Contrary to common parenting advice, doing good is not always the right thing, according to Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan.
Oakley, the author of a recently released book entitled “Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts,” spoke to a crowd of over 30 people at 77 Prospect St. Wednesday afternoon, and maintained that empathy and caring can sometimes be harmful. Some members of the audience, which mainly consisted of graduate students and professors, said they were impressed by Oakley’s ability to go outside her original field of study and adopt a unique take on altruism.
Oakley argued that while altruism is often understood as the unselfish concern for the welfare of others, good intentions often blind people to the true effects of their actions. Altruism, Oakley argued, can be a pathological problem.
“We all have good intentions, but the consequences are not always beneficial,” Oakley said. “When I realized this, I started thinking of writing about somebody good who gets into trouble as a result of their doing good.”
One example of blind altruism, Oakley said, is that half of all nurses leave their profession within two years of graduation because of burnout.
“The reason why they burned out is that they were being empathetic with the patients,” she said. “Sometimes it’s good to turn off or moderate your empathy. Otherwise you naturally feel the same way as those who suffer around you.”
Additionally, Oakley said, pathological altruism manifests in anorexic women. She added that these women “care for others before they care for themselves,” and that her analysis indicates that anorexia may be related to selflessness.
Signs of ill-conceived kindness, Oakley said, can also be seen in business, science, religion, politics and philanthropy.
Oakley’s controversial claims received mixed responses from the scientific community, she said, adding that some psychologists accused her of invading a discipline for which she was not trained. But Oakley rejected these accusations.
“There are usually two kinds of individuals capable of making a breakthrough in a field: young people and people trained in a completely different area.” she said. “That’s why I look at the social sciences, when my original training is in engineering.”
Oakley said that she often uses analogies and ideas from engineering in order to provide insights into social psychology.
“The law of entropy demands that, if you put something into order in one place, you create more disorder in another,” she said. “In other words, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything we do affects something else,” she said.
Despite her claims about its danger, Oakley said that she is a “strong believer” in altruism.
Laurie Edwards, an assistant professor of psychiatry, said she thought Oakley’s research methodology was interesting, and added that she was inspired that Oakley was able to publish outside of her field of study.
Kimberly Guy, a research assistant at the Connecticut Mental Health Center also said she was fascinated with Oakley’s research, especially in light of her findings in the study of altruism.
“What I want to see is not people putting altruism on a pedestal,” she said. “To truly do good and help other people, we need to bring altruism down and consider whether our actions are actually beneficial or not.”
Oakley is also one of four editors of “Pathological Altruism,” a book published by Oxford University Press.