“The evolutionary roots of altruism are complex.” That is a statement from a New York Times article today about our urge to help and how it is an innate tendency even before we start learning the rules of polite behavior from our parents. According to the story, 18 month old babies will immediately help an unrelated adult who is struggling to open a door or picking up a dropped clothespin. According to a Dr. Michael Tomasello, who wrote “Why We Cooperate,” helping is not enhanced by rewards and it seems to occur across cultures that have different timing in teaching social rules. He believes helping is a natural inclination not imposed by parents or culture.
In “The Age of Empathy,” author Franz de Waal, a primatologist, believes that aggression is often overrated as a human motivation and that we are programmed to reach out and “empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” Only psychopaths are immune to another’s situation.
To be empathetic is to be able to notice the subtle verbal and non-verbal cues someone gives off to let you know what they need or want. People who are empathetic receive both physical and emotional benefits from their sensitivity. Empathy is the building block for compassion – another characteristic of behaving altruistically. Behaving altruistically has a positive effect on your self-esteem. When you act with compassion toward others you can experience a “helpers high.”
In an age where people anxiously watch as the wars and violence in the world seem to spiral out of control and some people seem to be focused only on their own self interests, it’s good to know that one of our basic instincts is that of empathy. Now if we could all just get back in touch with those roots.