We all know someone who seems to be an especially helpful person and someone who seems to be particularly selfish and unhelpful. In other words we recognize that people vary in traits and influences that result in stable differences in how helpful they are. There are likely to be many influences and traits so by the Central Limit Theorem altruism should be normally distributed. Even if it isn’t we can construct a scale that is.
I found 11 altruism questions in the General Social Survey (GSS) that asked how often respondents had done the following in the last year
- let someone ahead of them in a queue
- give someone directions
- give money to charity
- give money to a homeless person
- help a neighbor when they are away e.g. feed pets
- volunteer to spend some time helping a charity
- give up a seat for someone on a bus or train
- helped carry things for someone e.g. groceries
- loaned a personal item to someone
- returned money when given too much change
- donated blood.
I found that if people did any one of these they also tended to do the others, showing that these aren’t simply random acts of kindness but instances of a general factor of altruism. I formed a scale from these items. If the person didn’t do something they were assigned a score of 0 for that item, a score of 1if they did it only once and a score of 2 if they did it at least twice. Then I added up the scores across all 11 items yielding an altruism scale from 0 to 22. The reliability of the scale is >0.67 which means that over 2/3rds of the variation in the sum is due to variation in factors that each item has in common with others. The average score was right in the middle and there was little bunching of scores at the low or high end so very few people lie outside its measuring range. All in all the scale measures what it was meant to measure reasonably accurately, and does so for all but the most extreme people.
It occurred to me to see what kind of people were more or less altruistic. I found some surprises. For a start it turns out that some things we would expect to matter don’t. For example religion doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, whether you are a Protestant, Catholic or Jew or how often you pray. It doesn’t matter if you are a religious fundamentalist or liberal, either now or at the age of 16. It’s disappointing not to see a connection given that altruism is probably the central moral requirement of Jesus’ teaching and that the early Christians distinguished themselves by their generosity and helpfulness. It does however matter if you are an active participant in a church group or are a minister, priest or nun. So it is specifically religiosity and theology that doesn’t matter.
Although those who take the trouble to vote are more altruistic than those who don’t political orientation doesn’t matter either. There is no difference between liberals and conservatives or Republicans and Democrats. Neither does it matter if the person has ever cheated on their spouse or seriously violated traffic laws. Clearly being good, in the sense of being helpful, is not necessarily related to fidelity or being law abiding. Finally altruism is not a gender thing - there was no difference between men and women.
There are however large differences by education, class, income and age, and none of these influences account for any other. The more educated and the higher the income and social class the more altruistic the behavior. As intelligence is positively related to all of those intelligence probably plays a role in altruism. Indeed William James (in his The Varieties of Religious Experience) makes the point that when the saintly impulse occurs with a feeble intellect the result is either a loss of all practical interests because contemplating God takes all their mental resources, or it results in cruel fanaticism because the limited mind settles on superficial ideas of what it means to honor God. To get beyond this and tap the saintly impulse to produce exceptional altruism requires surplus mental resources and intellectual depth. The youth turn out to be more altruistic than their elders. The most altruistic group is young high income people with graduate degrees within the middle to upper classes who are active in a church group. It isn’t as though the effect is just through being able to afford more charitable giving either - it extends to behaviors that aren’t about money, like giving up a seat or donating blood. The least altruistic group is the opposite.
Then I took an interest in the opinions of the altruistic. I found that they were more likely than the selfish to be in favor of abortion, to be for the legalization of marijuana, to be opposed to capital punishment for murder and to not consider extramarital or homosexual sex to be always wrong. These are socially liberal opinions. On the other hand the altruistic are also more inclined to think that government should be doing less and not more. The political philosophy that encompasses this combination of social liberalism with economic conservatism is libertarianism which funnily enough is popularly regarded as the least altruistic political ideology.
Curiously men who have paid for sex, and women who have had sex for money, are more altruistic than those who haven’t. One would have thought that women who don’t charge for sex would be more altruistic by definition. Once again we see that people can be sexually sinful and yet have saintly tendencies.
Although this scale covers most people I wanted to look at more extreme examples of altruistic behavior. Firstly I looked at saints and those who had been beatified. The proportion of Catholics worldwide who achieved either of these distinctions is 1 in 7.4 million and 1 in 2.8 million respectively. Then I looked at the probability of winning a Nobel Peace prize (I used the highest probability across countries). There is at most a 1 in 800 thousand chance. Finally I looked at UK Conscientious Objectors during WW I. My reasoning is that this kind of pacifism in the face of a lengthy prison term or even death by firing squad is an especially courageous example of compassion. 1 in 384 men conscientiously objected, and 1 in 1023 men were jailed for it.
In the graph below I have placed scale scores, and particular items in the scale, where they would be on a normal curve. Less than 2 is equivalent to mental retardation on an IQ scale so I suggest that anyone scoring that low would be an altruistic moron. Considering that they would have to be so unhelpful that even giving directions to someone is too much trouble I think the label fits. The bottom 10% score 5 or less. This is less than one of the less demanding helpful behaviors every 2 months. The average person manages just below one of each of the altruistic behaviors per month. The top 10% manages close to 1.5 altruistic acts per month. Engaging in all the altruistic acts more than once in a year i.e. 2 per month, puts a person at the same degree of rarity as a Nobel Laureate in science would be on an IQ scale. In other words it takes only one act of altruistic kindness every two weeks to be an altruistic genius. This includes one more demanding altruistic activity every 2-3 months.
How does that compare to the more saintly types? Well it seems that being saintly is far more demanding than being a genius. I placed the Conscientious Objectors, Nobel Peace Prize winners, the beatified and Saints on the same graph. As you can see an Objector is roughly on par with an altruistic genius, being an Objector in the face of jail is more demanding, and that the rest are virtually off the scale. Let me try to give you some sense of the relative degree of altruism involved. Giving blood is a bigger deal than giving money to charity and being a Conscientious Objector is a bigger deal than donating blood. If each of these is a step up the altruistic mountain then from Conscientious Objection to Nobel Peace Prize would be a step of the same size i.e. there is similar increase in the demands between a Nobel Peace Prize and Conscientious Objection as there is between Conscientious Objection and blood donation. Put in another way – take the increase between donation to charity and blood donation and multiply that by two more. Similarly the Saint is as far above the regular blood donor as the regular blood donor is above the altruistic moron.
Mother Theresa’s formula for goodness was daily meditation and acts of altruism. My formula to become a Saint (whether or not you are in fact ever beatified or canonized) tells you how many altruistic acts you need. You need to maintain an average of at least 2.6 acts of altruism per month (aim for at least one per week to be safe) and many of those should be demanding i.e. involve a fair amount of inconvenience or self sacrifice. It will help a lot if you become an active member of some group (like a church) that busies itself in altruism and charity work. It would also help if you did some loving kindness meditation regularly or contemplated the lives of Jesus, altruistic saints or Peace Prize winners. Oh and it would be best not to try to be a Saint if you are feeble minded as you are likely to do more harm than good.