Addictions, Empathy and Altruism – What we can learn from our animal friends

Posted by Mellisa on April 4, 2014 in Addictions |

This is a rather long article from A. Scott Roberts, an expert in research and the successful treatment of addictions. I hope you learn as much as I did.

Empathy And Altruism – What We Can Learn From Our Animal FriendsActivation of Brain Region Predicts Altruism.

-By A. Scott Roberts

The 12th step of AA asks for recovering addicts to share their experience and help others in the addiction trap. An important aspect of recovery is positive socialization which is now understood as being evolutionarily adaptive. We may often think that being altruistic always comes from feelings of empathy. But research indicates that there is more to consider.

Animals often work together to escape threats and seek rewards such as food and safety. Studies on animals indicate that they aren’t always altruistic because of empathy. Birds reactivity fly in flocks because one of them triggered a response in the group. This type of reaction is found in human infants as well. When a newborn starts to cry, other
babies join in and there is a spread of automatic distress among all of them.”1

Human infant brains are very similar to the brains found in animals. Human infants have “reptilian” brains because the neocortex (large part of the brain) isn’t fully formed yet. Infants and animals automatically adopt the emotional state of others.”2 This is called emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion has been extensively studied in animals. When mice see other mice in pain they vicariously have an intensified pain response as well.3

Mirror neurons are neurons that researchers have shown to be activated when an animal witnesses another in pain and are “mirrored” in our brain when we feel empathy from watching others that are distressed.

Emotional contagion is evolutionarily adaptive because when animals are frightened they alarm others to hide or flee. Animal mothers become distressed when she sees her child distressed. This is more than just feeling for others, it has an enormous survival value and can be a matter of life or death.

English: Dr. Jane Goodall with Dr. Lou Perrott...

English: Dr. Jane Goodall with Dr. Lou Perrotti at the Union Square, New York City Barnes and Noble. Photographers blog post about this event and photo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jane Goodall observed the behavior of chimpanzees that were on man-made islands surrounded by water-filled moats, she observed: “One adult male lost his life as he  tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall into the water.”5

One thing that separates us from the animals is a large part of the brain, the neocortex. This neocortex is what researchers know is very important in making proper decisions, planning and abstract thought. Animals do not have this large part of the brain and they do not perform risk/benefit analysis like humans do. The attempt to save another chimpanzee was not because it was a moral choice, but because it was evolutionarily obligatory.

Animals “do the right thing” because it is rooted deep within them as a survival process. They survive by what we would call altruism. Evolution has shaped animals to employ sight, sound and smell to detect distress in others through expression, vocalizations or the smell of pheromones.

In one study, animals that were separated by bars shared food with each other (eliminating the possibility that sharing came from the pressure of the group). Dolphins are documented as saving others by ripping them out of nets. Dolphins gave support to other sick dolphins by staying with them near the top of the water to keep them from
drowning. Whales will even put themselves between a hunters boat and an injured companion in effort to protect them.6

Elephants lift and support others that are too weak to stand.7 Apes defeated in fights will be hugged and embraced by a friend or others in the group.8

Would humans risk their lives to save a stranger’s drowning child or risk being harpooned to save a stranger?  Do we go out of our way to share food with others when we are not pressured to do so? I don’t know, but animals certainly do.

Why are humans altruistic?

Research indicates that humans often engage in altruistic behaviors because they expect a favor in return. However, when we do give without seeking a favor it has shown to activate the limbic “reward” center.9

A study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that giving actually has an anatomical foundation that is shared by the selfish rewards activated by drugs, alcohol or pornography. Charitable donations and acts of altruism, as we find out, isn’t just a moral faculty but is hard-wired in the primitive area in the brain (limbic reward system).

One experiment showed that when we are watching someone do acts of altruism to another it activates the limbic reward center of the brain.10 What we consider acts of love such as praise and affection activate the ancient limbic “reward” center and reduces stress in a similar manner that addictive substances do.11

Check out A.Scott’s program called Truth of Addiction.

Can this help us to understand how to be more happy? Are we becoming more isolated and less altruistic because we seek financial success and a status to make us more happy? Researchers found that most people think that money makes them happy, when data shows it is really meaningful relationships and socialization.12 The top ranking animals in the pecking order are the most generous (Deal 1989). Conversely, humans tend to become more isolated by their success.

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger
communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he
ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of
the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once
reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies
extending to the men of all nations and races.”
― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

We can learn from our animal friends a great deal. We always spend too much time philosophizing and contemplating and trying to understand what is right and wrong. When really it is hard-wired as a survival process to help others – and it makes us more happy.

Animals with less than half the brain of ours, automatically do the right thing without thinking. Our neocortex is a blessing but it can also be a curse. We think too much and often contemplate too much.

A great way to manage an addiction is to seek something greater. Have goals beyond just “not-using.” Don’t just seek to quit, but seek to strengthen the relationship with your husband or wife. Seek to live an honest life and to be a good father. People who are motivated by “normal” positive rewards, do not need the dopamine boost that addictions provide and are generally at less risk for addiction. 

All the best,

-A. Scott Roberts

M.S. studies in Rehabilitation Counseling, B.S. Psychology, A. S. Business,

Addiction Specialist and Researcher

All the best,-A. Scott RobertsA. S. Business, B.S. Psychology, M.S. studies in Rehabilitation CounselingAddiction Specialist – See more at:


1. Hoffman, Martin L. Developmental synthesis of affect and cognition
and its implications for altruistic motivation. Developmental
Psychology, Vol 11(5), Sep 1975, 607-622

2. Hatfield, E. 1993. “Passionate and Companionate Love.” In The Psychology of Love, 191–217

3. Langord, et. al, 2006 “Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice”

4. Blakeslee, Sandra, Cells That Read Minds, New York Times, Science,January 10, 2006

5. Jane Goodall, 1990 Through a window. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Publishing.

6. Caldwell, M.C., & Caldwell, D. K. 1996. Epidemic (care-giving) behaior in cetacea. “Whales, dolphins and porpoises”

7. Hamilton, W. D. 1964. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour.” Journal of Theoretical Biology

8. DeWall, et. al. (2008). Depletion makes the heart grow less helpful:
Helping as a function of self-regulatory strength and genetic
relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1653-1662.

9. Moll, J., et al. 2006. “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide
Decisions About Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences

10. Tankersley, D., et al. “Altruism Is Associated With an Increased Response to Agency.” 2007. Nature Neuroscience

11. Moll, J., et al. 2006. “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide
Decisions About Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences (October 17) 103(42):15623–15628.

12. “What Is More Important for National Well-Being: Money or Autonomy? A
Meta-Analysis of Well-Being, Burnout and Anxiety Across 63 Societies,”
Ronald Fischer, PhD, and Diana Boer, PhD, Victoria University of
Wellington; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101,
Issue 1.

 Check out A.Scott’s program called Truth of Addiction.







More Thoughts from Mellisa McJunkin – Health and Wellness Advocate

Question: What are you without an immune system?
Answer: You are dead.

As morbid as it may sound, it’s true. When your immune system is weak you will get sick. When your immune system completely fails you will die.

If I could show you a way to boost your Natural Killer Cells by up to 437%, would you be interested in hearing more? Of course you would.

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