Thrive in our connected world

Why People Help Each Other Online: A Memetic Model of Altruism

There’s an interesting post over at the BBC today that asks a deceptively simple question; why do people help each other?

The question is key for any business working in social media, collaboration technology or sharing economy. And so is the answer.

The BBC post explains the ‘selfish gene’ theory of altruism – our minds are wired to get a chemical buzz out of helping people who share the same genes as us (or at least appear to share those genes through similar physical traits); particularly close kin. If you can help a number of people who collectively appear to have more of your genetic material in them than you do as an individual, then you’ll help even if it costs you. From a genes-eye perspective, laying down your life for a number (but not one) of immediate kin is enlightened self-interest, not selfless altruism – since it increases the overall ‘inclusive fitness’ (reproductive chances) of your shared genes. There’s even an equation (Hamilton’s Rule) to predict when people will (and won’t) help each other – based on (apparent) shared genes.

But how do we explain apparently altruistic helping of strangers online, costing an individual time and effort? You can’t see them, so you have no idea if they share the same genes as you.

The simple answer is another form of enlightened self-interest called ‘reciprocal altruism’ – helping others because either they may help you back in the future when you need it, or as payback for past help. So I’ll post a review of a product because I’ve profited, or will profit in the future, from other people’s reviews. We may even be wired to help strangers – as helping new members to hunter-gatherer groups would have created initial ‘debts’ to be paid back later. Reciprocal altruism no doubt powers the social web, but it does not explain extreme altruism, helping activity that costs the individual dearly.

Think about the behaviour, however misguided you believe it may be, of Edward Snowden; he has laid down his liberty and freedom to help a cause. Why? The answer I developed for my PhD in psychology is a ‘memetic’ theory of altruism. Just as we are a bundle of genes, whose apparent altruistic behaviour is merely enlightened self-interest when viewed from a gene’s eye perspective, so too are we a bundle of memes (replicated ideas), whose apparent altruistic behaviour is enlightened self-interest from a meme’s eye perspective.

From a memetic perspective, Snowden’s self-sacrificial behaviour makes perfect sense if a personal sacrifice can further his cause more than he’d hope to achieve otherwise in a lifetime. In other words if the overall ‘memetic fitness’ of his cause is increased, through opportunity, Snowden’s actions are perfectly rational – from a memetic perspective. (and so, by the way, is suicide terrorism). At a more everyday level, this model explains why people who share similar ideas, culture and values will help each other online; it increases the memetic fitness of their ideas, culture and values.

The practical business insight here, is that if you are playing in the social media, collaboration or sharing economy – you should be targeting people who share similar ideas and values.

For anyone interested, I developed a simple memetic equation for predicting altruistic behaviour, online or offline, as part of my PhD.

A Cultural Model of Altruism
If Cd<rBr, then Altruism

Cd = Cost in direct cultural reproductive capacity to actor, r = coefficient of cultural relatedness, and Br = Benefit in reproductive cultural capacity to beneficiary

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.