restricted access On Social Connection, Helping, and Altruism
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Emanuele Castano On Social Connection, Helping, and Altruism T HUR LOW DAN IS THE F O U N D ER AND CHARISMA TIC LEADER OF Helix, a movement whose only goal is to deliver individuals from their unbearable loneliness. At eveiy Helix gathering people tell their stories—how lonely they feel even when they are in the company of others, and how painful that is. They join the movement and Helix grows stronger. Thurlow Dan is not real and neither is Helix. They both belong to the fictional world of Fiona Maazel’s last book, Woke Up Lonely. Yet he and the loneliness fueling Helix resonate with the spirit of our time, at least in the W estern world: the more the opportunities we have available to connect with others (Facebook, Twitter, text applica­ tions, and so forth), the more we seem to be isolated and experiencing a debilitating loneliness. W hether the loneliness is as grim as Putnam argued in Bowling Alone remains to be ascertained, but if this is indeed the trend of our civilization, we should pay a great deal of attention to it. The reason for this is that social connectedness is what humans need most. Maslow put it very high in the hierarchy of needs, just after basic physiological and safety requirem ents. But psychological research suggests that it may place higher: even when their biological, physi­ cal self is well taken care of, humans can wither and die if they are not exposed to the touch, loving care of, and connection with other humans (Bakwin 1942). The last decade has provided mounting evidence of the extent to which our cognitive and affective processes are modulated by those of others. The same areas of the brain are social research Vol. 80 : No. 2 : Summer 2013 383 recruited when we feel pain ourselves and when we see others feel­ ing pain (Decety et al. 2010); the spontaneity with which we mimic others has been related to our capacity to understand them and their emotional states (Leslie et al. 2007); consciousness may depend on our unique capacity to perceive and understand other people’s minds (Humphrey 1983). If this evidence continues to accumulate, shouldn’t we abandon the old Homo homini lupus adage and begin considering seriously the possibility that we are better, more pro-social creatures than Hobbes wanted us to believe? If so, should we take a second look at altruism instead of reducing it, as we often do, to an epiphenomenon of selfinterest ? W hile we are at it, why also not reconsider helping behav­ ior in light of the evidence that it comes naturally to humans and, if anything, what we learn is not to help? These three questions are taken on in this section by Emma Seppala, Timothy Rossomando, and James Doty; Michael McCullough and Eric J. Pedersen; and Felix Warneken. Seppala, Rossomando, and Doty review psychological and neuroscientific literature on social connection and compassion, making a strong case for the centrality in the human experience of feeling connected to others in meaningful, loving ways, and how this feeling relates to a host of psychological and physical indicators of health—a series of findings that resonate with the idea that social connection is a key mechanism to buffering existential angst (Castano et al. 2002). Doty, who founded and directs CCARE (the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education), also points to the positive effects of loving-lcindness meditation and mindfulness in establishing and m aintaining a subjective sense of connection to others. McCullogh and Pedersen approach the question of altru­ ism from the vantage point of generosity, asking where generos­ ity comes from in evolutionary terms. They discuss the concept of benefit-delivery devices, and while their view of altruism remains 384 social research grounded in the benefit that it can provide to the individual, they also highlight the need to broaden our understanding of evolu­ tion, particularly through serious consideration o f group selection mechanisms. Finally, Felix W arneken tells us about his fascinating research on helping, conducted with both very young children and chim ­ panzees. (I strongly encourage you to try to view the videos of his experim ents...