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When doing good is bad

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VICTORIA -- Benevolence can be a bad thing. Excessive kindness can doom its recipients to acute psychological and health repercussions, accumulating evidence shows.

"Do-gooders" often go too far in their altruistic zeal to be charitable, obliging and humanitarian, researchers caution.

According to Oren Harman at Bar Ilan University, it amounts to "too much of a good thing." It is tantamount to "killing with kindness," concludes psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia.

At its origin is the fundamental tenet of altruism: From each according to his or her ability to each according to his or her needs.

"X-altruists" are addicted to doing good, explained behaviour therapist Andrea Kuszewski.

"They are compelled to do good, even when doing so makes no sense or brings harm," she reported. "They simply have too much empathy."

Excessive kindness is tantamount to "pathological altruism," conclude Barbara Oakley at Oakland University, David Sloan Wilson at Binghampton University and their colleagues.

"(X-altruism) is maladaptive behaviour that stems from exaggerated empathetic feelings for others," they explained. "Caring feelings can be manipulated and exploited by emotional bullies (and) compulsive altruists may fuel guilt."

One element of the destructive process takes shape when parents instill in a child's mind the false belief that he or she cannot do anything wrong, a psychological error that can generate narcissism, the researchers point out.

According to Oakley and her colleagues, excessive kindness and empathy can generate "a slew of (results), including genocide, suicide bombing, self-righteous political partisanship and ineffective philanthropic and social programs."

"It is almost heretical to suggest kindness and empathy can cause harm," they explained. "But helpful behaviour taken to extremes blinds us to its harms."

Misguided altruism can, indeed, result in genocide, war and political upheaval, but also to heroism and sainthood, Haidt reported. Its practitioners feel physically and psychologically "elevated."

"But, altruism can bleed into misplaced, self-righteous and self-serving pathologies," cautioned Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University.

According to Elkhonon Goldberg at New York University, excessive kindness toward others can take the form of "self-sacrifice in the name of some delusional cause."

Scott Atran at the University of Michigan concludes excessive humanitarianism can cause a schism in society by sacrificing "in-group solidarity in favour of concerns for out-groups."

Haidt says X-altruists are "morally dumbfounded" because they make their moral judgments "on the basis of emotion, justifying their decisions (on humanitarianism) through post hoc rationalizations and stick to their guns even if their reasoning is proven faulty."

In spite of their inability to find valid reasons "they do not change their initial judgments," Haidt says.

By that mental manoeuvre, X-altruism can become institutionalized, and X-altruists come to imagine themselves in the shoes of the down-trodden, suffers and unfortunate victims in societies, researchers report.

They go to "extreme lengths to help those whom (they feel) have been wronged," Kuszewski says.

They try to justify their actions by "talking in ways that push buttons," Haidt explained.

But, excessive kindness can result in "unnecessary and detrimental help," Oakley and her colleagues report of "cognitive illusion" in the X-altruists. Sometimes, the intended beneficiaries become less prone to help themselves thanks to a narcissistic presumption of entitlement, they caution.


Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 J1

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