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Michael Bader: Flooded with altruism

"For some, the aftermath of a disaster like Harvey involves a return to social isolation and competitive individualism," Michael Bader said. "For others, the emergence of altruistic impulses and feelings of community result in a permanent change."
Associated Press | AP

The countless stories of Texans helping each other during and after Hurricane Harvey destroy the myth that people are fundamentally selfish.

Over and over, we see how catastrophes unleash deep and natural desires for community, bringing to the fore hard-wired altruism, which psychologists call “pro-social tendencies,” and contradicting our widespread but cynical belief in the universality of human selfishness and greed.

We come by our false conceptions about the centrality of egocentrism honestly. Competitive capitalism and the Protestant work ethic breed norms that privilege individualism and reward greed.

The economic philosopher Adam Smith argued that the “invisible hand” of the market transforms private self-interest into public wealth.

Moreover, most of us are taught that America is a meritocracy in which our lot in life is a function of individual effort and ability.

Within this zeitgeist, people are seen as responsible for themselves and their fortunes — fortunes which express each person’s intrinsic value.

Conservatives complain about the size of government, promoting the myth that welfare rewards the “undeserving poor,” whose need for assistance must stem from personal failings.

This celebration of individualism, personal responsibility and self-interest is a blight on our collective psyches and is based on an erroneous understanding of human psychology.

Even 18-month-old children still in diapers and barely able to talk engage in altruistic behavior — behavior that is determined by both environmental and genetic influences.

The human brain is hard-wired to respond positively to attachment and empathy.

We have to learn to notice differences and are socialized to adopt attitudes based on stereotyping and prejudice. But when a natural disaster disrupts everyday life, it momentarily frees us from assumptions that divide us and that suppress our better selves.

The defense mechanisms that keep us divided, paranoid, and socially withdrawn (albeit lonely) are lifted and we begin to seek out and create community.

Most of us have experienced some version of this.

We don’t need to read the stories of community spirit during the London Blitz, the 50 Fukushima nuclear workers who stayed on the job after the meltdown, or of the NYC firefighters running into burning buildings on 9/11, to recognize this phenomenon.

Ordinary citizens, it turns out, are not locked into some Darwinian combat; rather, as Rebecca Solnit puts it in her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” “the history of disaster shows we are social animals that want to connect.”

For some, the aftermath of a disaster like Harvey involves a return to social isolation and competitive individualism.

For others, the emergence of altruistic impulses and feelings of community result in a permanent change.

It’s a shame that it takes a disaster to make it possible for us to realize who we really are.

Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.


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