Georgetown psychology prof says fear is linked to altruism

Alexandra Feller, Features Editor

People commit random acts of kindness every day. But there are some that show extreme kindness to strangers that they have never met. These are the people who interest Dr. Abigail Marsh.

In Dr. Marsh’s research, she studies these extreme people who are willing to go the extra mile, referring to them as extreme altruists.

Marsh, brought to Linfield by the psychology department, defines altruism as the ability for someone to extend care and empathy to others in times of distress.

Throughout her speech, she connected altruism to psychopathy. Marsh works specifically with clinical psychopathy in her research.

Her patients have been officially recognized as having traits that inhibit them specifically from being able to recognize and empathize with others emotions.

Marsh’s research focuses on assessing amygdala responses to fear and emotion in others in this specific demographic of patients.

The amygdala is a smaller part of the brain located in the center of the cerebral hemisphere that specifically helps process emotions. Clinically diagnosed psychopaths have the ability to recognize almost any emotion other than fear in the facial expressions of others, Marsh said.

“People who have more capacity to care for others are extreme opposites. They have high amygdala responses.”

One aspect of her research is with genuine altruistic kidney donation. Marsh also refers to this as altruism motivated by care.

Many people are willing to donate a kidney to a family member, or a close friend Marsh said. But when people want to commit a random act of kindness and donate a kidney to a stranger, it is examined more critically by medical officials. This is often because in the process of kidney donation, the donor ends up losing money and has to undergo an invasive surgery.

This begs the question: What would motivate these people to undergo such a strenuous process? Marsh said is it due to altruism motivated by care.

Through the kidney donation research, Marsh concluded that altruism is motivated by humans’ capacity for care. This capacity is not set; rather, it operates on a wide spectrum.

These extreme altruists who are willing to donate or help strangers are not part of a pattern. They come from all different backgrounds and have a variety of moral standards and self-reported empathy, according to Marsh’s research.

Subjective well-being, the idea of how well a person is doing, also influences altruism. For example, one might exhibit more altruistic behavior if he or she were increasing in personal wealth.

People with high altruistic values respond more to fear than they do anger, Marsh said. Marsh was determined through her research that fear is linked to altruism because expressions of fear or worry elicit human concern and emotions.

Further, she said that the evolution of fearful facial expressions have developed to resemble those of an infant. When people see this, a parental instinct to show altruistic behavior is triggered.

When asked if her research with diagnosed psychopaths causes her troubles, she says that it in fact makes her more optimistic and helps her to see that the people who cannot empathize are indeed a minority.

Marsh attended Dartmouth for her undergraduate degree, and attended Harvard for her doctorate. She became interested in studying altruism through an experience she had when she was 19.

Her car broke down in the fast lane of the highway and a stranger ran across the traffic lanes to help her get it running again.

“It kind of left me with this burning desire to figure out why somebody would do something like that,” she said. “To what did I owe my life? Why would anyone take a risk like that to help a stranger?”

Megan Kozak Williams, a Linfield professor of social psychology, went to college with Marsh and is excited that she was able to come and speak at Linfield. The talk was originally scheduled for Wednesday but was postponed until Thursday because her flight was delayed.

“The beauty of it [altruism] is that it spans so many sections of psychology,” Williams said. “It is a very important and interesting topic.”