Point of View

Our Potential for Good

Altruism as an Evolutionary Imperative

Magazine Issue
November/December 2011
Our Potential for Good

It takes nothing more than a casual glance at the daily headlines to corroborate our worst impressions of humanity—greed, violence, and pervasive self-interest rule the day. Dig a bit deeper and you soon discover that everyone from Freudians to theologians to evolutionary psychologists seem to agree that we have a fundamentally hedonistic nature that promotes self-preservation above all else. Only through great effort, the thinking goes, can we overcome our innate selfishness and begin to blaze a more virtuous path for ourselves. There’s at least one social psychologist who refuses to go along with that conventional wisdom, however.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner says the focus on our selfish behavior greatly underestimates our natural biological tendency toward altruism. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Greater Good Science Center, Keltner is at the forefront of the Positive Psychology movement. In his book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, he draws on biological, psychological, and sociological research to show that we not only can, but must be good: it’s wired into our brains. He believes in a formula for happiness called the “jen ratio,” whereby we focus on promoting the good in others. In what follows, he shares his thoughts on politics, the jen ratio, and the latest research in Positive Psychology.


RH: Some criticize President Obama for playing too nice and not engaging more forcefully with the Republicans in Congress. Is the inspiring idea that Obama ran on—we can move beyond partisan politics—just a pipe dream?

Keltner: Are you asking whether our current political system is antithetical to promoting the common good?

RH: Exactly.

Keltner: There are two separate issues here. It’s well documented that, in the last 30 years, we’ve seen this massive government-driven redistribution of wealth to the extremely rich and increased suffering in the lower and middle classes. Positive Psychology—and the work I do on compassion and generosity—has shown that the self-interested premises behind our political shift toward the right is doing a disservice to what science is telling us about human nature. It shouldn’t be this hard to convince wealthy voters that, as Warren Buffet wrote, they should give up more of their wealth to benefit others. Compassion and generosity are ingrained in our nature.

Now, the second question involves Obama’s political instincts and motivations. I think people see a guy that we’ve projected a lot onto. For example, I think he has a less liberal view of markets than we might expect.

RH: If there’s an evolutionary imperative toward giving and compassion, where does greed come in?

Keltner: First, evolutionary theory has shown us that we’re both a complex and a self-serving primate. Observation of our close primate relatives finds a lot of despotism and less compassion than you see in humans. So there’s no doubt that a strong tendency toward self-interest is wired into us. But what’s interesting is how often there are exceptions to that tendency in human beings. In research done by economists and psychologists, subjects are given money and the opportunity to share it with others. The rational, self-interested perspective would say we’ll share perhaps 1 dollar out of 10 with a stranger. But in fact people tend to share about 40 percent. To me, that says that while a significant portion of who we are as a species is selfish—and for very good survival reasons—our impulse toward generosity is also real. Government and policymakers should understand this, and create the means to honor and harness that tendency. There are new data that say when you share and give to charity and volunteer, reward regions of the brain light up. One study even finds you’ll live longer. This may actually be part of the ill-health of our nation—we’re not allowing people to honor their own altruistic instincts.

RH: Is there such a thing as true altruism, or is all behavior ultimately self-serving?

Keltner: Any behavior has a complex mixture of motives. I’ll sacrifice a lot of resources if other people will think more highly of me. To reduce my own distress, I’ll give to others and try to help people. In the last 10 to 15 years, the science of altruism has been finding the biological roots of giving. When we see people suffering, for example, the vagus nerve fires and helps us take care of them. We also have these subjective feelings like “I’m overwhelmed by my concern for that person.” So all of those pieces are part of the state of mind we refer to as altruism, which drives prosocial behavior.

RH: We’re hardwired to give?

Keltner: Not only that, but different parts of the brain are engaged in different prosocial states. When I’m really understanding another person, parts of the prefrontal cortex light up, and these may have a kind of empathy network that includes mirror neurons. We’re documenting an even older part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, which lights up when you respond to another’s suffering, and this tends to be connected to oxytocin networks. The whole oxytocin story itself is relevant, because it’s becoming clear that certain important parts of our nervous system are there primarily to take care of other people.

RH: I interviewed your Berkeley colleague George Lakoff a few months ago about how the language Obama used to get elected was so deeply rooted in empathy and compassion, which was obviously appealing to a lot of people.

Keltner: Part of what was inspiring for many people about Obama’s 2008 election was that it seemed to demonstrate this intuitive appreciation and privileging of compassion. As many have commented since the election, Obama has consistently seemed to sell that impulse short. I think that’s the unease that a lot of liberals are feeling. We also need to keep in mind that, as a society, we’re one of the most self-interested cultures on the face of the Earth.

RH: You’ve come up with the concept of the “jen ratio” to try to give some scientific focus to the expansive human impulse toward doing good in the world observed in many of the world’s spiritual traditions and, more recently, in the Positive Psychology movement. What is the jen ratio?

Keltner: As a corrective to psychology’s traditional emphasis on pathology, Positive Psychology has focused on a range of states that involve agape and an appreciation of humanity, including compassion, gratitude, awe, and feeling reverential about other people. As I studied that aspect of human nature, I felt there was a common core to these seemingly different emotions. The English language doesn’t have good words for it, but when you read Confucius, probably the second most influential book and person in the world, the core idea is the underlying spirit of those emotions.

RH: Which Confucius called jen.

Keltner: Yes, jen, which translates to “humanity and reverence.” A person of jen establishes his character by first establishing the character of others. A person of jen brings the good of others to completion. And I think that’s what these emotions are all about: quieting self-interest and insuring the good and health of others.

RH: So in your research, you’re trying to help people apply jen in their day-to-day life.

Keltner: Researchers and scientists have started to propose these happiness ratios and guidelines. For example, Positive Psychologist Barb Frederickson recommends three positive emotions for each negative emotion. And I thought “What about a jen ratio?” Each day just think about how much I’m bringing out the good in other people versus how much I’m stimulating the bad. I think the data would say the higher the ratio—the more good you bring out versus bad—the better your life’s going to go.

My hope was to remind people to think about the welfare of others. And there’s a more pragmatic, action-oriented piece, which is through the center that I helped establish, the Greater Good Science Center, where we’d host conferences to get this science to teachers around the world.

RH: What are the implications for therapists in their practices?

Keltner: One big part of helping people handle difficulties and make sense of stress is to help them tell their stories and share their narratives and insights that bring positive emotions into focus. A lot of therapists do this more powerfully than science can represent. Some have begun to get their clients to do gratitude diaries. You can have people express appreciation on a regular basis to the significant people in their lives. There’s Fred Luskin’s work on the conceptual and emotional aspects of forgiveness. We’ve done work on how laughter benefits people during trauma. In my own work, I’ve been blown away by the capacity that touch has to be such a powerful tool for experiencing positive states.

RH: What’s next for the research at the Greater Good Science Center?

Keltner: We’re hosting an initiative involving people keeping online gratitude journals. We’re reaching out to help with the difficulties so many kids experience in schools these days: they’re fried by the pressure, and they’re having anxiety attacks. I think it’s important to get the science of Positive Psychology into the schools.

As for research, the biggie for us in the positive emotion realm is awe. We want to understand why we have chills, and what in the heck the feeling of the sacred is. What does it look like in different cultures? What parts of the brain light up? How is it influenced by genetics? We’re just starting this up, and it may be the capstone scientific project that I do. It staggers me to think about it.

RH: Thank you for your time. I feel better having talked with you.

Keltner: So do I. There we go!


Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for Psychology Today.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.