The Science of Love

Scientists study the value of selflessness

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Many religions teach some variation of the Golden Rule, urging believers to love their neighbors as themselves. Modern science is skeptical about those who practice this philosophy with selfless abandon, however. In many psychology textbooks, for instance, case studies about individuals who put themselves at risk to help others are discussed only in those chapters that concentrate on abnormal behavior.

The provocatively named Institute for Research into Unlimited Love (IRUL), based in Cleveland, aims to change this perception. Not a New Age brothel or branch office for a goddess cult, IRUL encourages scientific research that examines the source and impact of unselfish, altruistic love. Funded by foundations and an array of individuals, IRUL has a board of directors that includes prominent do-gooders Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity; former First Lady Rosalyn Carter; and Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. Since its inception in July of 2001, IRUL has awarded $2.5 million to 33 researchers who are working in such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, theology, sociology, positive psychology, and medicine.

IRUL’s work focuses on three general questions, says director Stephen Post, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University. How is it that some people become remarkably kind and generous, not only to kin but also to unknown others? Does a belief in divine love translate into positive action? And how does a good deed affect the doer? “Some people help others on the basis of duty,” Post explains, “but I also think there are many people who do it because they experience joy and richness in giving. It’s paradoxical: In the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of self.”

IRUL’s funding is modest—it has raised about $4 million in the past four years for research, conferences, and publications—but Post hopes to use empirical research to transform the way modern people view themselves and treat others. It’s an ambitious goal, considering that the scientific community is focused almost exclusively on the implications of negative, rather than positive, human behavior (over the past 40 years, for example, there have been approximately 100,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies on depression, and just seven on happiness).

“Is being selfless as much a part of being human as selfishness?” asks Post, who is editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Bioethics and author of The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease. “This question has been debated for centuries, but the perspective shifted in the last century. Freud thought human nature was nothing but a seething, boiling cauldron of self-interest, and [B.F.] Skinner concluded from his rat studies that human motivation was based on pleasure stimulation. These viewpoints were based on bad science and jaded pedagogical speculation, but they created a tremendous burden of proof for anyone who wanted to say otherwise.”

IRUL has awarded grants to researchers like biologist David Sloan Wilson, co-author of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, who have struggled for funding and weathered skepticism for years. Alan Fogel, a psychologist at the University of Utah and director of the Fogel Infant Lab, is using his IRUL grant to study how maternal love and spirituality affect the development of empathy in 5-year-olds. “After 30 years, I could finally say I was studying love and still be scientifically credible,” Fogel says.

Other IRUL grantees are investigating how the ability to express gratitude affects the health of transplant patients, if veterans who believe in divine love are somewhat shielded from traumatic stress disorder, and, in an effort to prove that selflessness is not a uniquely human trait, whether altruistic behavior can be documented in chimpanzees, our evolutionary cousins.

“Many of the research projects have been ongoing for years,” says Stephanie Preston, a psychologist at the University of Iowa who is using functional MRI to study how empathy is processed in the brain. “However, the overarching goal of learning about how people can feel love for other people is new and could have great implications for society.”