Three Reasons Why We Care

Evolutionary psychology suggests that being kind-hearted to those we don’t know isn’t a natural instinct. Quote by Author Michael McCullough

What’s our kindness to strangers rooted in? Look to these three R’s:

  1. Reciprocity – a social instinct to help others in hopes of receiving help in return.
  2. Reputation – a social instinct to help others though ultimately in pursuit of self-glory, i.e., appearing virtuous.
  3. Reasoning – an intellectual determination that there are beneficial incentives for doing so.

What’s the difference between the first two R’s and the last one? Reciprocity and Reputation go strictly back to “me”: either wanting to attract allies so we can be safer and happier (Reciprocity), or wanting to feel better about ourselves (Reputation). The third R, Reasoning, offers plenty of overlap with the first two R’s, but ultimately comes down to a hard-edged cost/benefit analysis, stripped of emotion. You’re after prosperity, and the more resources you have the lower will be the relative cost of helping others.

For instance, you might aid trading partners down on their luck, figuring they will then be in a position to buy more from you later on if revitalized. The bottom line, McCullough argues, is that human beings aren’t readily given to helping strangers. It often takes the addition of the harsher 3rd R to push us toward being “kind.”

The world’s great religions–and the Golden Rule–were born as the volume of people our ancestors were interacting with was growing rapidly. Today, international trade is helping to drive the value of being seen as trustworthy even higher.

The Historical Progression of Empathy

Released today: episode #25 of “Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight,” featuring Michael McCullough, the author of The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code. Listen to the clip below and click on the image to get to the new episode.

Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego. He’s a fellow of both the American Psychological Association as well as the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. This episode first covers why people practice empathy and compassion, followed by seven stages of history whereby compassion became more generally practiced, and why.

Dan Hill, Ph.D, is the president of Sensory Logic, Inc.