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Michael Bader: We’re all good Samaritans in our hearts

I lost my wallet the other day, accidentally leaving it on the roof of my car when I was getting gas. Twenty minutes later I noticed that it was missing, returned to the scene, and thoroughly searched the service station and nearby road to no avail. I was overwhelmed, not so much by the loss of cash, but by the loss of credit cards, driver’s license, health insurance cards, etc.

I was in for three or four weeks of hell and I knew it.

A few minutes after returning home, dejected and anxious, I unexpectedly received an email from a woman I didn’t know who found my wallet. It turned out that she had seen it on the road next to the service station — stopped her car (thereby stopping traffic), retrieved the wallet and stuffed the cash (that was apparently blowing around) back into it. I got it back later that day with everything intact.

Upon speaking with her and professing my undying gratitude, I learned that it never occurred to this woman, this good Samaritan, to keep the cash or credit cards. Her instinct was an altruistic one — psychologists call this “pro–social” behavior. It made me think about human nature and the ways that our instincts for greed and self-interest vie with our instincts for generosity and altruism. In this case — fortunately for me — altruism won.

‘Do the right thing’

Twenty years ago, Reader’s Digest did a study in which they left wallets containing money, ID, and a few credit cards in intersections in various major cities around the world in an attempt to find out how often they were returned. Norway topped the list, with a score of 100 percent. The US came in at 70 percent. Mexico was the lowest at 20 percent.

Clearly, even in a society that is as driven as ours is by materialism and economic self-interest, there are reflexes pushing us to “do the right thing.”

We live in a culture that is saturated with an ethic of individualism. We — mistakenly, in my opinion — take for granted that human nature is primarily selfish.

Some pundits even argue, along with the political economist, Adam Smith, that greed is a positive driving force behind economic growth. This ethic promotes isolation and loneliness, resulting in a self-destructive inclination in all of us to blame ourselves and take undue individual responsibility for our own successes and failures. Just as self-interest is supposed to be hardwired into our natures, self-blame becomes automatic and seems natural as well.

Research has shown that even infants evidence signs of altruistic behavior and respond positively to cartoon depictions of such behavior. While some might argue that the adaptive function of altruism lies in the assumption of reciprocity — I’ll do something for you in the expectation that you’ll do something for me in return — the fact remains that we are hardwired to feel empathy and concern for others.

It is striking that in the aftermath of natural catastrophes, there is always an outpouring of unselfish acts of caretaking and mutual assistance. It is as if the breakdown of traditional social rules and expectations unleashes a force that lies dormant, seeking expression.

Anyone who lived through or read about what happened after the Loma’s Prieta earthquake, 9/11, or recent flooding in Houston, Puerto Rico and Florida can’t help but be impressed with the social power of altruism.

In the course of growing up in our culture (and perhaps this is true in most Western societies), we learn that it is often safer to assume the worst of each other than to assume the best. Fortunately for me, that assumption was proven wrong.

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


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