Are You Failing the Altruism Test?

Our world is suffering. These unsettling times of pandemic, racial inequities, economic upheaval, and political lies and manipulations sweep through and relentlessly causes death and destruction. People respond to each problem as if it’s a hoax, or the acts of madmen and mass murderers, or as if it’s the end of the world. It is an apocalypse of sorts. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a test. Sadly, we are failing the altruism test. Not all of us, but many of us.

image of the globe as a heart with two hands clasped--we are all failing the altruism test in some ways

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

Leo Buscaglia

What is Altruism 

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there are two definitions.

1: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others, charitable acts motivated purely by altruism

2: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

Most people, it seems like they’ve only got one part of the equation down. Caring for themselves, or caring for someone else. And I’ve learned how important it is to have both.

– Deb Caletti

There are people who exhibit extraordinary acts of altruism. Heroic acts that many of us both admire and cannot see ourselves doing.

The Study of Extreme Altruism

Abigail Marsh is a psychologist, neuroscientist, and a professor. At Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program, she is the director of the Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience. Her studies are among the first that focus on extreme altruism.

In her TED talk, Why Some people Are More Altruistic Than Others, she reveals some of what she’s learned. 

People who perform extreme acts of altruism may have brain difference that are the exact opposite of psychopaths. Which can also mean that they represent as a small portion of the population as psychopaths. 

Everyday Altruism

The existence of people with extreme altruism doesn’t mean that others have none or have some kind of inferior altruism. There are the everyday acts of altruism. The ones where a person responds to the needs of another—holding a door open, leaving groceries for someone, doing chores, or wearing a mask. The people who pass the test do their acts of kindness and caring anonymously. The act is its own reward.

Ms Marsh believes that most people have the capacity for everyday altruism.

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.



Nurturing is not complex. It’s simply being tuned in to the thing or person before you and offering small gestures toward what it needs at that time.

– Mary Anne Radmacher

Are you failing the altruism test? You are if you are angry all the time, if you vilify the other for not wearing a mask or for not caring about the world’s problems or the political situation in the same way you do. It’s not that you have no more compassion or altruism. You’re tired and afraid. And in your fear you lash out. And your fear and anger is all that the other feels from you.

Why should I care when no one else does? For the simple reason that the most critical time to care is when no one else does.

–Craig D. Lounsbrough

Do Better

We’re all tired and afraid. But now is not the time to give in to those negative feelings.

Love isn’t a perfect state of caring. It’s an active noun, like ‘struggle.’

—Fred Rogers
Image of multiple silhouettes of all races, genders, ages with a rainbow heart superimposed over them--you can do better than failing the alteruism test

You can accomplish by kindness what you cannot by force.

Publilius Syrus

Are you failing the Altruism test? Like when the oxygen masks drop on a depressurized airplane, take care of yourself first. Give yourself the self-nurturing you need. Then, extend that nurturing, that caring, that altruistic attitude to other. If you set the example, you will inspire change. And your world—our world—will be better for it.


  1. I’m not angry most of the time, but I’m definitely fatigued. Of course, that’s a normal state for me, and stressing over current events makes that worse. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. In my case (and I’m sure many others) it’s a choice between doing something, or self-care – we lack the time and energy to do both. I realize that not everyone has that choice at all, but I won’t even be able to do learn and engage in one-on-one discussions if I don’t take care of myself first. So thank you for mentioning that.

    1. I understand, Jennette. And I wouldn’t consider you as one failing the test. Your compassion and caring shines through every time you comment or post. And you must conserve your energy. Putting yourself first means you can respond to somethings with a caring attitude. Thank you for caring.

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