Homo Empathicus?

The Old Switcheroo

Selfish, cooperative, self-sacrificing – all kinds of human behavior serve a purpose. As behavioral biologist Dr. Sabine Tebbich sees it, our capacity for cooperation is what makes humans the most social and successful species on the planet.

It’s often said that free will is what separates humans from animals. But that’s not entirely true. Evolution has actually only given us three courses of action: self-interest, cooperation, and altruism. We constantly live and operate against the backdrop of these options. That being said, cooperation has revealed itself to be the most successful strategy for ensuring the survival of the individual and of society as a whole. “No living being is as social and cooperative as the human, especially when it comes to interactions with individuals beyond familiar genetic ties. That has contributed significantly to the success of our species,” says Vienna-based biologist Dr. Sabine Tebbich. From an evolutionary perspective, cooperation developed as a strategy to counteract resource deficiencies and poor living conditions. Joint activities and sharing have always represented survival advantages, and continue to do so to this day. In our distant past, communal hunts increased the odds of securing a bounty for neighboring families, and therefore helped ensure the survival of each individual. Todays, over 7.5 billion of Earth’s inhabitants could, at least in theory, network to make resources, goods, and services profitably usable for all.

The question remains: How can hyper-cooperative constructs – from kindergarten groups to confederations of states – remain stable? After all, within a community, individuals seem to have an advantage, at least over the short term, if they act out of self-interest, meaning at the expense of others. “Humans have developed regulatory mechanisms as far as this is concerned. These include a sense of fairness and righteous indignation, as well as social condemnation when a cooperative contract is broken,” says Tebbich. An example she likes to present to her students is that of a shared apartment in which certain roommates don’t complete their tasks on the cleaning schedule. This scenario seems harmless, but it can have dire consequences. Beyond social policing, social structures such as friendships promote humans’ willingness to cooperate. “Social interaction is highly complex. The costs and ­benefits of one’s own actions must constantly be evaluated. We assess what we lose and gain. Friendships, however, provide emotional support without involving this sort of ‘offsetting’ mentality,” says Tebbich.

All altruism goes rewarded

Altruism is considered particularly noble and selfless: After all, this involves incurring ‘costs’ to help others. However: “Altruism is never entirely selfless. When engaging in an altruistic act, you speculate, even if subconsciously, about the advantage that this will yield for you sooner or later. That’s a motivational mechanism. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to do good for others,” says Tebbich. For example, a blood donor earns positive feedback for their good deed, and enjoys the rush of endorphins that accompany the satisfying feeling of having done something good by sharing.

Picture credit: TÜV Rheinland /Stefan Joham