Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.
In contrast to "every man for himself" interpretations of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. They call it "survival of the kindest."
Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others. Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. The human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic. It found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances. Informally known as the "cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain; where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love among other functions.
While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question is; "How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?" One answer is that, the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, participants each received a modest amount of cash and were directed to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the "public good.” The results showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers; as well as wielding more influence over them.
The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated. But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status. Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish. Such results validate the findings of positive psychology pioneers like Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research in the early 1990's shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction; delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.
While much of the positive psychology being studied is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, researchers have narrowed their investigations into how it contributes to the greater societal good. For instance, to assist in and promote the rearing of emotionally literate children; many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being. Parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become. What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become.
This behaviour, the sympathetic touch, is common to mammals thanks to the vagus nervous system. In another Berkeley study, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching each other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety. Overall, these and other findings challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last; and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion. This new science of altruism, and the physiological underpinnings of compassion, is finally catching up with Darwin's observations nearly 130 years ago; that sympathy is our strongest instinct.