Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Are Men and Women Hardwired for Altruism the Same Way?

The Washington Post has a fascinating story on new brain research suggesting that our altruistic responses come from the deep old emotional centers of the brain, rather than the newer rational calculation parts.

Other well-known research has shown that women are more likely to use their whole brain in reasoning, whereas men are more likely to use one part or another. Women are more likely to incorporate their emotional responses in their reasoning, whereas men are more likely to separate "cold" reason from their emotions. And everyone knows that men are more likely to commit crimes than women are.

SO, putting these facts together, perhaps men and women have a similar altruistic emotional response to the plight of others, based on empathy. And men and women also make rational calculations about how their self-interest would be served by acting altruistically versus selfishly, even to the point of harming others for my own gain. The difference is that women are more likely to act with a response that tries to integrate the two competing responses, whereas men are more likely to choose one over another. And thus men are more likely to choose a response that suppresses their empathy for others.

Just a first theory. This research on the deep roots of altruism, though, is important and very interesting.


ezra said...

We had to read this for anthro seminar this last spring.

Philosophy and Primates by Franz de Waal

From Publishers Weekly
Celebrated primatologist de Waal expands on his earlier work in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals to argue that human traits of fairness, reciprocity and altruism develop through natural selection. Based on his 2004 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, this book argues that our morality grows out of the social instincts we share with bonobos, chimpanzees and apes. De Waal criticizes what he calls the "veneer theory," which holds that human ethics is simply an overlay masking our "selfish and brutish nature." De Waal draws on his own work with primates to illustrate the evolution of morality. For example, chimpanzees are more favorably disposed to others who have performed a service for them (such as grooming) and more likely to share their food with these individuals. In three appendixes, de Waal ranges briefly over anthropomorphism, apes and a theory of mind, and animal rights. The volume also includes responses to de Waal by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer. Although E.O. Wilson and Robert Wright have long contended that altruism is a product of evolution, de Waal demonstrates through his empirical work with primates the evolutionary basis for ethics. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Michael Kruse said...

I have often thought (using sweeping generalizations here) that men tend toward compartmentalization, which often allows them to a more "tough love" approach to things. Sometimes what is needed is someone who will hold the line and not be easily swayed by emotional appeal. However, this approach runs the risk of doing real damage to relationships.

Women, as you say, seem to deal with things in a more holistic way that avoids some of this abrasiveness to relationships. However, I think (very generally) women are more prone to relational enmeshment and losing the objectivity that is sometimes needed.

All that is to say that I think men and women were made for each other and need each other to fully express our humanity.