Pathological Altruism

Barbara Oakley*, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, David Sloan Wilson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review

115 Scopus citations


Many harmful deeds from codependency to suicide martyrdom to genocide are committed with the altruistic intention of helping companions or ones own in-group. Therefore it is worthwhile to study how well-meaning altruism can shade into pathology. Although the term pathological altruism has been used to a limited degree in psychodynamic circles, there has been inadequate study of the phenomenon in general, and almost none from a biological, genetic, and evolutionary perspective. In essence, pathological altruism might be thought of as any behavior or personal tendency in which either the stated aim or the implied motivation is to promote the welfare of another. But instead of overall beneficial outcomes, this altruism instead has irrational (from the point of view of an outside observer) and substantial negative consequences to the other or even to the self. This volume presents psychological, neuropsychological, biological, and evolutionary approaches that help account for pathologically altruistic behavior, and goes on to discuss its diverse and profound societal implications. Each of these approaches points to one disturbing truth: What we value so much, the altruistic good side of human nature, can also have a dark side. The result is a nuanced counterbalance to the study of altruism and a call for further research.

Original languageAmerican English
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages496
ISBN (Electronic)9780199918669
ISBN (Print)9780199738571
StatePublished - 19 Jan 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2012 by Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Sloan Wilson. All rights reserved.


  • Behavior
  • Biology
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Pathological Altruism


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