I don’t remember that much of my undergraduate psychology degree. This may be because I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time, or because it was two decades ago, or because I have built so much later knowledge on top of it that the foundations are no longer visible, or some combination of the three. But I do recall that for the most part it didn’t feel that relevant to what I was most interested in – how I could help to alleviate human distress. I didn’t really care much for the mechanics, chemistry or geography of the brain. The seminal experiments that built our knowledge of human behaviour felt more about history than something I could apply in my daily life or future clinical practise. However, one course surprisingly caught my interest: behavioural ecology.
In this class, the text by Krebs and Davies, was a joy to read and full of fascinating insights into how human behaviour is very much just an extension of animal behaviour. Altruism in particular may feel like a sophisticated moral drive, but is in fact just a sensible survival strategy within a community of related individuals. I wrote essays that argued that religion and law were ways to formalise the reciprocity of altruistic behaviour. I particularly remember about vampire bats, and how donating blood to a peer who has not fed is a mutually beneficial strategy within the community. Such apparently selfless acts become a worthwhile investment when there is reciprocity, as one day you may need to be the recipient rather than the donor.
This came into my mind recently when I asked my brother if I could borrow some money. I was surprised that he hardly seemed to think about it before saying yes, until my parents pointed out that I had loaned him money and otherwise put myself out for him many times in the past. Similarly I asked old friends whether I could stay over with them when visiting a different part of the UK, and they were super accommodating to me. Both times it was interesting to have the experience of being the recipient of selfless kindness, as I very rarely make demands on others, despite constantly expecting myself to be a giver (perhaps because I feel that I am lucky enough to have plentiful resources myself both physically and emotionally most of the time). However, it felt very good to be the receiver for a change, and reminded me of the fact that there is pleasure on both sides of the relationship, and that reciprocity is the marker of the best relationships. Being helped is obviously a positive experience, but the act of helping a loved one is also rewarding in and of itself, and makes it more possible to ask for their help in the future.
In the bigger picture, my tendency to be a donor rather than a recipient is also one that I have been thinking about in a work context. I’ve clearly chosen a line of work in which I am acting to support those in need, and where I put some of my own emotional resources into my job. I’ve blogged in the past about times of feeling quite burnt out by my work (particularly my expert witness work for the family courts, as it contains so much grim content about child abuse) and the lack of nourishing and supportive experiences provided by certain employers or employment experiences (where good work doesn’t seem to be valued, and people are expected to live up to unrealistic expectations despite being sabotaged rather than supported to achieve them). I find myself wondering: where is the reciprocity? What do we get back when the positive feedback loops are absent? I read an excellent article about sick systems, and I found parts of it eerily familiar when I think back to my NHS days. I’m not in a sick system now, as I run my own company. Most of the time I can do work I enjoy and be rewarded for it (in terms of positive feedback, thanks and payment), but I do sometimes still feel somewhat exploited. I end up doing lots of committee work, policy documents, best practise papers and making contributions to the work of others (mostly unpaid and in my own time), and often those who promise input to these things, or to my work, don’t deliver. So why do I keep doing it? I wonder whether it is echoes of that culture that I carry with me, or my own unrelenting high standards and expectation I can always be a donor, or some combination of the two…