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  • Writer's picturepmdwyer2006

Study: Altruism warms the heart - and the body

I was thrilled to have this editorial published in the Baltimore Sun. For the original article, visit the Sun's website here:


published in the Baltimore Sun, March 18, 2019

January’s polar vortex phenomenon may seem like long ago now that we’ve sprung our clocks forward and begun in earnest to search for yellow buds on forsythia or green nobs dotting leafless trees. But the frigid temperatures earlier this month reminded me of that wintry arctic blast — in particular one news item that brought a touch of warmth to that bleak picture.

Depleted gas resources in Michigan, caused by a fire in an energy plant, threatened a gas shortage amid frigid temperatures. The governor took to social media asking that all Michiganites turn their thermostats down to 65 degrees or lower in order to conserve and compensate for the shortfall, which could prove deadly. Residents complied, and the gas supply held.

Even in those numbing temperatures, many Michigan residents chose bone-chilling conditions to help people they didn’t know. That’s pretty incredible in itself. But what was even more amazing was the anonymity. No one would know who lowered their thermostats and who didn’t. That got me thinking about altruism, a subset of what psychologists call pro-social behavior.

When people are generous or compassionate, there’s often a catch. Either they are recognized (think a plaque on the wall) or perhaps they are assuaging some deeply buried guilt. Altruism, on the other hand, seeks no acknowledgement and often involves cost to the giver (think sitting in a freezing apartment).

A 2016 study on altruism, with lead sponsor Peking University, posed an interesting question. Altruistic behaviors typically improve the recipient’s welfare at cost to the performer. Researchers wondered if the “givers” experienced benefits, not just costs, from their generosity. It turns out they do.

Heart-warming feelings are often associated with performing good deeds. But “warmth” in these studies had to do with the participants’ perception of room temperature as the study was being administered. Could altruistic people literally feel warmer than those who were not altruistic?

One part of the study, a field retrospective, involved individuals who had experienced Hurricane Sandy firsthand. Divided into two groups, each wrote a detailed account of a personal experience related to the hurricane.

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