Killing with Kindness?

Yesterday The New York Times published a science piece about “pathological altruism.” This is when normally helpful behavior “is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodized.” Then it can become “unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.”

Dr. Robert A. Burton, author of the forthcoming book Pathological Altruism, says selflessness gone awry may play a role in a broad variety of disorders, including anorexia and animal hoarding, women who put up with abusive partners and men who abide alcoholic ones. He also cites examples of physicians whose desire to heal patients can border on fanaticism, which can “perversely end up hurting them.”

Though these are extreme examples, the article does go on to say that people must generally be aware of the energy they spend on others and know their limitations. Going overboard can be harmful. For example, studies show that empathetic nurses burn out and leave the profession more quickly than do their peers who remain aloof. Ironically, this same empathy is often what attracts a person to such a profession.

The study of altruism, generosity and other affiliative behaviors has lately been quite fashionable in academia. To read the whole article, click here.