What the Brains of Selfless People Teach Us About Empathy

Why do some people put their lives at risk for the sake of strangers? Research is uncovering the traits that lead to extreme altruism.

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To get a sense of how the world views extraordinary altruism, consider what you go through if you want to donate a kidney to a stranger.

Naturally, transplant centers demand rigorous screening to be sure donors are healthy enough to undergo surgery, and that they’re not being paid to give up their organs (which is illegal in almost every country). But as the number of unrelated would-be living kidney donors rose from 6.5% of the total in 1996 to roughly 23% today, transplant centers got worried. Why were people with neither a biologic nor emotional relationship with a recipient stepping up like this? 

Surgeons argue they need psychological evaluation of prospective donors, because living kidney donation “caused concern” about “donor psychological status and motivation.” Be on the lookout, they warn, for “past or ongoing psychiatric symptoms or disorders” and for “ulterior motives,” such as “to atone or gain approval, to stabilize self-image, or to remedy psychological malady.” Great Britain considered such altruism so pathological that living kidney donation was illegal there until 2006. 

“Altruistic reasons for stranger donation are acceptable,” said Harvey Mysel, president of the Living Kidney Donors Network. “But transplant centers want to be sure of the →reason …

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