Why do people want to be good?
Hopes&Fears talked to experts on altruism, prosocial behavior, morality, and ethics about the “goodness” drive, and how it plays out in politics, society, and daily life.
In the wake of the Paris attacks and the resulting debates around the refugee crisis, people are confronting complex ethical issues. As we navigate a sea of thinkpieces and emotional posts on social media, it becomes apparent that people are struggling to do and think the “right” things, though the ways to achieve that aren’t quite as obvious.
But what does goodness even mean? Is it universal or relative? Is it an instinct that we are born with or is it a thing we perform to ultimately benefit ourselves? How much of our solidarity is based out of genuine compassion and how much of it is performative ally theater? Why do we even want to be "good" in the first place?
Hopes&Fears talked to experts on altruism, prosocial behavior, morality, and ethics about the “goodness” drive, and how it plays out in politics, society, and daily life.
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Director of the Political Attitudes and Cognition Lab University of Nebraska-Lincoln
To understand why people want to be good, I think it's useful to think about human social motivation, both in terms of how it functions now and why it evolved in the first place. Everyone has a set of moral and ideological beliefs that help guide their understanding about how society should function and what constitutes behavior that is right or wrong. These beliefs can be based in or related to one's religious beliefs, but they don't have to be (atheists and agnostics have moral beliefs, so religion is not a prerequisite). Ideology and morality help people make sense of the world and their place in it. From these beliefs, we derive both knowledge about the social world, and a sense of meaning about the world and our place in it. Social psychology has shown that people are highly motivated both to belong to groups and to feel like they can make a meaningful contribution to the groups that are important to them. So, being good helps facilitate our social relationships and contributes to a positive sense of meaning or purpose in life.
From a slightly more cynical perspective, people are good because there are numerous forms of social punishment in place for those who behave poorly or don't contribute to society in a positive way. Individuals who violate moral norms or expectations (e.g., by harming others or treating people unfairly) may be socially ostracized from family, friends, or other social groups. Recent work in psychology has shown that loneliness can have a lot of negative consequences for people, so I think we're also motivated to be good so that we don't lose our social standing. But, importantly, this whole enterprise rests on the group valuing good behavior, and on people being identifiable for their actions. This is why we see that people are less likely to be good when they think they won't get caught, or when their actions are anonymous. And, importantly, if people join groups that value bad behavior, you may see that bad behavior increases as a way to gain standing or significance within that social circle.
Jeff Fletcher, Ph.D.
Systems Science Program, Portland State University
One possible explanation is that wanting to be good serves an evolutionary purpose, in the same way that hunger and lust serve evolutionary purposes. From our individual experiences, we might think we eat to satisfy our hunger and we have sex to satisfy our lust, but from an evolutionary perspective hunger and lust are proximal mechanisms that influence our behaviors in ways that make us more likely to survive and produce healthy offspring. In the evolution of animals (including humans), those that felt strong urges to eat and have sex left more offspring than those that didn't.
If wanting to be good is a proximal mechanism, then presumably the more fundamental evolutionary purpose is to actually be good. But from a Darwinian evolutionary point of view, one would assume that more selfish individuals would get more resources and have more successful offspring than selfless individuals. This is a long-standing conundrum in evolutionary biology: how do we explain good (selfless) behavior? One explanation goes back to Darwin himself: the idea that natural selection could be operating at multiple levels. If in human evolution there was intense competition among tribes, and tribes containing more selfless individuals (loyal to each other and all willing to be on the front lines in battle) out-competed tribes containing more selfish individuals (loyal only to themselves and pushing others towards the front lines), then good (selfless) behavior could be selected for at the group (tribe) level.
There are two caveats I should mention. One is that selfish individuals in a mostly selfless tribe may free-ride and be individually selected for at the detriment of the group. From a multilevel selection point of view, what actually evolves will be a balance between among-group selection for goodness and within-group selection for selfishness (free-riding). From an evolutionary psychology perspective, humans have evolved to be good at detecting cheaters (free-riders) and also have a strong sense of justice that leads them to punish cheaters for the good of the group.
The second caveat is that very selfless or good behavior within groups may be the result of intense competition among groups. So I would say that people want to be good to those they perceive as being in their group--those they can empathize with. And of course, we all belong to many groups, with widely different levels of affinity. For some people, the view of their groups may be very expansive and include all of humanity (e.g. advocates of universal human rights) or even other animals, while for others it may be more narrow (e,g, family, sect, nationality, religion). The suicide bombers in the news this last week may very much want to be good to a group they feel a high affinity towards, but tragically their definition of being good is to behave atrociously towards those they view as a threat to their group; those they view as "other".
So, unfortunately, I think there is a potential dark side to wanting to be good, especially when it interacts with our us vs. them mental framework (that may be part of our human nature). On the other had I am heartened by the progress that has been made in human rights and in our human capacity to feel connection and empathy for others at vastly different scales.
Ariel Knafo-Noam, Ph.D.
Psychology Department, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
People want to do good unto others for many reasons.We are a social species. From the moment we are born we are part of one or more relationships. We may have evolved with a desire or a need to help others and share with them because such prosocial behaviors build social networks and strengthen groups, and groups are our unit of survival – humans cannot survive alone. This desire or need to help others may involve empathy,when our feelings are aroused because we understand and share others’ distress. Another idea that has been proposed is that because of the need of human newborns for a very long period of being taken care of – several years pass before a human child can have a chance of surviving independently – a parenting care system has evolved, that helps us take care of our young. Once this system is in place, we can extend it beyond our children to other individuals.
Of course, reality is more complex. We don’t help or share with everybody (and it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to do so). Other considerations, such as reciprocity, relationship quality and ability affect our tendency to behave prosocially towards others. And any helping or sharing behavior can involve multiple motivations. For example, people can donate to a charity to help others, to avoid embarrassment about saying no, to get a tax benefit, AND to feel good about themselves – at the same time. All of these motivations derive from the importance of our social lives to us - we care a lot either about others or about what they think of us. This is what makes us behave good.
Number of extra years lived by people who reported giving emotional support to friends and family members.
Yanxia Zhao BA, PhD
Lecturer in Chinese Studies; Director of the Centre for Daoist Studies, University of Wales Trinity Saint David
The answer for why do people want to be good is as follows:
From a Confucian perspective, the nature of humans is originally good, which can be seen in the natural compassion tendency between parents and children and among families and societies. It is the greedy desires, prejudice and other man-made [factors] which cause problems [and lead us to] behave badly toward other people.
From Daoist perspective, all beings including human life were generated from the Dao, it is the Dao who generated the original Qi, the life energy and power of producing, therefore all beings should have same good nature of nourishing and growing, not only for the purpose of self-growing and self-care but also nourishing for others; not only nourishing and caring for humankind but also nourishing and caring for all lives, all beings.
From Chinese Buddhist perspective, everybody has a Buddha heart, this heart is good, full of compassion and desires of offering salvation to others. These others include all sorts of lives who are living in all the six regimes. So to be kind to people, to be a good person can bring benefit and salvation to others is deeply embedded into human nature.
Thus, to be good is to be consistent with one's human nature, which will produce a natural happy feeling of being good; otherwise, if you are not doing good, there will be a natural uneasy feeling within your heart because is against your innate human nature. This will either cause one fear and other psychological or mental problems or cause one physical illness or disease. This is the deep reason why people intend to be good!
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities / Department of Psychology
Istanbul Bilgi University
Humans are social animals, and being social, need some rules of conduct that will protect the well-being of both individuals and their groups as a whole. The rules for any given group must also be workable in the physical, social and cultural environment of the group. Natural selection has provided us with cognitive, emotional and motivational tendencies that, within group relationships, work to create and enforce appropriate rules, and urge us to follow them. Even small babies are alert to the beneficial or harmful effects of others’ behavior and show clear preferences for people who help others rather than harming them. By the time they are walking and talking, young children show tendencies to help or comfort others who need it, and they begin to understand that their behavior must follow rules. These first signs of sensitivity to “goodness” develop over time, with social experience, into a full-fledged moral sense, as well as the emotions of self-blame (such as shame and guilt) and the emotions of other-blaming (such as anger, disgust, and contempt). Although individuals will often behave selfishly and sometimes harmfully, these emotions work to reduce selfishness through both self-restraint and punishment of wrongdoers, and other emotions such as pity, sympathy and gratitude promote helpfulness and sharing. We want to be good for many reasons – for our own long-run benefit, for the benefit of the others around us, and to avoid the blame and punishment that may result from being bad.
Americans volunteered in 2014
Stephen G Post, PhD
Director, Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, Professor of Bioethics, Stonybrook University, Author, Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, TEDxSBU: “It’s Good to be Good”
Of course no one gets out of life alive, aging is everyone’s disease, good young people can have terminal cancer or deadly accident, and bad things can happen to good people especially when their sense of a shared humanity is perceived as a threat by those who only value some little subset of humanity. Equal-regarding activists such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Yitzhak Rabin, and Benazir Bhutto were all murdered. But as a reliable generalization, it is still “good to be good,” and science says it’s so.
Let us quickly note 12 “good to be good” scientific studies, although the list could be a hundred times longer:
Rumination and bitterness contribute to depression and physical illness, but they can be overcome by intentional acts of kindness that divert attention and emotional energy from the self with its inward litany of hostility;
Alcoholics who are “high helpers” of others in the 12-Step community of Alcoholics Anonymous have a 40% recovery rate after one year of sobriety (and reduced depression rates), while “low helpers” have a 22% recovery rate;
Individuals suffering from chronic pain experience decreased pain intensity, levels of disability, and depression when they begin to serve as peer volunteers for others suffering from chronic pain;
Among physicians and lawyers taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a widely-used psychological test, those who at age 25 scored in the top quartile on questions revealing “hostility” had a 20% mortality rate by age 50 due to heart disease, while the low quartile had a mere 2% rate;
Nineteen subjects were given money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that their making a donation activated the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s reward center;
The incidence of heart attacks is highly correlated with the level of self-references (i.e., “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” or “myself”) in the subject’s speech during a structured interview;
Adolescents who volunteer regularly have lower levels of physiological factors that predict future heart disease or diabetes in young adulthood;
Students were assigned to a control group or an experimental group in which they were asked to perform five random acts of kindness a week for six weeks. The students who engaged in acts of kindness were significantly happier than the controls at the end of the six weeks;
There is a strong correlation between volunteering in older adults and reduced depression and mortality, as well as increased resilience and hope;
427 wives and mothers who lived in upstate New York were followed for 30 years by researchers at Cornell University. The researchers were able to conclude that, regardless of number of children, marital status, occupation, education, or social class, those women who engaged in volunteer work to help others at least once a week lived longer and had better physical functioning, even after adjusting for baseline health status;
At the Duke University Heart Center Patient Support Program, researchers concluded that former cardiac patients who make regular visits to help inpatient cardiac patients have a heightened sense of purpose and reduced levels of despair and depression, which are linked to mortality;
The Corporation for National & Community Service conducted a study using health and volunteer data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control. It found that states with high volunteer rates also have lower rates of mortality and incidences of heart disease.
In the 2010 United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good Live Well Study online survey of 4,582 American adults 18 years of age or older, the benefits reported are quite profound:
41% of us volunteer an average of 100 hours per year (m 39%, w 42%; C 42%, A 39%, H 38%)
68% of volunteers agree that volunteering “has made me feel physically healthier,” 92% that it “enriches my sense of purpose in life,” 89% that it “has improved my sense of well-being,” 73% that it “lowers my stress levels,” 96% that it “makes people happier,” 77% that it “improves emotional health,” 78% that it helps with recovery “from loss and disappointment”
Volunteers have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, less helplessness & hopelessness; better friendships and social networks, and sense of control over chronic conditions
25% volunteer through the workplace and 76% of them feel better about employer as a result
The survey was conducted by TNS (Taylor Nelson Sorfres), the world’s largest custom survey agency, from 25 February to 8 March 2010. Does any pill have such a pronounced self-reported impact? Note that this study does not suggest that the more volunteering a person does the better they will feel. Rather, it points to a “threshold” of a couple of hours a week that allows a “shift effect” to occur in everyday people who volunteer. It should also be noted that this study does not apply to those individuals who are involved in the helping professions, such as nurses, social worker, psychologists, good teachers, clinicians, and pastors. For them, it is important to balance their professional lives with hobbies, meditation, families, and playful activities. “Meditation” and “medicine” both come from the same root word, “medi”, meaning balance.
My mom Molly Magee Post had it right when she told me as a kid having a lonely dull afternoon: “Stevie, why don’t you go out and do something for someone!” Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous essay on the topic of compensation, wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself….” The 9th-century sage Shantideva wrote, “All the joy the world contains has come through wishing the happiness of others.” Proverbs 11:15 reads, “those who refresh others will be refreshed.” In Acts 20, we find the words, “’Tis better to give than to receive.” These words are scientifically plausible.
Note that a miserable Ebenezer Scrooge became mirthful and energetic as increasing engaged in small helping actions, as the James-Lange theory of emotional change would suggest. Small acts of helping, even if at first done somewhat grudgingly, can in many cases transform the inmost being. It is always good to be good as a way of transforming or preventing destructive emotions.