Why Do Strangers Help?

January 17, 2013—When Assistant Psychology Professor Abigail Marsh was 20 years old, a stranger saved her life in a freeway accident. She then set out on a mission to understand why strangers help. Little did that stranger know, Marsh would become a leading researcher in the studies of altruism and moral reasoning.

Today, she and her team run the Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience at Georgetown, where they ask cutting-edge questions in order to link emotion, social judgment, and our understanding of the brain. What drives people to harm or help one another? How can we understand altruism and psychopathy?

“The dominant assumption in a lot of fields is that we’re innately selfish, and even behavior that doesn’t seem selfish is actually selfishness wearing a mask of altruism,” she continued. “We’re finding that it’s more complex than that.”

In collaboration with Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Marsh and her team recruited kidney donors as participants for their research on altruism. These individuals had voluntarily donated their organs—without any financial compensation—to recipients they didn’t know. “They’re some of the nicest people to work with,” she said. “It’s a sheer joy to interact with them.” Her lab seeks to understand both the neural correlates (neurological components) associated with altruistic behavior, as well as moral reasoning processes in the kidney donors.

The scope of Marsh’s lab research isn’t limited to positive traits. She is also interested in the moral reasoning and neural correlates of psychopathic behavior. In a 2008 study, Marsh and colleagues found that psychopathy scores predicted decreased activity in the brain’s emotion center, the amygdala, when presenting adults with fear stimuli.

Psychopathology is largely a study of individuals with deficits in processing fear, sadness, and other emotional processes, Marsh explained. These deficits affect a person’s ability to empathize. “Psychopathy doesn’t mean anti-social behavior,” she explained. “Being psychopathic doesn’t make you aggressive or thirst for aggression like in the movies. It simply inhibits the blocks that prevent you from acting aggressively or taking risks.”

Marsh also notes that psychopathic traits may not be inherently negative. Many individuals who score highly on a Psychopathic Personality Inventory are also successful, high-performing individuals in their professional careers.

Nonetheless, these deficits impair the ability to experience empathy. In a study published in Emotion this year, Marsh and doctoral student Elise Cardinale wondered if this deficit would impair the ability to apply empathy to moral reasoning. Would psychopathic traits impair not only emotional responses, but also the intellectual ability to understand which behaviors cause harm to others?

They compiled a list of 451 evocative statements designed to elicit fear, anger, disgust, happiness, or sadness. For example, “I could easily hurt you” evokes fear, while “I bought you a present” evokes happiness. These were reduced to 20 statements that elicit each emotion, based on an analysis of independent ratings. Marsh and Cardinale then presented the statements to 38 participants with a range of scores on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory. Participants were asked to identify the emotions elicited and rate the moral acceptability of the statements.

As predicted, psychopathy scores were associated with an impaired ability to judge which statements elicit emotion, particularly for fear, as well as a tendency to regard fear-provoking statements as morally acceptable. Such research contributes to a growing field in psychology that attempts to connect the dots between reasoning and biology.

“This is not just about being able to recognize but also, to understand, others’ emotions,” Marsh said.

According to Marsh, her investigation of altruistic kidney donors and individuals with psychopathic traits has affected her in unexpected ways. These kidney donors inspire her to be more altruistic. Studying psychopathy, perhaps ironically, has made her more empathic. “[It’s] given me a sympathy for individuals who don’t have the appropriate emotional input to behave the way everyone else does.”

—Zachary Warren