Elation: The Amazing Effect of Witnessing Acts of Kindness

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I have a friend who used to live in Pakistan, where he was an animal rights activist. One day, he was walking through his home city when he saw a crowd gathered around the stall of a bird seller. A man had bought some myna birds – a popular caged bird in Pakistan, because of their ability to mimic sounds – and was releasing them. One by one, he took them out of the cage, and let them fly free. In all, he bought 32 of the birds, just to set them free. 

My friend was amazed by this act of altruism, partly because – as he put it – ‘such acts of charity were not so common in my part of the world where people are not so kind to animals in general.’ But he was also amazed at his own reaction to the act. He was filled with a deep sense of peace. A strange quietness filled his surroundings, and he felt completely free of worry or anxiety. The sense of peace and joy remained with him for a few days, and, in his words, ‘I believe it is still there to some degree.’

This is a powerful example of an experience which most of us are familiar with, even though psychologists haven’t paid much attention to it so far. It’s the fantastic warm, elevated feeling we get when we witness acts of kindness. Even the most simple altruistic acts might give you a touch of this: a passer-by giving his packed lunch to a homeless man, a stranger offering to help a blind person cross the road, or a subway passenger giving up his seat for a old lady. Or when we see seeming acts of kindness amongst animals – for example, perhaps you could watch this short video now, and observe your response.

In this way, witnessing altruistic acts can be a source of what Abraham Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ – those moments of awe, wonder and a sense of ‘rightness’ which make us feel immensely grateful to be alive. 

Written By: Steve Taylor
continue to source article at psychologytoday.com

17 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by Peter Grant:

      I hope these mynas were indigenous to the region.

      Good point. People used to release lovely white doves that just flew off and died of starvation. I hope this wasn’t similar.

      Michael

      (PS: Not all white birds released die there are white homing pigeons that the reputable firms use.)

      • In reply to #15 by mmurray:

        Good point. People used to release lovely white doves that just flew off and died of starvation. I hope this wasn’t similar.

        While that would be unfortunate, I am even more concerned about exotic birds surviving, breeding and thriving in new environments where they have no natural predators. A perhaps equally well meaning individual released some Indian mynas here in Africa where they have since thrived in enormous flocks, becoming pests generally and displacing local bird species.

  1. The video, which I’ve seen before is wonderful. Yep that little surge of oxytocin’n’dopamine, whatever, did it for me and and some kind of elating reassurance happens. I feel a bit safer in a scary world perhaps. My team, the ones that look out for me, may be bigger than I thought.

    Psychology Today is a pretty dismal rag filled all too often with meaningless pap-

    pure altruism is only possible because, at the deepest level, all human beings are part of the same network of consciousness.

    and this to explain why we feel good about watching a dog rescue another dog. Never will you see an admission that the feel good in the video is probably the misfiring of kin detector circuitry….but hey…isn’t it great that it does that.

    The fantasy of perfect design, of which this is an example, fuels some of our problems here on this site. The hopeless helpless non explanation of “network of consciousness” is a step removed from aligned chakras (spelling?…who cares). But then Psychology Today is aimed specifically at women who want to go just a little deeper than their Cosmo horoscope.

    • In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

      The video, which I’ve seen before is wonderful. Yep that little surge of oxytocin’n’dopamine, whatever, did it for me and and some kind of elating reassurance happens. I feel a bit safer in a scary world perhaps. My team, the ones that look out for me, may be bigger than I thought.

      According to the work of Haidt, it is indeed oxytocin-based. In The Happiness Hypothesis, he and a fellow student measured it indirectly by recording the involuntary lactation of mothers while watching either an inspirational film or a comedy, the idea being that the former would produce a conspicuous increase in oxytocin, which encourages more milk production. In Better Angels, Pinker notes that the oxytocin system is probably behind our feelings of in-group love, which in turn is an extension of feelings of kinship.

      Admittedly, the article here devolves into a mush of feel-good verbiage, but I was interested in the fact that feelings of elation are so rarely discussed in scientific academia. This is a powerful ethical emotion, and I think it’s a strong reason why people associate with religion so much; because they associate ethics with religious teachings. In any attempt to discuss the matter of ethics, this sort of concept is key.

      • In reply to #3 by Zeuglodon:

        This is a powerful ethical emotion, and I think it’s a strong reason why people associate with religion so much

        Entirely with you on this. It is certainly under-discussed and I am increasingly of the opinion that it is the emotional and aesthetic buy-in to religion that is key to the condition and its unpicking and not the buy-in to, mostly interchangeable, “facts” and “religious knowledge”.

        Talking people out of it through rational and informed debate, is famously ineffective.

        The psychologists of goodness really do fall into two camps with the like of Haidt, Frans de Waal and Simon Baron Cohen on the one hand and Pinker on the other. All acknowledge that empathy, mutuality and oxytocin are all linked and underpin substantially our social and moral behaviour.

        The first three are notably hyper-pro-social in my view, nice super-empathic individuals who have the general view that the more empathy the better. Pinker I believe is more savvy than this. (He may also be a little less left of centre…) He rightly warns that though empathy is critical to our collective functioning that it can be overdone. The hyper-pro-social may over-read or wrongly read the harms experienced by others and in their formation of self-protective groups they create, often despised, out-groups inappropriately too. Oxytocin, indeed, has a dark side.

        This error is more visible to the less empathic and is a good clue why the manufacturing tolerance of empathy in a society can be put to good use, with the hyper-pro-social perhaps being the instigators of social interventions more often, say, and the cooler heads balancing them against a broader set of harms. (It is notable the first three psychologist are more accommodationist of religion than Pinker.)

        Where Pinker gets it wrong in my view is in how he sides with Fiske against Haidt in the categorisation of moral dispositions. Fiske’s more downbeat categorisations carry dogmatic baggage (e.g.market pricing/legal rational) whilst Haidt’s equivalent (fairness/reciprocity) map more comfortably into what it actually feels like. Also Haidt’s category (purity/sanctity) is, perhaps, too icky for Fiske and Pinker, though in its negation, disgust, it is a clear and well documented emotion. The closest Fiske has is communal sharing……!??!

        Oxytocin’s role in religion is rich in unexplored potential. Haidt may actually be able to understand it better than Pinker. If they could stand each other they’d make a good team on this.

        Miracles, reported and imagined may be the ultimate oxytocin trip… “Sky Father” kin detection….

          • In reply to #7 by Roedy:

            In reply to #4 by phil rimmer:

            Phil. You probably should become a famous person.

            But which one though?…….

            Aw shucks. I wish I had done the research. Sadly, I just read their books.

        • In reply to #4 by phil rimmer:

          Entirely with you on this. It is certainly under-discussed and I am increasingly of the opinion that it is the emotional and aesthetic buy-in to religion that is key to the condition and its unpicking and not the buy-in to, mostly interchangeable, “facts” and “religious knowledge”.

          Prior to today, I was convinced that religion is basically, if not mostly, a false claim to ethical expertise, and that the “religious knowledge” and metaphysics is something included to make that expertise seem more palatable. After all, ethics is a tough subject, as most philosophers can attest, and in a market of people looking for ethical certainties, guidance, and moral leadership, it’s easier to subjugate and manipulate people if you claim there’s a judgemental ghost watching them, or claim that the universe will punish you after death by having you reincarnate as something awful.

          Now, after looking briefly at a book on philosophy and reading your post, I am starting to wonder if that extends to other philosophical issues as well. Those might include consciousness, epistemology, and art, and maybe some social ones such as ways to deal with daily issues and activities to affirm group solidarity in the face of potential treachery. Maybe religion is essentially a culture’s general philosophy gone wrong.

          Talking people out of it through rational and informed debate, is famously ineffective.

          I think this mostly applies to people who are already confident of their beliefs. Those sitting on the fence might be less resistant to persuasion, as I have seen debates in which some of the audience members changed their minds afterwards (such as the debate between Richard and the Catholic fellow in Australia a way back). On the whole, though, I agree with you the backfire effect is most likely in such situations.

          That said, there was an interesting experiment done by Atran, Ginges, et al. a few years back about changing people’s minds over the Israel-Palestine dispute. While explicitly rational peace-seeking offers were quickly refused, symbolic surrenders to the other side’s sacred values and rights to the land did mollify some of those interviewed. Again, Pinker talks about it in Better Angels.

          Also, I agree with most of the rest that you say, too, though I think the future of ethical development will increasingly give way to analytical rather than to empathic approaches. It’s not just that empathy has a tribalistic dark side, but that it is too parochial and impulsive to cope with big picture thinking (both in proximity and in terms of future consequences) and complex ethical dilemmas, and it can’t really deal well with modern concerns that not only effect millions of people, but which can’t always be easily predicted. A million is a statistic, out of sight is out of mind, and all that.

          Where Pinker gets it wrong in my view is in how he sides with Fiske against Haidt in the categorisation of moral dispositions. Fiske’s more downbeat categorisations carry dogmatic baggage (e.g.market pricing/legal rational) whilst Haidt’s equivalent (fairness/reciprocity) map more comfortably into what it actually feels like.

          While I would criticize Fiske for lumping some modes of thought together, (Haidt has the advantage of having isolated crisper relational models), I wouldn’t call them dogmatic. For one thing, Rational-Legal captures nicely the counterinstinctive nature of much of our modern legal and economic landscape, and I think Pinker makes a good case to include it as a largely cultural relational model distinct from more instinctive concepts of fairness and tit-for-tat thinking (his example is the history of resistance to interest rates), since it relies on modes of thought that emerge from our recent history. As for the others, to me, they fit well with the models of altruism predicted in evolutionary game theory, and in some ways I think they clarify common ground, such that Haidt and Fiske could be said to have complementary models.

          For instance, Fiske’s Communal Sharing model is treated by Pinker as a combination of Purity/Sanctity and In-Group Loyalty, both seemingly disparate modes of thought, but the way he does it reveals a potential common precursor in kin-based altruism, extended to include members of one’s tribe or coalition. The link does make a certain sense as well: don’t we sometimes view family as a sacred common essence, and isn’t it a high compliment to describe an ally as like family? Since kinship involves treating others as more special than outsiders, it lends itself well both to essentialist notions that trigger thoughts of elation and disgust, and to the notion that a special commitment or loyalty exists between people that runs deeper than other kinds of commitments. Hence, Purity/Sanctity and In-Group Loyalty.

          Also Haidt’s category (purity/sanctity) is, perhaps, too icky for Fiske and Pinker, though in its negation, disgust, it is a clear and well documented emotion. The closest Fiske has is communal sharing……!??!

          It’s true that Pinker focuses more on Fiske’s models than on Haidt’s in his book, but I never got the impression he found Haidt’s model “icky”. Pinker thinks both men’s models have considerable overlap, and that they differ mostly on how the continuum is divided up rather than on any fundamental features. Disgust fits into the paradigm of Communal Sharing because Communal Sharing includes essentialist notions that use metaphors of biology, including those of biological contaminants that elicit disgust (for instance, outsiders are subhuman or vermin or simply lack the special essence of the in-group members that makes them pure).

          Oxytocin’s role in religion is rich in unexplored potential. Haidt may actually be able to understand it better than Pinker. If they could stand each other they’d make a good team on this.

          Haidt has probably done more work on the subject than anyone else. I certainly can’t think of another name in his league. What I think holds him back, though, is his interest in group selection, which means he misses good opportunities to link his work with that of proper evolutionary psychology and biology, as Pinker does.

          Miracles, reported and imagined may be the ultimate oxytocin trip… “Sky Father” kin detection….

          Well, certain kinds of religious vision would most likely be caused by serotonin (I think), as in cases of NDEs where the patient recalls feeling especially uplifted during the experience.

          • In reply to #8 by Zeuglodon:

            I’ll only make a few quick comments at the moment and revisit tomorrow.

            Tediously, I think we’ll agree on a great deal so if I don’t comment it will most likely indicate this more than anything.

            I think those easily persuaded may be easily persuaded back. A surprisingly large number of people simply want to go with the perceived zeitgeist and simply don’t have profound, self-integrated opinions. I think this is one reason for the very rapid flip of cultural switches, feminism/sexism, gay marriage, atheism etc. They are not so much don’t knows, as, must fit ins. The flip I would therefore argue is not so much a logical/reasonable flip as a reading of body languages….who acts confident….who acts defensive.

            The dogma I was referring to was specifically the “market pricing” which is a very recent phenomenon and wrongly identified by economists as an ancient principle solely on the strength that that would seem logical. In fact, certainly up to tribal level, market pricing didn’t exist and surplusses were simply “paid in” to the group, somewhat like insurance premiums, on the understanding that you would receive as and when needed and if possible.

            Atran’s work on Israel/Palestine resolution is the best of him in my opinion and very good indeed. (I think elsewhere he is a lousy formulator of questionaires and has a tendency to contaminate his own data with leading questions and a failure to imagine the full range of motivations from his subjects.) It shows clearly the transition from a political to a “righteous or self-righteous mode”.

            I’m not yet clear where I want to go with all this (so a sleep on it is good for me). I am not so much interested in developing a (perhaps shared) ethical process, as to get the religious to introspect on their own and become, if possible, better informed as to where all their feelings and moral certainties are coming from. Not sure….

            What I do know is that I am no longer interesting in establishing the validity or otherwise of religion’s truth claims as to hold a mirror up to the morality of its actions. I’m confident about what I know and really don’t care what others think. BUT I do care about what they do and this is what I most want to change. I’ve always claimed that especially in the US religion is worn like a badge of goodness. I want them to consider that they are getting more feel good than is warranted. They get the feel good too often from now thoughtless processes…..

          • In reply to #8 by Zeuglodon:

            Miracles, reported and imagined may be the ultimate oxytocin trip… “Sky Father” kin detection….

            Well, certain kinds of religious vision would most likely be caused by serotonin (I think), as in cases of NDEs where the patient recalls feeling especially uplifted during the experience.

            I knew there was one other thing I wanted to say last night…. I didn’t intend to talk of an experience of hallucinations (which I believe is driven as much by a dopamine imbalance as anything….but with newer atypical antipsychotics serotonin is sometimes collared too) but literally the report of miracles, a much more common thing amongst the religious.

            Like the inspiring true story of the dog rescue, the story of a miraculous beneficent intervention, when accepted as true, may net a squirt of kin detector tagging oxytocin.

            One other thing. Somehow they (and we, perhaps) may confuse feeling good, with feeling that they/we are good. Certainly, when experiencing good fortune, we are more inclined to be generous.

  2. On several occasions I bought a large crab and released it into the ocean. I gave up the habit as my finances dwindled. Oddly, I found it profoundly moving.

    The Crab Thrower

    The waves washed crabs up onto the beach where they perished in the hot sun. A black boy ran along the beach picking up the crabs, tossing them back into the water. A man said, Why do you bother? There are millions of crabs. You can barely make a dint. The boy replied It matters to this crab! as he tossed yet another.

  3. And the bird seller made so much money that day that he got a bank loan extended his shop and doubled the area devoted to caged birds. The increased demand put the price of caged birds up and the result was far more birds were caught and caged. The business is now booming.

    A good example of well meaning ignorance making a problem worse.

  4. I have to agree with Aber Ration. Buying the birds just so that someone can set them free is not an altruistic action. It is selfish. Why? Because it makes us feel good. But that ‘feeling’ is fleeting. If you really care about birds in cages then you invest all of your resources into freeing them from cages permanently. The effect of ‘buying’ the birds will only fund the very industry you are against.

    I do however relate 100% to the title and message in the article. In fact you have almost given us a new definition for ‘Elation: The Amazing Effect of Witnessing Acts of Kindness’. When I created Elated http://www.elated.co.za I had the exact same purpose in mind: to show people how saving the lives of animals by the simple act of not eating them will make you feel Elated. Is it altruistic to be vegan? Possibly yes, if we are motivated by the suffering of 62 billion animals every year and truly want to free them from the cycle. Because this is the only action we can do that will make any meaningful difference in their lives. On the other hand we receive so many positive benefits: feeling Elated, peace of mind, an end to cognitive dissonance in relation to eating animals, radiant health, a solution to global warming. But in this case it will not just be a fleeting feeling of elation, it will be a daily experience.

  5. Even the most simple altruistic acts might give you a touch of this: a passer-by giving his packed lunch to a homeless man, a stranger offering to help a blind person cross the road, or a subway passenger giving up his seat for a old lady.

    I’m not convinced by these examples. When I see homeless people I just despair that in a rich affluent country like Australia we have any homeless. If good manners like giving up a seat to someone older than you have got to the point of being acts of altruism something has gone wrong with society.

    Michael

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