The Selfish Reason Behind Our Helpful Nature

We have an inbuilt habit to help those in need. While it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that human beings are good in spirit and hence they help out, it wouldn’t be as much interesting to understand why we really help others (as a species) and how it actually benefits us (as an individual).

Let me spoil it for you. Altruism isn’t free. There are selfish reasons behind all our random acts of kindness. To illustrate my point, let me draw an example from The Elephant in the Brain and tell you about the curious case of the Arabian babbler, a small brown bird that lives in the arid undergrowth of the Sinai Desert. They have nothing to do with humans, yet we might find some of their traits familiar.

Babblers live in small groups of 3 to 20 members who collectively defend a small territory of trees, shrubs, and bushes that provide cover from predators. Their social life is rather curious. The male babblers arrange themselves into rigid dominance hierarchies. The alpha male, for example, consistently wins in small squabbles with the beta male, who in turn consistently wins against the gamma male, thereby establishing a pecking order.

Once in a while, an intense fight erupts between two babblers of adjacent rank, resulting in one babbler’s death or permanent ejection from the group. But for the most, they get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they help one another and the group in a variety of ways. For example, they donate food to each other, bring food to their communal nestlings, attack members of rival groups, and stand on “guard duty” to watch for predators while the others look for food.

At first glance, these activities appear altruistic. A babbler who takes guard duty, for example, foregoes his opportunity to eat. Likewise, a babbler who attacks an enemy incurs risk of injury. But on more careful inspection, these activities turn out not to be as selfless as they seem.

First of all, babblers go out of their way and “compete” to help others—often aggressively! For example, high-ranking babblers often force down food into the throats of unwilling birds. Similarly, when a beta male is standing on guard duty at the top of a tree, the alpha will fly up and harass him (to throw him off his game). The beta meanwhile isn’t strong enough to bully the alpha, but he will often stand insistently nearby, offering to take over if the alpha allows it. Similar jockeying takes place for the “privilege” of performing other altruistic behaviours such as fending of rivals group members.

Now, if the goal was to really be helpful, why waste effort competing to perform them? One hypothesis is that higher-ranked babblers are stronger, and therefore better able to forego food and fight off predators. And so, by taking on more of the burden, they’re helping weaker groupmates. We imagine something similar when we see someone with wealth and power helping others who aren’t that privileged.

But this hypothesis has a loophole. It has been observed that babblers compete only with those immediately above or below them in hierarchy. The alpha male, for example, almost never tries to replace the gamma male from guard duty; instead the alpha directs all of his competitive energies toward the beta. If the goal were to really help weaker members, the alpha should be more eager to take over from the gamma than from the beta.

Even more damning is the fact that babblers often interfere in the helpful behaviours of their rivals, for example, by trying to prevent them from feeding the communal nestlings. This makes no sense if the goal is to benefit the group as a whole.

So if these activities aren’t really altruistic, what’s the real reason? The answer is that altruistic babblers develop a kind of “credit” among their groupmates—what we humans call “status”. This earns them at least two different perks. The first perk is mating opportunities. Males with greater prestige get to mate more often with the females of the group. Ring any bell?

A prestigious alpha, for example, may take all the mating opportunities for himself. But if the beta has earned good prestige, the alpha will occasionally allow him to mate with some of the females. In this way, the alpha “bribes” the beta to not challenge him, which brings me to the second perk (which is twofold).

If the beta gains high prestige points, it’s only through his demonstration of strength and fitness. This means he is a threat to the alpha. An alpha who goes beak-to-beak with a prestigious beta is less likely to win, so he gives the beta more leeway than he would give a beta with lower prestige.

On the other hand, if a prestigious beta has shown himself to be useful to the group, the group is more likely to keep him around. High prestige reduces the risk of getting kicked out of the group.

Thus babblers compete to help others in a way that ultimately increases the group’s chances of survival and reproduction. What looks like altruism is actually self-interest. It’s similar in us humans. We (are programmed to) love status games.

The point that I’m trying to make isn’t that human beings are selfish. It’s too obvious and very much accepted. What I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t take human behaviour at face value—none of them. The surface-level logic of a behaviour harbours deep and complex motives.

This is true even in species whose lives are much simpler than our own, so we can’t expect human behaviours, like voting, or making art, or loving your spouse to be straightforward either. Look deeper. Always!

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