There is pro-social behavior, and then there is pure altruism — acts of heroism or self-sacrifice that make us wonder how a person could possibly risk their own health or wealth for the sake of another they may not even know.

We take a metaphorical peek into the brains and hearts of altruists, and meet several in our area who have come to the rescue of strangers in need.

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Abigail Marsh Psychology Professor; Georgetown University; @aa_marsh
  • Quincy Royal Head Coach; Montgomery County Rams
  • Kurt Gallagher Executive Director; Healthcare Business Management Association; @kurtpgallagher


  • 12:22:03

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere are people who do nice things for other people and then there are people whose good deeds are so good the rest of us can't imagine being that selfless. Yet, these altruists walk among us even in supposedly cutthroat Washington. Seemingly ordinary people jump into icy rivers to save a stranger. They undergo major surgery to anonymously donate a kidney. They give their bottom dollar to someone who seems to need it more. As you consider resolutions for the New Year, are you contemplating any acts of pure altruism? What do you think motivates people to do extraordinarily good things for others?

  • 12:22:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio to discuss the capacity for compassion and why some people have more of it than others is Abigail Marsh. She's a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Abigail Marsh, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:52

    MS. ABIGAIL MARSHThanks for having me.

  • 12:22:53

    NNAMDIYou made the study of altruism your life's work because of something that happened to you when you were 19 years old. What was that and how did it steer you toward this field?

  • 12:23:04

    MARSHThat's right. When I was 19, my life was saved by a stranger. Back when I was in Tacoma, Washington where I grew up, and I was driving down the freeway from Seattle back to Tacoma very late one night when a little dog ran out in front of my car. And I did the thing you should never do, and now know, which is swerve to try to avoid it. A very small act of altruism of my own I guess. And the swerve sent my car first fishtailing and then spinning in big donuts across the freeway until I ended up stranded in the fast lane on an overpass with no shoulders and my engine died.

  • 12:23:37

    MARSHAnd I had no way to escape. I had no phone. I was sure I was gonna die. And then a stranger appeared at the passenger's side window of my car and said, you look like you could use some help. And he gave me exactly the help he offered. He got into the driver's seat, got my car running again, got me back across the freeway. And then, you know, I was gray and shaking and he's like, you don't look so good. You need me to follow you? I said, no, no. He said, you take care of yourself then and he disappeared.

  • 12:24:07

    NNAMDIAnd that is what led you into this field of study.

  • 12:24:10

    MARSHWell, it's one thing to know in the abstract that people will save the lives of strangers at enormous risk to themselves. And this man ran across five lanes of freeway traffic in the middle of the night to save me. He could very easily have been killed. And knowing that this man was willing to do that for me in reality was just this monumental puzzle. It really stuck with me. It sort of ate at me in a good way. And, yeah, I felt myself really motivated to figure out why anybody would do something like that.

  • 12:24:38

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Kurt Gallagher. He's a trade association executive. Kurt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:24:44

    MR. KURT GALLAGHERThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:24:45

    NNAMDIYou're the sort of person that Abigail studies. You did not enter any of these so called helping professions like medicine or teaching that might tip people off to your altruistic nature. You are a trade association director, but when you were 31 years old you decided to give of yourself literally. What did you do?

  • 12:25:06

    GALLAGHERMy father's someone who lost a kidney when he was a teenager. So for me I've always known someone with one kidney so the idea of giving up a kidney wasn't quite as foreign to me as it might be to some other people. And so I've known throughout my life people who had renal issues, but didn't need a transplant. And when I was 31 I reached out to the Washington regional transplant community to talk with them about the idea of donating a kidney of my own to someone. And the whole process took about ten months of evaluation, lots of vials of blood, lots of screening.

  • 12:25:40

    NNAMDIYes, and there are risks to organ donation. It's a major operation and then you don't have a spare kidney. Weren't you worried about what could happen to you?

  • 12:25:50

    GALLAGHERTo a small degree, but again, you know, for me it was something that was a little bit more commonplace maybe than for most people.

  • 12:25:57

    NNAMDITell us a little bit about the procedure you had to go through. I interrupted you.

  • 12:26:01

    GALLAGHER(laugh) It's okay. Again, it was about ten months of screening, lots of vials of blood, psychological screening, MRIs, a cat scan. And after that, after all the screening I got the okay. And then in March of 2006 the surgery actually happened and my kidney was delivered to another person.

  • 12:26:23

    NNAMDIYou are what's known as an anonymous donor and you said my kidney was delivered to another person. What does it mean to be an anonymous donor?

  • 12:26:32

    GALLAGHERThe person who received the kidney is not someone, who I knew so it could've been anyone. In fact, the person who's going to receive it changed at the last moment. Going into the surgery I was told that it was going to go to a child and after surgery I learned that it was given to a middle aged man. So...

  • 12:26:50

    NNAMDIDid you know that middle aged man? Did you ever get to meet that middle aged man?

  • 12:26:54

    GALLAGHERI have not.

  • 12:26:56

    NNAMDITo this day and he gave a kidney. Would you consider donating a kidney to a stranger? Why or why not? Abigail, social psychologists sometimes call people like Kurt extreme altruists, people who give expecting nothing in return. You say their brains are somewhat different than the brains of other people. How so?

  • 12:27:17

    MARSHThat's right. I've done brain imaging studies. In fact, Kurt has been in my brain imaging studies before. And what we have found is that people, who have given kidneys to strangers have brains that are sort of the opposite of the brains of people who are psychopathic, people who have less compassion and concern for other people. And so people who have given kidneys to strangers, who are extraordinarily altruistic, for them a structure called the amygdala which is an emotion center of the brain is bigger than it is in those people by about eight percent. And it's also more reactive to the sight of other people in distress.

  • 12:27:51

    MARSHSo when we showed our participants, including Kurt, photographs of people, who looked afraid, the people, who had donated kidneys showed a stronger reaction in the amygdala to those expressions of distress than ordinary adults do.

  • 12:28:04

    NNAMDIYou mentioned psychopath. Why was it necessary, in your view, to study psychopaths in order to understand altruists?

  • 12:28:11

    MARSHWell, that's sort of the medical model, right. If you want to understand a phenomenon like care and compassion you find a population that doesn't have any of that. And so my earliest research looked at children who have psychopathic personality traits and what makes them different from typical children. And we found that their amygdalas are smaller than average. They are less reactive to the sight of other people's distress. And they're bad at even telling when other people are distressed. So you show them a face that looks afraid and they don't really recognize it.

  • 12:28:38

    NNAMDIAre people like Kurt unusual? How many people donate kidneys anonymously?

  • 12:28:44

    MARSHSo the official numbers of non-directed anonymous kidney donors every year in the U.S. is somewhere between one and two-hundred. So there's somewhere around 2,000 or so of them right now.

  • 12:28:55

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones, Here's Andy in Alexandria. Andy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:29:00

    ANDYHey guys, what's happening. Just from personal experience, three very quick reasons why I find a need to be altruistic. One, because so many people around me have been so giving, and in absence of being able to give back to them because they're anonymous or they refused to get something back, it's easy to pay it forward. Also, you know, the Bible says, you know, mercy to the needy is a loan to God and God will pay it back in full. Also, altruism activates a pleasure sensor in my brain so it's fun and it feels good.

  • 12:29:31

    NNAMDIIt activates a pleasure center in his brain, Abigail. Is that what you found in studies on this?

  • 12:29:36

    MARSHSo that is what a lot of studies have found. My research hasn't been on that, but we 100 percent know that when people give to other people, it activates all kinds of rewards structures in their brain. And the kidney donors I've worked with universally say it's something that they would do it again if they had a third kidney to give. And it was one of the most pleasurable rewarding things they've ever done.

  • 12:29:55

    NNAMDIHave you been on the receiving end of an act of altruism? What did someone do for you? Joining us by phone is Quincy Royal, also known as Coach Q. He is the coach of the semipro Montgomery County Rams football team. Coach Q, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:30:10

    MR. QUINCY ROYALHow you doing? Thank you, Mr. Kojo and first and foremost I want to tell you I appreciate -- thank you for having me on the show. It's people like you and (unintelligible) is how we get our story out there. And I want to thank you and Lauren.

  • 12:30:29

    NNAMDIIndeed I saw your interview with Leon Harris and I was moved by it. You are the coach of a semipro football team, the Montgomery County Rams, but in some ways coaching football seems secondary to what else you do for players, many of whom are from poor neighborhoods and violent surroundings in and around D.C. You get them college scholarships. How do you do that?

  • 12:30:52

    ROYALI played college football myself at Virginia State University, so I know what it takes to play. You know, I know what it takes to go to college, know how much it costs. And I understand all that (unintelligible) when you are a good football player and not bragging, but I was (unintelligible) a superstar don't need no help, because everybody's helping. But is the underdog (unintelligible) prototype that needs the help and he still deserve to go to school. You know, just because he's not the right size, height, weight, he still deserves to go get an education.

  • 12:31:36

    NNAMDISo how...

  • 12:31:37

    ROYALAnd so I always help the underdog.

  • 12:31:39 many do you think you've gotten into college over the past ten years or so?

  • 12:31:44

    ROYALOh, I got well over 350.

  • 12:31:47

    NNAMDIWhoa, 350?

  • 12:31:48

    ROYALYeah, 350.

  • 12:31:50

    NNAMDIWhat would happen -- in your view, what would happen to those kids if they did not go to college? Tell us about the young man who did not get to claim his scholarship.

  • 12:32:00

    ROYALOh, well, you know, unfortunately the streets in Washington D.C. is bad, and Maryland -- well, now, almost all the streets. And unfortunately I had a player and I had -- I got like 50 something players in Virginia University of Lynchburg. So we sent them all to the school and my coaching staff and we just didn't have another dime to give out. And one of the guys that got in the school lived in the southeast by Ballou. I told him, I said look you got to wait till tomorrow and I have $35 for you so you can, you know, leave and go to school, 'cause he was supposed to leave that day before that. Well, the next day came and with -- I got a call, he got shot in the head, killed.

  • 12:32:58

    ROYALSo, you know, that's always weighed on my mind, because, you know, if I would've had the money he would, you know...

  • 12:33:09

    NNAMDIHe would've been on a bus.

  • 12:33:10

    ROYAL...he would be living now.

  • 12:33:11

    NNAMDIYeah, he would've been on that bus. How do these young men visit these colleges? Who pays for their transportation and books and whatever the scholarship does not cover?

  • 12:33:22

    ROYALWell, I pay for it or I beg a lot. I beg the schools a lot. And, you know, when I played football at, you know, Virginia State, I got -- you know, the people that's my age now are college coaches so a lot of them are my friends. So, you know, I just have to get them there, you know, get them there. And I just scrape up the money the best way I can and I get help from any and everybody that I can. We carpool there. You know, a lot of times I'm really just doing it by myself. Just scrape up the money somehow some way.

  • 12:34:05

    NNAMDIAnd I know that's got to be hard, because you now live on disability checks and you've been also known to buy batches of food and distribute it to the homeless. And there was one time you gave your car away to a woman that you really didn't know. Why did you do that?

  • 12:34:23

    ROYALWell, because I'm truly blessed, you know, and from birth -- my mother and father raised me from birth to always help the less fortunate. And they don't have to be less -- just to help people period that need help, not that they have to be less fortunate. Like when we grew up from a kid, if we was on the front porch, you know, 'cause of course when you're kids you can't read, and anybody, any grown adult, any kid that need help -- a grown adult might drive, park and get out of the car. And if they grab a bag that was -- we better say, excuse me ma'am or excuse me sir, can I help you. And that's how we was raised and that's something that just stuck with me.

  • 12:35:13

    ROYALAnd my mother always say, you know, you always help the less fortunate. And that stuck with me the rest of my life from a kid.

  • 12:35:21

    NNAMDIHere now is Alan in Oakhill, Virginia. Alan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:26

    ALANHi, I was wanting to comment on why I would donate a kidney, for two reasons. One is I had a friend years ago, who was on dialysis three times a day and he refused to take a kidney for himself, because he felt someone else could be risking their life. And finally he agreed to take it and then died of a cardiac arrest a week before the kidney transplant was gonna happen. Now, speaking for myself, I think I'm very healthy. I can do very well with one kidney. And if I can give one kidney and save someone's life, I think that would be the greatest gift I can give to myself by giving someone else a life.

  • 12:36:04

    NNAMDIIs that how you feel about it, Kurt?

  • 12:36:07

    GALLAGHERIt is. It was a deep experience preparing for and also going through it. And I remember talking with colleagues just before the surgery and friends and had tremendous support from them. You know, some of them just couldn't conceive of why and how I was doing it. And that's something interesting, because for me it was completely natural. But after having talked with Abby about her study, you know, I have a little bit more insight in how others might view the type of donation.

  • 12:36:33

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation about altruism. We're talking with Abigail Marsh. She's a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Kurt Gallagher is a trade association executive and Quincy Royal, also known as Coach Q is the coach of the semipro Montgomery County Rams football team. Do you think human beings are inherently compassionate or selfish or something in between? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:37:11

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about altruism. Before I go to the phones, Abigail Marsh, studying people like Kurt and Quincy, what can you tell us about them? In addition to how the emotion processing part of their brain may be larger than most people's, how might they see their place in the world differently from the rest of us?

  • 12:37:30

    MARSHSo one of the really surprising things to me -- when I first started working with extraordinarily altruistic people, who most of us consider to be really unusual -- is that they don't think of themselves as unusual at all and, in fact, really shrink from accolades like what a hero they are, that they act like saints. And at first I thought this might be a bug sort of or just an unusual quirk, but now I think it's a really essential feature of altruism. It's not thinking of yourself as better than other people.

  • 12:38:01

    MARSHAnd it makes sense that if you are a fundamentally humble person, who doesn't think of yourself as better than others, that you would value other people's welfare as much as you value your own. And that, I think, is one of the reasons that very altruistic people are willing to make the sacrifices they do.

  • 12:38:18

    NNAMDIYou say that the best word to describe altruists is humility and you quote St. Augustine on the subject. He said, "Humility," quoting here, "makes men as angles," but are altruists generally religious people necessarily?

  • 12:38:31

    GALLAGHERSo not necessarily. We find a big mix there actually. They don't tend to come from any particular religious background that we can tell. Although we have found them to have a little bit more -- they describe themselves as spiritual or spirituality playing a big role in their lives fairly commonly.

  • 12:38:49

    NNAMDIKurt Gallagher, is your altruism rooted in religion?

  • 12:38:53

    GALLAGHERIt is not. I'm not religious. I'm spiritual, which actually fits with what Abby was just talking about. I've never been involved in a church. You know, I was baptized in the Catholic Church, when I was a small child but that's the extent of my religious upbringing.

  • 12:39:09

    NNAMDIQuincy Royal, Coach Q, do you consider yourself a very religious person?

  • 12:39:14

    ANDYNo. I mean, no, I'm not a very religious person, but, you know, we do -- you know, I do have Bible study over the phone, you know, at 7:00 in the morning, but, no, I don't consider myself very religious.

  • 12:39:37

    NNAMDISo as Abigail points out, it's not necessarily religion. But let's talk to a few of the people who are calling here. Let us go with EW in Fairfax, Virginia. EW, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:49

    EWYes, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I'd first like to just say I'm not necessarily a religious person. Spiritual would be appropriate. I'm an associate minister. It's a God-like quality that I think scriptures speak of that says, when you do it unto the least of them you've done it unto me. So those who do believe in the scriptures take that to heart. I just wanted to give an example about a school teacher that I had elementary, and, of course, I came from low means, and I would often come to school with a toothache. And she took me to her dentist and, you know, she did other great things like buy me clothes and things like that, followed me through high school.

  • 12:40:29

    EWAnd after graduating her and her family took a trip to Europe and she found it in her heart to allow me to watch her house. Now, her mom did check in like every two weeks on me but as a 18-year-old, I mean, that was just profound for me. And ever since, I mean. it's impacted me of course. You know, I've been fortunate enough to pay it forward to others, but I'd just like to, you know, speak that and say it was a great impact. And now that I do it, there is something that inherently comes from it that allows you to feel good about what you're doing. So I just wanted to, you know, share that with you. By the way, her name is Sandy Herbert, great lady.

  • 12:41:04

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, EW. It had to be that she trusted him as an 18-year-old to have him take care of her house while she was out of the country. Thank you for sharing that with us. Here's Christina in Alexandria, Virginia. Christina, your turn.

  • 12:41:20

    CHRISTINAHi, Kojo.

  • 12:41:21

    NNAMDIHi, Christina.

  • 12:41:23

    CHRISTINAI just wanted to share about my father. He is the most giving person I've ever met in my life. And actually three years ago now he met a homeless woman, at McDonalds in Alexandria over by Potomac Yard kind of, and he struck up a relationship with her, like a friendship. And he ended up inviting her to live in his home, because my mother passed away nine years ago. And she's lived in his home for three years and they are friends. She comes to our family functions. And I -- like at first I thought he was a little bit crazy for inviting this homeless woman to live with him. And I just -- it really is a beautiful thing that he is able to open his home and his heart in such a way.

  • 12:42:06

    NNAMDIYep, and thank you for sharing that story with us. I got at least one more. Here is Heather in Ottawa, Ontario. Heather, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:17

    HEATHERHi, Kojo. Hi, Abby. How are you?

  • 12:42:20

    MARSHDoing well. Nice to talk to you.

  • 12:42:23

    HEATHERNice to talk to you again. So I am calling from Canada. And I gave a piece of liver to a person, earlier this year, whose identity I don't know, and feel so strange about the word altruist, because I feel like I got a lot from the experience. And so for me it was tremendously joyful. It -- thinking -- I think about the recipient every day and I don't know anything about them, but I feel like the feelings and the joy that it has filled me with has been a real gift to me.

  • 12:43:08

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up and obviously you also know Abby. So Abby, some people, who have studied altruism say there's really no such thing as pure altruism, that the altruist is always getting something out of it, as Heather has indicated. What do you think of this theory?

  • 12:43:26

    MARSHYeah, this is something that philosophers and economists and psychologists have argued about for a while. It's that if people take joy in giving to others, which luckily many people do, how can it be altruistic. And I think the person, who has explained it the best is the neuroscientist and philosopher Matthieu Ricard, who has said something along the lines of, the fact that we take joy in giving to other people means that we are predisposed as a species to be altruistic, because if we were not, why would we find it pleasurable to help other people.

  • 12:44:00

    MARSHAnd I think the distinction is that people who are genuinely altruistic, the goal in doing the things they do. Giving away kidneys or giving money or helping people is not pleasure. Because if all you wanted was pleasure, there are many easier ways to get it, I mean, you can, you know, get a dopamine hit by eating chocolate. That's easy. But if the intention is to help other people and the sort of foreseeable side effect is the joy you get out of it, I think the act is still altruistic, because the intention was not pleasure. The intention was to help.

  • 12:44:33

    NNAMDIQuincy, how does helping someone make you feel? I get a sense from you that you see it not necessarily as a source of pleasure, but as a kind of responsibility.

  • 12:44:43

    ROYALWell, I do feel it as a responsibility, because that's how I was raised, you know, that you should always help somebody that -- and, you know, it's our job from our ancestors, what they went through to help us be where we're at today and it's our job to teach the kids of today so they can teach the generation -- the next generation (unintelligible).

  • 12:45:18

    NNAMDIThat's what I sensed that you felt this...

  • 12:45:20

    ROYALHelp people, because you should help people if you can (unintelligible).

  • 12:45:26

    NNAMDIA generational responsibility. Kurt, after you donated your kidney, do you feel kind of compelled to do more good things for people?

  • 12:45:36

    GALLAGHERWhen you introduced me you mentioned that I've worked in the association field, so that's a field that's very people-oriented. And so, so much of the work I do is service oriented to begin with, but it's interesting. You used the word saint earlier. Now, I certainly don't consider myself a saint. I know I’m not. I've made lots of mistakes in my life. I know I've hurt people, but at the same time, you know, I think people have tremendous capacity for good as well. And this was for me, you know, my reasons for donating the kidney were complicated and complex, but one of the reasons was trying to find and create meaning in my own life. And this was a way that it's not joy, but it is something I certainly got out of it as well.

  • 12:46:11

    NNAMDIHere is Rodg in Sterling, Virginia. Rodg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:17

    RODGHey, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Great show, love it. Just on the topic I wanted to see your reaction, just put this out to see what I feel isn't (unintelligible) me personally giving my services, say my kitchen to cook a meal or something, I always a part of having an additional job, an additional source of revenue and donating money, as much as I can. Instead of my services or, you know, my time I think the dollars will go further much more than what my personal service might. That is my thinking. I'm just...

  • 12:46:53

    NNAMDIWell, you raise an interesting issue that I'm going to put to Abby. Abby, there's a whole altruistic movement called effective altruism. People actually meet up in effective altruism clubs and Facebook groups. What is that? Is it similar to what Rodg is talking about?

  • 12:47:10

    MARSHAbsolutely. Effective altruism is just the idea that when people are looking to do good in the world they should devote their resources toward causes where they can sort of create the most utility. So don't just give to those causes that pull at your heartstring, but do the background research and see what are the outcomes that will do the most good in the world. And for some people if they have skills that can earn a lot of money, working really hard at their job and then donating a big portion of their income is actually probably doing the most...

  • 12:47:41

    NNAMDIBut you see limitations to that. Why?

  • 12:47:43

    MARSHSo I think this mode of giving is probably not -- it doesn't appeal to enough people, that it's a school that would generally -- a school of thought that would generally work in the world. I think the issue is that altruistic impulses are, in a fundamental way, emotional and deep rooted in our brains. And for most people, their desire to give does stem out of seeing other people, who are in need or in distress and being motivated to help them in that moment rather than doing research on their computer and then giving money.

  • 12:48:16

    NNAMDIQuincy, you seem to be practical at your altruism. You've been extraordinarily generous to hundreds of people, but you also know when not to give. When is that?

  • 12:48:27

    ROYALWell, you know, I try to get to know the person and right now I'm a good judge of character, you know, whether they, you know, need it right now or whether they don't need it right now. And after you do it so long you'd be a good judge of character and you will be able to help them in the best way you can.

  • 12:48:49

    NNAMDIYou know the difference between somebody, who needs genuine assistance and when somebody is really kind of on a hustle. I'm afraid that's all we have the time for right now. Quincy Royal, aka Coach Q, is the coach of the semipro Montgomery County Rams. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:49:05

    ROYALI do thank you.

  • 12:49:06

    NNAMDIKurt Gallagher is a trade association executive. Kurt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:49:09

    GALLAGHERThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:49:10

    NNAMDIAbigail Marsh is a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Abby, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:49:14

    MARSHThank you.

  • 12:49:16

    NNAMDIOur altruism show was produced by Lauren Markoe and today's show on our region's year in review was produced by Julie Depenbrock. By the way, are you a federal worker, who's been affected by the government shutdown? Tell us about your experience. Send an email to, subject line Government Shutdown or Tweet us @kojoshow. Tomorrow on the Politics Hour with Tom Sherwood we talk with former Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett about his time in office and about the future of the county. And we meet newly elected Arlington County Board Member Matt de Ferranti. So that all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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