For years, I’ve been talking about what I call the Treacherous Dichotomy: the deeply ingrained idea that operating in our own interests and operating in others’ interests are mutually exclusive. That is, looking out for yourself is selfish, looking out for others is altruistic, and you’re either one or the other.
Bob and I have argued that this is an artificial distinction, that these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive—and in The Go-Giver, we let Nicole Martin make that argument for us.
So . . . are you ready for some fascinating research? Turns out, that Treacherous Dichotomy may not be purely a matter of upbringing and societal values — it may have a neurological basis.
In the captivating book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, author-brothers Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman report results of a series of studies that suggest there are two distinct centers in the brain, a “pleasure” center and “altruism” center. And get this:
”Unlike, say, the parts of our brain that control movement and speech, the pleasure center and the altruism center cannot both function at the same time: either one or the other is on control. . . . It’s as if we have two ‘engines’ running in our brains that can’t operate simultaneously. We can approach a task either altruistically or from a self-interested perspective [emphasis added].” (Sway, pp. 1412)
What implications does the research have for being a go-giver?
Seems to me, it underlines the importance of something I’ve heard Bob say: just as we willingly suspend our disbelief when entering a movie theater so that we can enjoy the film, in life we can elect to willingly suspend our self-interest (read: temporarily switch off the brain’s pleasure center) while interacting with others, so that we can more effectively make choices and decisions that serve others (that is, switch on the brain’s altruism center).
When we’re watching a movie, we “know” the events we’re observing aren’t really happening, yet we still react to them emotionally as if they were. (As the saying goes, “You laugh, you cry, you kiss nine bucks goodbye.”)
Likewise, when you temporarily suspend your self-interest (pleasure center) and act from your altruism center, you know that you’re still looking out for yourself: you can’t not do that, it’s the survival impulse hard-wired into the organism. Yet you put that awareness to the side (just like your awareness that you’re sitting in a theater seat), and engage fully in the altruistic impulse—and the feeling you have is as real as your Hitchcock chills or Marx Brothers laughter.