The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


It’s a debate as old as time.

Are people instinctively good or bad by nature? Author Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D., uses brain science to examine this age-old question. In “The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Be Naturally Good,” Pfaff, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Rockefeller University, theorizes that humans are good after all — in fact, they are even hardwired for altruism and caring for others.

Brain World: Some people might look at the world today and find it hard to believe the brain is hardwired to be altruistic. What do you say to that?

Donald Pfaff: That sounds like a very reasonable question. Very small numbers of people, and a very small percentage of the time, bring about tremendous amounts of evil. And the nature of our times is such that when bad stuff is happening in the world, it gets reported and magnified in a way that it never used to be. Let’s consider those bad guys. Even the bad guys are not behaving badly most of the time. If you look at the human race as a whole, and we’re talking about the human brain in the spirit of your question, almost all the time, good behavior, or at least neutral behavior, is ensuing.

BW: What are some of the ways that the seeds of altruism originate during early bonding between mother and child?

DP: All social behaviors have a very strong feed forward quality to them. That is, the nature of the behaviors that happen later depend a lot on the nature of the behaviors that have happened earlier. And so for a baby that comes out of the womb and is well taken care of, not only by the doctors, but also by the mother and father, that baby is going to know probably within hours, and certainly within days or weeks, whether this is a social world that he wants to be in or not. That’s what the human brain does. It generalizes from relatively small amounts of experience to make inferences about relatively large domains of human existence. If the baby continues to experience nurturing and caring from his mother, and I would say that nurturing behavior from his father as well in many cases is not to be trivialized, then the first time that this baby sees other humans outside his immediate family, especially other adults, he’s going to make the assumption that he can expect friendly behavior and that he is also expected to put out friendly behavior.

BW: Is there ever a time when being wired to be altruistic is not a good thing? Can people overdo it, to their own detriment?

DP: I know people who have a lot of faith in human nature who go wandering around places in New York City that they shouldn’t be because they make overly optimistic assumptions about human nature. So there’s an example of where overemphasizing the expectations of good behavior could be risky and when it sometimes may work against us.

BW: If someone is lacking in empathy and altruistic impulses, can they improve that?

DP: I think they could undergo systematic behavior training using an approach called ABA (applied behavioral analysis), which means that in a series of structured situations the person who is behaving with very low empathy is trained by ordinary means of reinforcement, maybe some sort of reward like money, or something else, to behave in a better way. So even though this person doesn’t have the instinct for good behavior in the way the rest of us do, the person can learn to behave as though he has that instinct. He can also learn from having the same behavior reciprocated back to him. In saying this, I’m not promising that it would work. But I know that that’s a reasonable approach.

BW: What is a way that we as a society can promote prosocial, altruistic behavior?


DP: We’ve already touched on one approach in which I have a lot of confidence, and that is to provide a nurturing environment from the prenatal period right on through to the moment of birth, making the world better one at a time. The earlier the baby has the definite impression that he or she is entering a friendly world, the better off we all are. I would also say that as a society, leveling the playing field is the name of the game. And part of that must involve reducing the extreme economic inequality wherever it may be, to not only make life fairer for people who have gotten the short end of the stick, but also to make it seem as though life is fairer — because not just the reality of fairness, but also its perception, is very important.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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