The Economist on “extreme altruism”

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Ex­treme al­tru­ism: right on!, The Economist, Septem­ber 20th, 2014. An ex­cerpt:

Fly­ers at petrol sta­tions do not nor­mally ask for some­one to donate a kid­ney to an un­re­lated stranger. That such a poster, in a garage in In­di­ana, ac­tu­ally did per­suade a donor to come for­ward might seem ex­traor­di­nary. But ex­traor­di­nary peo­ple such as the re­spon­dent to this ap­peal (those who vol­un­teer to de­liver aid by truck in Syria at the mo­ment might also qual­ify) are suffi­ciently com­mon to be worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing. And in a pa­per pub­lished this week in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, Abi­gail Marsh of Ge­orge­town Univer­sity and her col­leagues do just that. Their con­clu­sion is that ex­treme al­tru­ists are at one end of a “car­ing con­tinuum” which ex­ists in hu­man pop­u­la­tions—a con­tinuum that has psy­chopaths at the other end. [...]

She and her team used two brain-scan­ning tech­niques, struc­tural and func­tional mag­netic-res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI), to study the amyg­dalas of 39 vol­un­teers, 19 of whom were al­tru­is­tic kid­ney donors. (The amyg­dalas, of which brains have two, one in each hemi­sphere, are ar­eas of tis­sue cen­tral to the pro­cess­ing of emo­tion and em­pa­thy.) Struc­tural MRI showed that the right amyg­dalas of al­tru­ists were 8.1% larger, on av­er­age, than those of peo­ple in the con­trol group, though ev­ery­one’s left amyg­dalas were about the same size. That is, in­deed, the ob­verse of what per­tains in psy­chopaths, whose right amyg­dalas, pre­vi­ous stud­ies have shown, are smaller than those of con­trols.

Whether this ap­plies to EAs, how­ever, is un­clear. Com­pare Peter Singer’s re­cent re­marks in a panel dis­cus­sion about em­pa­thy:

My ad­mit­tedly im­pres­sion­is­tic ob­ser­va­tion is that effec­tive al­tru­ists are not es­pe­cially em­pa­thetic—at least, not in the sense of emo­tional em­pa­thy. They do have what is some­times called “cog­ni­tive em­pa­thy” or “per­spec­tive tak­ing” ca­pac­ity—that is, the abil­ity to see what life is like for some­one else.