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Who Would Donate a Kidney to a Stranger?

There are countless studies and media articles focused on how to deal with a “psychopathic” coworker. These people exhibit core traits—dishonesty, exploitation, arrogance, low remorse, callousness, and shallow affect—which can make them difficult to work with, but also successful in their careers.

Fortunately, research led by Abigail Marsh, and summarized here, suggests that psychopathy actually runs on a “caring continuum”: whereas the dark end is inhabited by psychopaths, way down at the other end is a group of what she calls “anti-psychopaths”—ultra-do-gooders who are extraordinarily compassionate, prosocial, and empathetic.

Dr. Marsh and her colleagues studied the characteristics of these caring individuals by seeking out “altruistic kidney donors” who voluntarily sign up for an invasive surgery to remove a healthy organ to help a complete stranger. Specifically, they studied the brain scans of psychopaths, and ran the same procedures on altruistic kidney donors to compare their scans. Interestingly, they found that the donors’ brains had opposite reactions to those of psychopaths, and were even structurally different: while psychopaths have a physically smaller amygdala—the set of neurons in the brain associated with processing emotion—than the average person, the donors had oversize ones. What’s more, they were more likely to assign themselves low empathy scores, meaning they do not perceive their actions as anything extraordinary.

While we often struggle to believe that people can be truly selfless, these results suggest that, in fact, some are driven purely by altruism. So, while our brain structure dictates our predisposition to callousness versus compassion, these extraordinary altruists will always have our backs.

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