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Sunday, December 18, 2022

Beliefs about humanity, not higher power, predict extraordinary altruism

Amormino, P., O'Connell, et al.
Journal of Research in Personality
Volume 101, December 2022, 104313


Using a rare sample of altruistic kidney donors (n = 56, each of whom had donated a kidney to a stranger) and demographically similar controls (n = 75), we investigated how beliefs about human nature correspond to extraordinary altruism. Extraordinary altruists were less likely than controls to believe that humans can be truly evil. Results persisted after controlling for trait empathy and religiosity. Belief in pure good was not associated with extraordinary altruism. We found no differences in the religiosity and spirituality of extraordinary altruists compared to controls. Findings suggest that highly altruistic individuals believe that others deserve help regardless of their potential moral shortcomings. Results provide preliminary evidence that lower levels of cynicism motivate costly, non-normative altruism toward strangers.


We found for the first time a significant negative relationship between real-world acts of altruism toward strangers and the belief that humans can be purely evil. Specifically, our results showed that adults who have engaged in costly altruism toward strangers are distinguished from typical adults by their reduced tendency to believe that humans can be purely evil. By contrast, altruists were no more likely than controls to believe that humans can be purely good. These patterns could not be accounted for by demographic differences, differences in self reported empathy, or differences in religious or spiritual beliefs.

This finding could be viewed as paradoxical, in that extraordinary altruists are themselves often viewed as the epitome of pure good—even described as “saints” in the scholarly literature (Henderson et al., 2003).
But our findings suggest that the willingness to provide costly aid for anonymous strangers may not require believing that others are purely \good (i.e., that morally infallible people exist), but rather believing that there is at least a little bit of good in everyone. Thus, extraordinary altruists are not overly optimistic about the moral goodness of other people but are willing to act altruistically towards morally imperfect people anyway. Although the concept of “pure evil” is conceptually linked to spiritual phenomena, we did not find any evidence directly linking altruists’ beliefs in evil to spirituality or religion.



Because altruistic kidney donations to anonymous strangers satisfy the most stringent definitions of costly altruism (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013), the study of these altruists can provide valuable insight into the nature of altruism, much as studying other rare, ecologically valid populations has yielded insights into psychological phenomena such asmemory (LePort et al., 2012) and face processing (Russell, Duchaine, &
Nakayama, 2009). Results show that altruists report lower belief in pure evil, which extends previous literature showing that higher levels of generalized trust and lower levels of cynicism and are associated with everyday prosocial behavior (Turner & Valentine, 2001). Our findings provide preliminary evidence that beliefs about the morality of people in general, and the goodness (or rather, lack of badness) of other humans may help motivate real-world costly altruistic acts toward strangers.