The boy who proved that altruism exists


  • Social brain

Judging by the absence of comment on yesterday’s post (not even from my dear, sweet, remarkably young looking mum), my reader isn’t as interested in my crowded speaking itinerary as I fondly hoped. In the face of such indifference it’s no good expecting you to be impressed by the fact that I am writing this after a speech on pensions and another speech on personalised public services and before a speech in non-formal learning. Nor will you be moved by the knowledge that I have so far today taken twelve different overground, underground and light rail journeys (including a most distracting detour as a result of the closure of the Waterloo to Windsor line).

Churlish lot, you will probably be left cold too by my realisation that all speeches to all audiences can with equal validity contain the following three points:

• We face a time of unprecedented change.

• The choice is whether is go back or go forward although (da da!) it isn’t really a choice is it?

• We must find better ways of making our case to outsiders but also recognise that we must commit to improving our own performance and accountability.

But perhaps you will allow some neural activity in response to my day’s high point (I should say high point ‘so far’; after all, I arrive in Slough in 15 minutes). At London Bridge, a boy aged about 7 or 8 ran onto the tube train but, before his mum could join him, the doors closed. Clever mum didn’t panic but as the train started to move shouted through the window for the boy to get off at the next stop where she would join him. Nevertheless, and hardly surprisingly, as the train picked up speed, the poor boy cried out ‘mummy, mummy’ and started to sob.

At this moment, there was almost a crush as about ten passengers - including someone who I think was Portuguese and didn’t appear to speak English - leapt forward to offer comfort,. The closest by passengers were a middle aged man and woman who looked like they were between business meetings. The woman knelt down and promised the boy that everything would be OK and that she would get off at the next station and wait with him until his mum arrived on the next train. Before we could even get to Bank, the boy had stopped crying and was smiling sheepishly at all these adults looking at him with a mixture of concern, admiration and delight.

Last week I asked whether altruism is natural. I am happy to report that it is. As the boy left the train hand in hand with the woman, the carriage silently cheered, everyone now with a more positive outlook on the world. I wished the brilliant, but ever so slightly smug, duo of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubnar (of Freakonomics fame) who last week at the RSA cast serious doubt on the existence of instinctive altruism had been there to see the living proof. Of course, it was a rare and lovely moment. Children evoke special feelings in us. What was being asked of us wasn’t difficult and didn’t require us to give up much. Still, it was a moment of spontaneous collective empathy and generosity and that surely tells us something good about how human beings tick.

As for the boy, I have a hunch that this experience will be great for his development. Surviving being temporarily removed from his mum will strengthen his sense of independence while the reaction his plight provoked in strangers will instil a more positive outlook to the rest of the world and maybe even lead to the internalising of benign social norms for him to exemplify in later life. In ancient times tribes used to leave their young in the wild to make their way home seeing this as a way of cultivating strength and independence (actually, I have no idea whether that’s true but stick with me on this). Perhaps today’s equivalent would be to separate small children from their mums for a single stop of the Northern Line. It’s not quite so bold as being abandoned in a forest full of wild animals, I know. But let’s not forget we do live in times of unprecedented change in which we must choose whether to go forward or back.

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