Does science provide evidence for the biblically consistent idea of altruism? Are people more able to endure pain with the knowledge that their sacrifice will help another human being?
Basis for Altruism
Altruism is the performance of an act or acts by an individual at considerable cost to the individual where there is no expectation of reciprocity, payment, or reward for the action(s). The opposite of altruism is spite. Spite is the inflicting of harm on another person or persons where there is no benefit to the one imposing the harm.
Humans stand apart from animals in both the degree and frequency with which they express both altruism and spite. As scientist-theologian Blaise Pascal points out in Pensées, humanity is both noble and wretched.1 We are noble because God created us in his own image, but we are also wretched because we rebelled against God and became alienated from him. Without God we are thoroughly wretched; with God we are capable of great virtues. Pascal famously concludes:
“What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!”2
The Bible strongly exhorts humans to be altruistic. We are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.”3 In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus explains that “neighbor” includes not just people we know, but strangers we hate and despise or who hate and despise us.4
As the Bible explains, true altruism brings no physical benefit, but it does deliver spiritual benefits. Altruism gives us a greater appreciation for the ultimate altruistic act—the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay the full redemptive price for all our sins while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:6–8). Altruism draws us closer to God. It enables us to develop a more Christlike character. It gives us a greater appreciation for the purpose of suffering and our willingness and capacity to suffer (1 Peter 3:13–4:19).
The Science of Altruism
Researchers have weighed in on altruism and its impact on people. Empirical findings published in 2008, 2009, and 2012 seemed to undermine the last spiritual benefit mentioned above. These experiments focused on altruistic acts that involved significant tangible losses, such as losing money, an endowment, or a relationship.5 These losses usually, but not always, were found to be painful or aversive.
However, a new series of scientific experiments backs up the biblical perspective on altruism. A team of five neuro- and behavioral psychologists, led by Yilu Wang, conducted five distinct experiments. All five experiments demonstrated that altruistic behavior relieves the sensation of physical pain.6
The first experiment compared pain sensation differences between two groups: (1) people who voluntarily donated blood for post-earthquake victims and (2) people who were having blood drawn for their own personal medical tests. People in the first group reported experiencing much less pain even though they were punctured by a larger diameter needle for a longer period of time where much more blood was drawn.7
In the second experiment, Wang’s team measured the pain intensity response of three groups where the nondominant hand of each participant was put in 5°C (41°F) water. The three groups were (1) people who volunteered to revise a handbook for children of migrant workers; (2) people who declined to volunteer; and (3) people who were commanded (forced) to do the revisions. Wang’s team measured no significant difference between the second and third groups.8 The first group, however, perceived substantially less pain.9
In the third experiment, Wang’s team performed tourniquet pain tests on the participants’ nondominant upper arm both before and after a 5-minute survey. After the survey, half the participants earned a 10 yuan (~$1.50) donation for victims in an earthquake-stricken region. The other half earned a 10 yuan reward. Wang’s team noted no difference in pain sensation for the two halves of participants before they took the survey. For the tourniquet pain tests performed after the survey and after the 10 yuan donations and rewards, participants who earned donations compared to participants who received rewards experienced significantly less pain.10
In the fourth experiment, participants were monitored by functional MRI brain scans while receiving electric shocks to their right hands. The pain stage was preceded by a donation trial. In the donation trial, most of the participants could choose whether or not to donate money of their own to help young orphans. The remaining participants had to judge whether two sets of figures had the same shape. The MRI brain scans for participants who chose to donate money showed much reduced pain-induced activation in those parts of the brain (the insula and ventral medial prefrontal cortex) that control pain response.11 There was an even greater reduction when participants were shown photographs of the orphans they were helping.12
In the fifth experiment, Wang’s team recruited hospitalized cancer patients who were experiencing severe chronic pain. These patients were split into two groups. The first group cleaned the public area and prepared nutritional diet plans for the benefit of their ward mates. The second group cleaned their own personal area and attended a workshop on nutritional diets. Pain perception for the first group was dramatically less than for the second group.13 Also, the first group reported much lower feelings of stress and fear.14
The diversity of experiments performed by Wang’s team and the use of functional MRI brain scans “brain scans provide solid evidence” that altruistic acts relieve physical pain. Wang and colleagues conclude their paper by pointing out that the pain relief resulting from altruistic acts is of sufficient magnitude that hospitals and medical practitioners should include it in the pain management therapy for their patients. Doing so could, for example, considerably reduce opioid use and all the negative effects associated with it. These experiments also affirm what the Bible has been teaching for thousands of years about the benefits of loving your neighbor as yourself.