Saturday, August 11, 2012

Using babies to teach empathy

A friend sent me this older NY Times article about teaching at risk youth empathy by exposing them to and asking them to consider the well-being of babies.  Why this works, no one knows for sure, but it seems to trigger in them a natural inclination to help altruistically, also shared by primates:

We know that humans are hardwired to be aggressive and selfish. But a growing body of research is demonstrating that there is also a biological basis for human compassion. Brain scans reveal that when we contemplate violence done to others we activate the same regions in our brains that fire up when mothers gaze at their children, suggesting that caring for strangers may be instinctual. When we help others, areas of the brain associated with pleasure also light up. Research by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello indicates that toddlers as young as 18 months behave altruistically. (If you want to feel good, watch one of their 15-second video clips here.)

This was something that I didn't know, that we are programmed to help.  The clips are fascinating, for instance this first one, where the researcher drops a clothespin just out of his reach.  The 18 month old child crawls over to the clothespin, picks it up, works himself to a standing position so he'll be tall enough to give the researcher back his clothespin, which he does (to his own apparent delight).

I wouldn't necessarily call it altruism, though, at least not from my superficial understanding.  To me, the impulse seems rooted more in a drive for efficiency (am I projecting my own thoughts here?).  In each of these videos, the toddlers help out in a task that obviously requires cooperative effort for success -- a situation in which it is obvious that someone needs help with something, for instance opening a door when someone has their arms full.  Without the toddler's help, the door never gets opened and that person never gets to their location, or they do so with much greater cost in terms of time and effort.  By helping the researcher, even where there is no immediate promise of reward, the toddler is still engaging in value maximizing behavior that he can hope to benefit from in kind in the future.

This is clearly an evolutionarily advantageous trait, particularly to help out within a particular group or tribe of people.  It expands the our ability to consolidate resources in order to scale particular operations.  Just like the modern legal fiction of a corporation allows us to pool resources (via stock purchases) to create business entities that no one of us could finance independently, a natural inclination to participate in cooperative tasks promotes the overall well-being of society, which improves our own lives.

Maybe I'm reading too much into all of this, but I've always wondered where my compulsion for efficiency comes from, which will override almost any other impulse.  Could it be related to this?

It could also be that the toddler is just trying to pull his own weight, starting to realize that he is a suck on social resources, and wants to avoid getting left in the jungle to die.  Which is actually a risk for us all, in some ways.  So be good everyone!  Or else!

83 comments:

  1. Hmm, I personally always thought of my own need to be efficient as a constant competition to better myself, and thus improve my own standing.

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  2. me me me me me me ....
    and me

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    1. Absolutely!!! I believe that our natural tendencies are primarily rooted in selfishness 100 percent. Is picking up a dropped clothes pin a sign of showing compassion for the other persons misfortune? No!!!!!!!! Its not! Its a need being filled inside that child. It is selfish! Instinctively good? HA!! Not so much. Picking up that clothes pin makes the child feel good. It has everything to do with selfishness and nothing to do with compassion. I think this holds true to any act of kindness. Show me an act of compassion that a person demonstrates that is NOT generated by selfishness FIRST. Its our nature.....we are not born compassionate nor do we learn compassion....we learn the REWARDS of compassion that fill our selfish needs and act accordingly. That's why I feel so strongly that we are ALL sociopaths to a point.

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    2. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
      The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
      The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
      http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

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    3. Anonymous 5:41 AM: I agree with you, good people make good actions because it makes them feel good. I wouldn't help others if I didn't get that internal reward.

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  3. i remember being "in love" with someone while she slept i put my moth next to here's and while she inhaled i exhaled i wanted here to breathe only my air.
    i wanted her. I wanted to controle here and make here mine for ever (untill i got bored)

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    1. Funny, yet really creepy at the same time.

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    2. It is interesting to me the comments about " getting bored" as if or us just something that happens to you. I believe that there is no such thing as boring, and that we choose to bore ourselves.

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  4. What about the hormone levels in a mother after birth? Does they have the same effect? Is that why sociopath parents have love for their children?

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    1. what are you talking about? they don't love their children, not in that way. plus you'd mean mothers, not both parents. hormones aren't going to help with the reason why they don't love.

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  5. One of my exes was upset that I did not watch him while he slept as he said he did to me. I told him "no" in a medium unfeeling manner. I was crazy about him. But I wasn't going to SAY "you know I'm crazy about you" in a hushed tone as if from a film noir movie the way he did.

    I thought I loved him, but apparently I loved only the fact that he did not love me.

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    1. How do you know he did not love you?

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    2. There was not enough time for love to be on the table. He was in seduction mode, making me his. I was in seduction mode making me his lol.

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    3. Here is a song for you.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34iK9X-zcpY

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  6. You help people to get love.

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    1. Until you get bored of their love. That is why you'd rather help a stranger. They won't smother you with some long term thing. So go help your little old ladies and stop bothering me.

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  7. “Brain scans reveal that when we contemplate violence done to others we activate the same regions in our brains that fire up when mothers gaze at their children, suggesting that caring for strangers may be instinctual.”

    I see nothing relating a mother’s gaze towards her children to caring for strangers. I can see how a mother watching her child could possibly evoke two mutual yet unrelated emotions/feelings such as love and fear at the same time. Our natural resistance to change (google human resistance to change) coupled with a mother’s love for their child could simultaneously release the sense of caring and the need to protect at the same time. This instinctive need to protect/defend, their own child that they love stimulating the same areas in the brain where violence is contemplated makes sense. If you have ever witnessed a mother go to the defense of their child who is only presumed to be in danger or attacked you know what I am talking about. However, this lends no credibility to an instinctive need to care for perfect strangers.

    The examples of the toddlers helping the researcher could just as easily be explained as a “game” which amused the child. Children need constant stimulation and can make sport out of anything.

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    1. "Children need constant stimulation and can make sport out of anything."

      I think that is more to the point. If a sociopath is childlike then a sociopath would make a sport out of anything --like being efficient at getting a task done for a stranger?

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    2. Whenever I'm doing something termed as 'altruistic', I'm simply looking to gain favour with the person I'm being 'nice' to.

      For example, I will open doors for people whom I want something from, but if there is no one around whose opinion I care about, then I could care less about them.

      Isn't this why everyone performs deeds of altruism? We give something, so we get something else in return for our efforts.

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    3. Stasis,

      "For example, I will open doors for people whom I want something from, but if there is no one around whose opinion I care about, then I could care less about them."

      This sounds more like rational egoism.

      "Rational egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be rational that it maximize one's self-interest." http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egoism/#3

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    4. Oh how impressive. If someone opens the door for me, I immediately want to give them everything I got.

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    5. Well then, Eden, please allow me to escort you through any and all portals.

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    6. Taking it out of context much? Most people will be more inclined to trust/believe someone who has been 'good' to them before. Do small gestures, and you can easily cover up bigger lies.

      Sure you can go around being a jerk to everyone, but what does that gain you except a bad reputation? If your goal is to climb to the top, then having a bad reputation can seriously hurt your ambitions.

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    7. Oh just an added note (wish there was an edit function); crushing people totally has it's uses, and while it's fun, we should always keep in mind that we need to make sure that nobody know that it was you who wrecked them.

      P.S To Tom; that's an interesting article you linked there; personally as long as something serves my own self interest, I'd do it as long as the pros outweigh the cons.

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    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Remember when the toddler fell into the gorilla area, at the zoo. The gorilla picked him up and brought him to the zookeeper.
    I think we are programmed for altruism, as one slice of ourselves.

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    1. Definition of altruism

      • disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others:
      • some may choose to work with vulnerable elderly people out of altruism
      • Zoology behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense:
      • reciprocal altruism

      Origin :
      Mid-nineteenth century: from French “altruisme”, from Italian “altrui” “somebody else from Latin “alteri huic” “to this other”

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    2. Monica,

      Did you just say we are all gorillas?

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    3. Obsurd. Gorillas vs. Humans. Really? Humans have a will, a selfish NEED to be fulfilled from birth....animals have nothing but instinct. The Baby to gorilla=small resemblance of a baby gorilla that needed instinctively carried. NOT COMPASSION....SIMPLY INSTINCT to do what it would instinctively do. Can't compare.

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    4. But why to the human zookeeper?

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    5. You cannot take an incident as such and make a human parallel. Animals are animals, they respond out of instincts, not compassion or empathy. The are animals.

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    6. If i was that gorilla and monica fell in we would have made a new species- but is that altruism?

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    7. Yes, damn monkey love

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  9. sociopaths eat babys

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  10. babys are great
    with KETCHUP

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  11. The human race is the most consuming virus that has ever existed here on earth, one so vast and ever growing in abundance that a variation of some sort was created, a parasite within it's own kind.

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  12. Why do I miss the sociopath? I hate myself for that.

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  13. Acquired behavioural sociopathy/sociological conditioning (Item 21: a newly identified trait i.e., a person relying on sociological strategies and tricks to deceive)
    what's the deal with this nex item in the pcl-r
    when was this added
    how
    etc

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  14. Absolutely!!! I believe that our natural tendencies are primarily rooted in selfishness 100 percent. Is picking up a dropped clothes pin a sign of showing compassion for the other persons misfortune? No!!!!!!!! Its not! Its a need being filled inside that child. It is selfish! Instinctively good? HA!! Not so much. Picking up that clothes pin makes the child feel good. It has everything to do with selfishness and nothing to do with compassion. I think this holds true to any act of kindness. Show me an act of compassion that a person demonstrates that is NOT generated by selfishness FIRST. Its our nature.....we are not born compassionate nor do we learn compassion....we learn the REWARDS of compassion that fill our selfish needs and act accordingly. That's why I feel so strongly that we are ALL sociopaths to a point

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    1. if you're a psychopath it explains why you think that giving a crap about doing something for others come from a selfish desire. you just can't relate. not EVERY task people do out of giving a crap helps anyone at ALL, especially when it actually HURTS that person. you just wouldn't get it.. sorry but you really can't unless you know what it is like, you just aren't capable of understanding or getting empathy logic. you might see it as some bizarre instinct, because you don't experience it at all (if you're a psychopath) and I get that... you can return the favor by keeping your theories on hold until you know what it is like. which will be never.

      eh, I just can't help correcting people xD. I get mad if I can't reply to someone saying that a tomato is a vegetable...

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  15. I wanted to share something related to ME's article about SW being a force for change.
    I saw Tom want to be a member of the SW community so badly that he took on 5 different identities before he copped to himself~
    That shows what profound a place we have, here.

    For me, I have appreciated Kany's help and the help I get from interacting with all of you.

    I have been at an impasse. Then, I remembered what you all told me: that I came here because I wanted to be abused. I got angry and thought you all were asses. However, last week, I saw that I had come for that reason, in part. However, I can make a choice for my own self respect, here, and in my real life( which is the greater issue)

    I am the only one who can give myself respect and henceforth, demand it from others( or not engage)

    I realize that I do have my own power. I am not a disempowered person unless I make myself such.

    I love ME. I love you, all, too.

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    1. Good, this makes my heart feel warm. I am happy, Monica. xx

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    2. Tom Hill is the seventh name I have posted under, Monica. It was a defense mechanism now that I look at it. I did come across SW when researching personality disorders for a psych class I was taking; specifically narcissism. I had been called a sociopath before. Saw the name. Read some post. Got a little curious. Did more research into both narcissism and psychopathy (ASPD), which caused me to wonder about my self. I wanted to see what some here might think but wasn't sure how to go about it. The gungy part of my life was easy to talk about. The boo part not so much. I needed a mask. The others were superfluous shit as opposed to the main stay shit.

      I say that because you are right, Monica. Something continues to draw "regulars" here on nearly a daily basis. I have been accused of a possible obsession. And (oh, dear Raven: ode to your topic) I do believe I am "infatuated" with a few on here. I would love to drink a glass of wine in a room full of some of you; face to face. Would anyone be alive after that little soiree?

      If you check your ego at the door (BA HA HA HA HA, right!) or at least attempt to keep it in check long enough to listen to what others are saying, you just may learn something while your here.

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    3. You really can't seen that Mrs Kanny is just mind-fucking you, can you? How many times are you going to have this "revelation?"

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  16. Sending love, Monica.

    (From one empathetic person to another.)

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  17. I think many of you are setting up a strawman to say that empaths are altruistic PURELY unselfishly. Of course people like the benefit of feeling good about doing something nice or helpful for someone else. But it's also silly to say that altruism therefore is 100% selfishness.

    It's a complex social interaction that benefits society as a whole (we all benefit from a culture of helpfulness), benefits me (since I feel good about helping and of relieving you of some burden), and benefits you (since you're helped).

    Yes, it's "efficient" to help someone accomplish what they're doing, but if you were being 100% selfish you wouldn't care if they accomplish their task. It's only efficient in a larger sense that you're contributing to the culture of helpfulness, which you can count on to eventually help you when you need it.

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    1. Is it really our genuine "concern" whether or not they complete their task that merits our follow through, or is it the way that person would view me if i didn't, which is once again selfishness?

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    2. And you validate my entire point in your last statement..."they will eventually help you if you need it". Selfishness all the way around.

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    3. Its selfish where it starts and where it ends.

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    4. Do we pull someone from a burning vehicle because we have so much compassion as humans or because we could not stand our own despicable self if we didn't.....its what we are supposed to do as responsible people? =selfish. Multifaceted agreed, but we are moved by self first NOT compassion or empathy for others. Sociopathicbeings at different levels

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    5. I think the question is, if we're motivated to do altruistic things because they make us feel good (or avoid feeling bad), why do we feel those emotions of good or bad? We may be acting in a self-interested way in trying to elicit those feelings, but the feelings themselves aren't based in selfishness. We're hardwired to feel pleasure when we help someone. (Look at how pleased the kids and the chimps are to help in those videos ME cites.) If we take actions to elicit those pleasurable hardwired feelings, is it selfishness layered on top of innate altruism?

      The question comes down to, what's the prime mover in altruism. I think it's a genetic propensity manifested in the hardwiring of our brains to want to be helpful. We come up with lots of complicated layers of emotion and reasoning as we become thinking adults, but at the very bottom, what is the root of the impulse?

      Thus, Anon 11:05, isn't caring what others think of us also socially hardwired?; and Anon 12:00, isn't not being able to live with our shame similarly to the benefit of society?

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    6. I disagree. I think we are hard wired to be selfish. any deed, be it good, or be it bad has selfishness at the baseline. Our backgrounds, upbringing, circumstances and training determine how our selfishness manifests itself. It can look great, yet still be self centered. I don't believe in a "bad seed". I think we are all born basically bad seeds (selfish), how we conduct ourselves thereafter is dependent on our childhood examples and experiences .

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    7. Pleasure=I feel good. (Selfish) so in es sense, pleasure is all about me.

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  18. Example: is this altruism? I am the mother of a young child in a big city. I have often struggled to get my stroller through the door of a store as people walk past me on the sidewalk. Now, whenever I see another parent struggling with a stroller at a door, I always step over to hold it open for them. I'm empathetic, I've literally "felt their pain," so I want to relieve them of it. But I also want to subtly shame all the other people on the street who never helped me by making a bit of a show of opening the door for a person like me.

    So, selfish, altruistic, both? Is the act of helping the other parent poisoned by my personal, mild vendetta against selfish jerks on the street?

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    1. I don't think it is the kind of empathy some of us are lacking here. Yours is the kind of empathy which is easy for you. When someone has had your plight, you relate. It is the other kind, the kind where you cannot relate and you help anyway because you feel their pain, which some here confuse.

      I have a difficult time with the latter. I still am a little confused about whether every person is like me. I know lots of people can feel "for" me but it does not feel comfortable. I was not shown that as a child so it seems a little foreign.

      I might fake a bit or maybe even more than a bit when someone is in pain and I do not "agree" why. See, I think people are "just trying to making me feel good". I have wondered what exactly that is, when someone goes to me with great kindness and actually means it. But I am also ashamed of my pain, so maybe that is why.

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    2. add'l. I can also tell when another fakes it. I do not like it. They are insincere with me. I can see what I know in myself very well. Prob reaction formation or paranoia.

      I learned that here, fyi. Thank You SW.

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    3. I've never been hit by a truck before, but I'd like to think I'd have enough empathy to know that would really suck for the person. Borderline, what kind of situations exist where you wouldn't empathize because you can't relate? Every individual instance of suffering is of a type, and we have probably all experienced some of each type: physical pain, emotional pain, rejection, disappointment, loss, etc. Can't you extrapolate?

      Maybe self-inflicted pain brought on by stupidity? And to go back to being the mother of a small kid--sometimes I find it hard to sympathize with a kid who's crying for no good reason I can discern. I'd really like him to knock it off.

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    4. i have a hard time when someone says "this person is mean to me and i am so hurt by them." I usually kind of just do my best to ask questions and try to tell them they should not take so and so personally. Or I say it is just business, take your ego out -it means nothing, they mean nothing, and if they are a dick just walk way. SOmetimes I find the scenario they describe as a scene in a movie, and I want to even laugh.

      I want to laugh when my friend says his child stole money from the other child . When my friend says they have guilt for leaving the ex and won't punish the child properly, I will think my friend is a complete idiot, but i cannot say so. After all, I do not have children. I just cannot relate to a person who cannot compartmentalize basic stuff, even when there are precious children to consider. Please. I don't understand these parents with their children getting everything handed to them, sitting home on their ass to play video games, getting allowance for watching the cleaning person come in 2x per week. I have no sympathy. I have no empathy. I Want to shake said parents and call them stupid. But no, the children, oh the sensitive, thieving child's ego. Heaven forbid you rattle it.

      I have always been good at talking myself out of rejection because i have felt a great deal of it and have had to train myself like bootcamp in the past not to take it personally. WIth a man who does me dirty I do not wallow. Why, when I can come out smelling like a rose while they have their own shit on their teeth? So when someone is feeling slighted, I want them to get over it as fast as I can. I don't understand crying when you can choose to leave. LEAVE already, I want to say. But no, I have to sit and listen and say I'm so sorry. I will sometimes have disdain for them (some reaction formation there)

      I live in a big city where people yell at each other all the time. It is funny to me to see an altercation sometimes. If someone yells at me I do not take it personally. I don't get why to react to wild emotions.

      Maybe it is that I have a lot on my plate with my inner turmoil. I have my own monsters in my head which are more powerful than another human being to contend with. I pick my battles with care. I don't get why to stress over small things. So I find the small things other people tell me about a little entertaining. But I cannot say so outloud.

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    5. I am known for being a very considerate and giving person. I have a lot of friends. I am just a little judgmental about some of these things, and I do work on trying to relate. I do. I am good at it. It Is just a bit hard for me in my head. It takes energy I do not want to use in order to be aware of my judging. I do not want to. THere is some shame about being an asshole in my mind. I am not interested in being a martyr but I want to have people in my life even though I find some silly. < i do not find this a weakness. I do not LIKE to put myself above others. It is unwarranted. I do not judge badly even people who are not nice to me. < I get into trouble not judging well. People say my tolerances are a little weird. I don't know.

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    6. I don't even know if I care. I am not so different than other "normal" people. There is nothing extremely unique about me. I am ok sometimes and a clusterfuck other times. *slams door* Now stop badgering me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

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  19. I see your point, though I think things can be more than one thing at once - multi-faceted?

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    1. Yes, exactly. We can be both selfish and empathetic. Altruism doesn't preclude selfishness, but the existence of a selfish motivation in altruism doesn't preclude genuine empathy.

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  20. This is weird. Two of my best friends died two weeks apart from each other in a motorcycle accident, and thank god the motorcycle is alright, but will I be next?

    That being said, I just saw "The Hunger Games" and I was surprised by how good it was. I'll advice it to everyone. :)

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  21. I think that once a certain balance is attained, selfishness and selflessness become one and the same.

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    1. What do you mean, Medusa?

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  22. Let's analyse: one guy has candies and gives them to his friends without asking anything in return.
    Possible motives:
    He cares about everyone, is selfless;
    Gives candies to make the annoying crowd of beggars go away, act of selfishness;
    Had eaten enough candies before;
    Wants to buy the crowd...

    Is this selfish or selfless or both? No one can be sure :)

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  23. Good angle.

    Agreed - no one can be certain of what another’s motives are - selfish, selfless, or both... All three possibilities exist.

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  24. i saw a wonderful movie: "Beast of the Southern Wild"

    It would interest people here for a bunch of reasons. I o not want to ruin it. I would like to talk about it here one day.

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  25. I got back from my long distance trucking. How you all been?

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  26. One of these days my nephew came to visit us and I dressed an angry character. When he picked one of my books I cursed him: You can't touch this!

    He stared and looked at me very serious.

    My girl, you know, was angry with me about this incident but I just couldn't resist!

    I really enjoy doing these things, that's fun. It is like watching a comic movie in private mode.

    Well, I loved to put cats in danger situations to see their grave meow.

    --

    What surprises me is that children tend to like me, even when I treat them this way. I don't know what is this that they still like me.

    --

    Don't you do this to your nephews??

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  27. i do care if i'm a socipath i't makes me look cool and it fuels my ego

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  28. I hate the fact that sometimes the reply button just does NOT work. but I've read some comments about empathy and helping others, and it being selfish first or all selfish, and I wonder, are some people of these commenters psychopaths? cos otherwise they'd know it's not true. The burning vehicle thing.. that's only true some of the time, and a non psychopath would know it. even if they never got a chance to help anyone (or just aren't thinking of small times when they wanted to) for any reason other than "I'm going to feel guilty if I don't", they'd understand that it's not true for every time with others. it's obvious that there are times when you help someone out because you care, not to get rid of your guilt when you don't.

    And no, you don't just help people out to gain favor.
    I can't back myself with explanations, and you can't expect me to.. that'd be like a blind person criticizing someone who can see for not being able to explain what color_here is like. It exists, and makes complete sense when you can see it, no, the colors aren't illusions or anything other than colors... you know?

    And the whole feel good thing. The entire reason you feel good comes from an unselfish reason anyway, so no one can really claim that feel good is selfish at all.

    I'd help someone out of that burning vehicle because I don't want them to die or burn to death or feel like they can't breathe. If I felt I'd die or get harmed, I guess I wouldn't, but I would feel very sorry for them. Doing things to avoid feeling guilty does suck when it happens.

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    1. The concept of helping out someone just for the sake of it sounds very alien. Let's take your example of the burning vehicle; it's their fault they were stupid enough to crash or damage their vehicle in the first place, why should you help them fix their mistake?

      Added to the fact that they might already be dead, and that you're risking your own life in the process and it really doesn't make sense at all. Sure, others may call you a hero, but that won't help you when you have permanent burn marks on your arms.

      Is being selfish really so bad? We all want to survive and get ahead in life; why put all that at risk for some nobody? There are at least 7 billion humans alive, and someone dies each time you take a breath; saving one or two people doesn't really make any difference at all. (Not to mention that there are actually way too many humans already.)

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    2. what do you mean just for the sake of it? it isn't just for the sake of it, and it's not selfish to not risk your life. and it does make a diff, it's more suffering.

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  29. I can hold a strangers door open for them to pass through, help pick up something dropped, give them a handkerchief to a crying woman ...and not even care.
    Why should I do something which I have no returns for, or do something nice for them?

    Meh, why not?

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