Altruism and selfishness are often conceptualized as polar opposites but might there be a common factor underlying both of these?
The Selfist is a psychopath.
Nothing seems more selfish and anti-altruistic than a psychopath. These individuals are thought to be capable of shutting off their empathy in order to chase their desires without facing the pains’ of others that normally limit us. There are some clear advantages that come with the ability to shut off empathy for others, but of course this also comes with social costs.
There is a trait in psychology known as self-transcendence. This trait is characterized by one’s capacity to push beyond the bounds of their sense of self. Individuals high on this trait often feel that they are a cog in the machine of the universe or society. They are often spiritual as well. The individuals who experience high self-transcendence may also be part of large communities in which they really are a piece of a bigger picture, where they both have meaning and utility to many others. Helping others through altruistic acts may also increase one’s level of social protection and security through community and reputation. Helping others means they may help you in return, something known as reciprocal altruism.
High serotonin tone (via reduced SERT) was found to correlate with self-transcendence. Serotonergic drugs binding at 5HT2a and 5HT1a receptors were shown to reduce aversion processing. This resistance to aversion could be a resilience against suffering, a toughness that allows one to help those who are suffering worse than oneself. The reduced aversion processing induced by 5HT2a and 5HT1a receptor binding might also decrease the aversiveness of the costs of altruistic action. Rodents that observed pain-related vocalizations showed increased serotonin levels. This serotonin boost might cause one to transcend the self in order to help others during emergencies. It may also help reduce perceived aversive costs when helping others during crises.
Serotonin enhancing drugs sometimes produce effects of mania, a state in which people often will overspend their money impulsively. It may be that serotonin mediates an abundance and fearless mindset that prevents a person from registering costs or dangers that may occur by spending their money.
There is evidence that 5HT1a and 5HT2a receptor stimulation can reduce predator threat behaviors. One theory suggests that serotonin mediates threat response. The serotonergic drug LSD was found to reduce fear-recognition as well as increase emotional empathy. Self-transcendence on LSD may be the colloquial experience of becoming ‘one with the universe‘. There is evidence that serotonin levels are associated with abundance of resources (food). One report claims that perceived abundance or scarcity of resources is mediated by serotonin and can alter an organisms growth, mood or reproduction. It could be that willingness to share food is mediated by whether you’ve had enough food to maintain yourself and your kin first, then a willingness to share comes during an abundance status. Similarly, willingness to share resources may depend on one’s own security. It would seem unwise to be so altruistic that you let yourself die of starvation or lack of critically important resources, so it makes sense to reduce altruistic behavior during scarcity. In some cases one’s security may depend on cooperation and sharing, so it may not be that feeling threat, scarcity or insecurity inherently produces selfishness, but rather it is when sharing is unsafe or perhaps non-beneficial to yourself. In essence, serotonin may mediate how worried we are about costs. There may be cases where collaboration and prosocial behavior are critical to personal survival and still exist during states of scarcity.
If you read my article Psychedelics and Schizophrenia, you can get a pretty thorough sense of how stress in-general can have antiserotonergic effects via dynorphinergic mechanisms. The more secure one is, the more selfless one might become. Serotonin has also been associated to dominance hierarchies in animals. This makes sense since security, protection, and resources would be under the management of the leader of a group. The leader must also be selfless with resources otherwise the group will overthrow and reject the leader. The purpose of the leader is to serve the whole community, to transcend the self and become one with the community. We choose those who are self-transcended to lead us so that they may vicariously live through us. Of course, there are many ways to hack power and climb social ladders in the society we currently live in, so these rules may not apply so cleanly anymore. We’ve learned to hack power with corruption, unfortunately.
This is interesting because high serotonin has also been implicated in explaining how people become psychopaths. If serotonin would increase self-transcendence, then why would it also lead to psychopathy? We don’t often view psychopaths as selfless.
How could this paradox be explained?
At first this seems counter-intuitive. As mentioned before, stimulation of the 5HT2a and 5HT1a serotonin receptors reduces aversion processing. To eliminate the aversiveness of pain may also mean eliminating the dysphoria we would feel by harming others. Serotonin may not just eliminate the aversive costs of self-sacrifice, but also the aversion that holds us back from other-sacrifice. This might make it much easier to harm other people without feeling their suffering.
The difference between the extreme altruist and the extreme selfist may be in the person’s intentions and values.
People seem to regulate their own level of empathy for others. Empathy isn’t necessarily an automatic phenomenon. People tend to show empathy and altruism selectively for people they like, while withholding empathy for those they dislike. The most extreme example of this is seen in how we treat criminals. Many wanted Jeffrey Epstein dead after he was found to be involved in a pedophilia island. To want someone dead is very much antisocial behavior, but in this case it seems justified. We tend to express antisocial behavior to those we consider antisocial or psychopathic. So not only is altruism reciprocal, but so is antisocial and psychopathic behavior. It is the tit-for-tat of hatred or an eye-for-an-eye. If you’ve followed my last post The Arbiter of Truth, you know I’ve been realizing that reciprocal attitudes could be the core of Cluster B personality disorders (Narcissism and Antisocial traits specifically). There may be exceptions*
Machiavellianism describes a mindset in which a person views the world as dog-eat-dog and behaves as such. The idea is that you view others as being primarily selfishly motivated, that their kindness is really a ploy to get something from you. Viewing others as scummy and shallow can justify one’s own manipulation and shallowness towards others. Now consider, if I told you that there is a highly Machiavellian individual, would you be inclined to trust that person? Would you trust an altruist or a Machiavellianist more? Most likely you would trust an altruist more. Now imagine you are living in a world where you view most people to be high in Machiavellianism. This is how you become Machiavellian yourself.
Fun Idea: I suspect most species are trapped in a Machiavellian state due to insufficient communication to build higher levels of trust.
Those with troubling early childhood experiences such as being abused by parents will probably be more likely to distrust people in general. If everyone you know as a toddler (your parents being everyone) is seemingly scummy, scary, dis-trustable, and aversive, then you will have no experience with altruists in the first place. For this person, the altruist is like a unicorn, they may have not even yet imagined what altruism is. Why would this child assume strangers to be altruistic unicorns if they have never experienced such a thing? It would be unreasonable to assume strangers to be altruistic.
This becomes a bit of a trap.
Even when this child meets new people, they will be guarded and may not develop relationships deeply enough to reach a point in which altruism is given. You could imagine this child being distant, mean, aggressive, defensive, all traits that other children are not looking for in their search for friendship. The other children will be distant, reciprocate the rude behavior, and be defensive around the Machiavellian child. The other children are essentially behaving situationally Machiavellian towards the abused child. So even when the child meets new people, they will behave using inferences made through these troubling experiences. They may never get a chance to meet the altruistic unicorn because people don’t like the behavior of the abused Machiavellian child.
One study found that social exclusion reduces prosocial behavior. This could mean that the rejected and outcast child will become more antisocial.
It is likely children with experiences like these who end up taking the psychopathic route in life. The selfist may learn how to behave and maximize the utility they get from others through trial and error. Because of the cruelty the selfist perceives in others, there is no good reason to be truly altruistic to anyone. The high serotonin may help the individual alleviate their suffering and provide resistance from the backlash they get from their peers for behaving in antisocial ways.
It may be that the difference between the Altruist and the Selfist is mediated by the Machiavellian mindset. Either a person actually desires to help others and be kind, or doesn’t want to because maybe they feel others do not deserve it. This is supported by this study, which notes that serotonin was found to increase moral behavior in those who had high empathy but did not have an effect in those with low empathy. That paper even explores Cluster B personality traits, which includes Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The study notes that low serotonin was linked to antisocial behaviors, which might be explained better as selfish behaviors due to necessity or a survival mindset rather than malintentioned behavior. The morally inclined individuals will have less to offer if they are living in scarcity or stressful, threatening environments. Those who are lacking in empathy, the true Selfists, will act selfishly even in conditions of abundance and scarcity.
Bipolar individuals may tend to become Machiavellian due to the way that people do not empathize with self-inflicted problems. Since mania drives an individual into high-cost, risky behaviors, many people may view the manic individual as self-destructive and irresponsible. This lack of empathy that people have for the manic person may breed Machiavellian and even narcissistic traits in the manic person.
Those experiencing mania often showed a lack of empathy for individuals who are suffering from pain. One explanation is that there may be a sweet spot for altruistic self-transcendence. Too much serotonin and maybe empathizing with suffering becomes increasingly difficult.
Those who spend excessive amounts of time in a kind of self-transcended state may be unable to understand or empathize with those who seem self-serving or self-focused. The manic individual may not be acting selfless or altruistic necessarily, but they may not be concerned with their own losses (until they hit the crisis or depression that is). They may come off low empathy to others due to equally being unconcerned for themselves and others. They may expect others to behave self-transcended and when it is clear they aren’t, the manic individual may see that individual as unworthy of their own selflessness. There are many reports online of extreme empathy in manic individuals. It is probably highly variable and situational but also commonly stemming from observed differences that a manic person makes between themselves and others. This could be related to those who experience true abundance but yet lose all of their empathy for those in need.
It could also be a problem with abundance mindsets. The abundance problem is described wonderfully in the Wired article:
Lastly, those who view the world as vicious, low empathy, shallow, and manipulative may not always become these things themselves. Some may develop a victimhood mentality and become extra sensitive to the perceived harms and antisocial behaviors that others have done to them. This may lead to paranoid symptoms and a persecutory mentality. Some of the symptoms of schizophrenia might be explainable through this lens.
Special thanks to the two patrons, Abhishaike Mahajan and Charles Wright! Abhi is also the artist who created the cover image for Most Relevant. Please support him on instagram, he is an amazing artist!
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