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Pathological Altruism$
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Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Sloan Wilson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199738571

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199738571.001.0001

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Empathy-Based Pathogenic Guilt, Pathological Altruism, and Psychopathology

Empathy-Based Pathogenic Guilt, Pathological Altruism, and Psychopathology

Chapter 2 Empathy-Based Pathogenic Guilt, Pathological Altruism, and Psychopathology
Pathological Altruism

Lynn E. O’Connor

Jack W. Berry

Thomas B. Lewis

David J. Stiver

Oxford University Press

This chapter discusses the relationship between implicit empathy-based guilt, pathogenic guilt, and altruism. Upon witnessing pain or suffering in another, the empathy system is alerted, almost as if we were suffering ourselves. We then want to take action to relieve the suffering we are witnessing. Sometimes, this leads directly to normal, appropriate altruistic behaviors. However, errors in cognition related to causality often lead to dysfunction. When we falsely believe that we caused the suffering we witness, or falsely believe that we have the means to relieve it, our empathy-based guilt tends to become pathogenic and leads to pathological altruism. An unrealistic explanation of pain and suffering that is witnessed is a common cognitive distortion found in mental disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. In summary, the chapter proposes that faulty cognition combined with empathy-based guilt is a primary source of pathological altruism.

Keywords:   altruism, pathology, survivor guilt, guilt

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