Sunday Scaries

These 3 Personality Traits Define Extreme Altruists — Do You Have Them?

A new study reveals traits that can help anyone looking to enhance how they care for others.

Lais Borges; Inverse/Getty Images
Sunday Scaries

What is the most selfless thing you have ever done? For some people, offering up the last morsel of dessert to their partner might feel like a major sacrifice, but others take selflessness to an extreme. These are the admirable people we hear about on morning TV news: The people who give their kidney to a stranger, travel thousands of miles to deliver humanitarian aid to war zones or risk life and limb to pull a struggling swimmer from the ocean.

But what drives these everyday people to transform into superheroes? The answer may be extreme altruism.

Altruism comes from the Latin word alteri, which roughly translates to “others.” Although the concept has found recent fame thanks to effective altruism proponent William MacAskill, altruism was first described by the 19th Century French philosopher Auguste Comte, who defined it as “an unselfish regard for the welfare of others.”

Being altruistic is associated with a host of benefits, including reduced aggression, increased longevity, greater well-being, and better mental health. But there’s a catch: Exhibiting behavioral and emotional compassion can result in these gains, as long as the altruistic person isn’t overwhelmed by the act of being altruistic. Extreme altruists, for example, are those that might make life-altering or life-threatening choices to help someone else, even a stranger.

Some research suggests that high-stakes altruism is motivated by an automatic, intuitive process — altruists help others because it’s the obvious thing to do. But it’s hard to study people who commit real-world acts of altruism, explains Shawn Rhoads, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Done in a moment, scientists can’t really recreate these acts in a lab to study them, and altruists don’t reliably self-report just how altruistic they are.

To try and understand these extreme altruists, in a new study published in Nature Communications Rhoads and his colleagues try to pinpoint the features that best distinguish extraordinary altruists from their peers. The findings reveal traits that can help anyone looking to enhance how they care for others.

“Understanding what leads people to behave in ways that benefit others is crucial in order to improve overall societal welfare,” Rhoads says.

The science of extraordinary altruism

Altruists have a distinct combination of personality traits closely linked to unselfishness.

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The study included groups of individuals who have performed costly, risky, or rare forms of altruism.

These acts included:

  • Heroic rescues
  • Non-directed and directed kidney donations
  • Liver donations
  • Marrow or hematopoietic stem cell donations
  • Humanitarian aid work

The researchers assessed the personality of 347 altruists, as well as 207 control participants. The altruists reported that they “simply acted as anyone with the same information and opportunity would have,” the study team writes. But measurements of risk perception and taking, cognitive reflection, empathy, and psychopathy, revealed the altruists have a distinct combination of personality traits closely linked to unselfishness: increased honesty-humility, reduced social discounting, and reduced personal distress.

What is an extreme altruistic personality?

“Understanding what leads people to behave in ways that benefit others is crucial in order to improve overall societal welfare.”

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To find clues to boost your own altruism (and in turn, your well-being and longevity), it is worth digging into the three factors that determine your selflessness — honesty-humility, social discounting, and personal distress — a little more.

The HEXACO model of personality structure theorizes that people can best be described using six broad dimensions: honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

People who exhibit high levels of honesty-humility are “unwilling to exploit others for personal gain, tend to be fair and genuine in social interactions and feel no special entitlement or self-importance,” Rhoads explains.

They might also “be more willing to act in ways that benefit others even when it comes at a personal cost,” he adds.

Social discounting describes the “extent to which people are willing to sacrifice resources to benefit others as social closeness declines,” he explains. Generally, people are more willing to sacrifice for family and friends — the people they are close to. They are less willing to sacrifice for strangers. However, people who show reduced social discounting — like these altruists — prioritize the well-being of all people, including strangers.

Meanwhile, people who show low personal distress (which was measured via the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) feel less personal distress in emergencies or in response to the suffering of others.

“People with low personal distress might be better able to take action to help others in need or distress because they are able to manage their own emotional reactions,” Rhoads says.

Interestingly, these are not the personality traits listed when the study team asked the control group how they would describe altruists. This group listed self-focused motivations for altruism, like feeling good about doing good deeds or enhancing one’s reputation. Seemingly the reason to act altruistically is a puzzle for some — but not for actual altruists.

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