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THE POWER OF ALTRUISM…D Brooks NY Times, winnegrad

Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Machiavelli gave us influential philosophies built on human selfishness. Freud gave us a psychology of selfishness of children. Classical economics adopts a model that says people are primarily driven by material self-interest. Political science assumes that people are driven to maximize their power. But this worldview is clearly wrong. In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism. As babies our neural connections are built by love and care. We have evolved to be really good at cooperation and empathy. We are strongly motivated to teach and help others. If an 18 month-old sees a man drop something they will move to pick it up and hand it back to him within five seconds. If you reward a baby with a gift for being kind, the propensity to help will decrease, in some studies by up to 40%. In some day care centers a fine was imposed on parents who were late in picking up their kids at the end of the day. The share of parents who arrived late doubled. Before the fine, picking up their kids on time was an act of being considerate to the teachers. But after the fine, showing up to pick up the kids became an economic transaction. They felt less compelled to be kind. In 2001, the Boston fire commissioner ended his department’s policy of unlimited sick days and imposed a limit of 15 per year. Those who exceeded the limit had their pay docked. The number of firefighters who called in sick on Christmas and New Year’s increased by tenfold over the previous year. To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens or the moral lens. Instead of following their natural bias toward reciprocity, service and cooperation, you encourage people to do selfish cost-benefit calculation. An attitude of “What’s in this for me?”  The moral motivation is much more powerful than the financial motivations. Arrangements that arouse the financial lens alone are just messing everything up. Now economic, utilitarian thinking has become the normal way we do social analysis and see the world. We’ve wound up with a society that is less cooperative, less trusting, less effective and less lovely.


The gift, not monetary or status, that you will receive by being altruistic will benefit you physically, psychologically and with the respect of others. To think of others and the concerns of others will lead you to a world of satisfaction and rainbows. (Refer to past posts; The Well, Building Blocks of Learning, We All Should Be A Rung in Someone’s Ladder).

Categories: Article Summary Philosophical Perspective

ron winnegrad

Ron Winnegrad has been a Perfumer and teacher for 46 years. As a perfumer, Ron has been able to express the world he sees through a rainbow of olfactive and emotive visions. As a teacher, Ron has helped others to see fragrance through his own multi sensorial lens.

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