”during the twentieth century, tens of millions [of] individuals were killed under despotic regimes that rose to power through appeals to altruism.” An understanding that altruism can produce great evil as well as good is crucial to the defense of human freedom and dignity.

An example of empathy that hurts rather than helps: affirmative action (I previously noted that:affirmative action is one of the keywords used by the ADL and SPLC to help define a group as being a “hate group”):

Universities altruistically established admissions standards that discriminated in favor of minorities, a policy that proved pathological because underqualified minority students struggled to succeed and even qualified ones face the stigma of being assumed to be “affirmative action” beneficiaries. The institutions tried to help by setting up separate orientations, which of course only reinforced their separation from the broader student body.

Oakley writes:

…[the research focus] has also served to reify their value without realistic consideration about when those qualities contain the potential for significant harm.

The reality is we have a lot of evidence that is going unacknowledged because of an inappropriate focus on good intentions rather than on outcome.

Ostensibly well-meaning governmental policy promoted home ownership, a beneficial goal that stabilizes families and communities. The government-sponsored enterprises Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allowed less-than-qualified individuals to receive housing loans and encouraged more-qualified borrowers to overextend themselves. Typical risk–reward considerations were marginalized because of implicit government support. The government used these agencies to promote social goals without acknowledging the risk or cost. When economic conditions faltered, many lost their homes or found themselves with properties worth far less than they originally had paid. Government policy then shifted . . . the cost of this “altruism” to the public, to pay off the too-big-to-fail banks then holding securitized subprime loans. . . . Altruistic intentions played a critical role in the development and unfolding of the housing bubble in the United States.

Or, as one blogger puts it,

The government does not, and cannot, love you. In attempting to demonstrate their clumsy version of love, they more often then not end up crushing the object of their affection, along with a lot of innocent bystanders.