Caring about others might make you more depressed, oddly

Here’s a new article entitled “Nice Brains Finish Last.” Let’s go ahead and set up a few concepts from within it. First we need to define out a few groups:

According to the model of “social value orientation,” humans can be placed into three rough categories, based on their reactions to economic inequity. 60% of people are pro-socials, meaning they prefer resources to be distributed equally among everyone. 30% are individualists, meaning they are primarily concerned with maximizing their own resources. Roughly 10% are competitive; to them, the most important outcome is that they have more than other people.

That’s kinda heartening that 6 in 10 people aren’t complete assholes, right? Even if they know equal distribution of resources isn’t really possible, at least they prefer that idea. Seems nice.

But now we come to a problem:

Haruno’s group found that having a prosocial pattern of brain activation was associated with more depression. This was also true when they followed up with participants one year later. Psychiatrists have long suggested that certain personality characteristics, including extreme empathy and a propensity toward feeling guilt, are associated with developing depression.

While it makes perfect sense that “extreme empathy” would create depression in the current world we live in, it’s still sad to see it play out in research.

One caveat here: this research was apparently done with 18 to 26 year-olds, and there’s been other research that some sections of your brain related to empathy aren’t fully developed until after 26. So you’d need to see these results with, uh, Baby Boomers to really see how the cookie crumbles.

What are the implications at the individual level?

Pretty high, I’d argue.

We’ve got high degrees of reported loneliness in the first world, as well as increasing social isolation and more reports of people being “nervous” about their futures. I think all of these emotions are tied somewhat to people wanting to see the world one way, but the reality is very, very different. A “pro-social” person probably wouldn’t have been a huge Trump fan, for example. But Trump won. There are dozens of reasons why he won, and most of them speak to the idea that “equal distribution of resources” isn’t really the norm anywhere. There’s a micro example of how “pro-social” brain chemistry would lead to depression. If you are pro-social and see attempts at equality imploding all around you, that could also lead to loneliness, helplessness, nervousness, and isolation.

It’s all a giant tapestry.

What are the implications at a work level?


It’s nearly impossible to be “pro-social” in an office environment and not want to cry every single day. Most offices are about control, power, and relevance. People will step on your neck, spine, penis, leg, and anything else to get at those things. Incentive structures are often horribly organized.

There’s been research for years that people in those individualist/competitive buckets above do better at work, and I’d argue part of that is because they’re less depressed. They can just push forward on tasks. A pro-social person in most offices would be miserable. I consider myself pro-social as hell (“liberal” is often another word) and I was almost always miserable in white-collar corporate jobs. That could be about other parts of myself, yes. But if you believe in logic and fairness, it’s hard to find that stuff in a standard office. (Same if you believe in “being told why something is massively urgent, and/or how something relates back to the overall strategy.”)

What can we do if we’re pro-social?

Individual level: realize not everything is fair. Find your way to contribute to even some stuff out.

Work level: do your own thing. Or find a company where the broader mission and customers served helps you even out some of the internal tomfoolery.

Both levels: realize that your brains work in specific ways such as what’s described here. You can’t ignore the brain and psychology when thinking about work and your life. You need to understand how and why it works the way it does. Otherwise, you’re kinda just doing everything in a vacuum all day.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. This is why, despite the disappointing pay, I can’t fathom working in any field besides education. The work is often depressing and frustrating but I never question its importance. And while I’ve crossed paths with several bullies, most educators are concerned with the well-being of others as much if not more so than their own. There’s no real incentive in my field to be a jerk.

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