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Life is not chess: Towards a dynamic theory on altruism


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Economic theory propagates a model of the human being commonly known as homoeconomicus; an individual with a rational orientation directed towards maximizing his/her preferences. However, our everyday lives involve many altruistic acts. These can range from small gestures of kindness such as holding a door open for another person, to heroic feats such as risking one's life to save a child from drowning. During our lives we also meet certain people that instantly induce our kindness. Our nicety in these moments is not based on a pursuit to optimize our material desires. Rather, we allow our feelings and intuitions to guide the course of our actions. How do we reconcile these experiences against the economic conception of human nature as inherently selfish? Addressing this contradiction, the paper will deconstruct the economic view and repositioning it as the product of an epistemological stance that distorts our view of altruism. An alternative model on altruism will then be developed by merging anthropological theories on value with insights from cultural psychology and grounded cognition. Through this process, a passage will be shown from static and universalizing perspective towards an emergent and dynamic theory on altruism.
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Life is not chess: Towards
a dynamic theory
on altruism
Zarak Ahmed
Department of Community Health Sciences, Aga Khan
University, Karachi, Pakistan
Economic theory propagates a model of the human being commonly known as homo-
economicus; an individual with a rational orientation directed towards maximizing his/
her preferences. However, our everyday lives involve many altruistic acts. These can
range from small gestures of kindness such as holding a door open for another person,
to heroic feats such as risking one’s life to save a child from drowning. During our lives
we also meet certain people that instantly induce our kindness. Our nicety in these
moments is not based on a pursuit to optimize our material desires. Rather, we allow
our feelings and intuitions to guide the course of our actions. How do we reconcile
these experiences against the economic conception of human nature as inherently
selfish? Addressing this contradiction, the paper will deconstruct the economic view
and repositioning it as the product of an epistemological stance that distorts our view
of altruism. An alternative model on altruism will then be developed by merging anthro-
pological theories on value with insights from cultural psychology and grounded cog-
nition. Through this process, a passage will be shown from static and universalizing
perspective towards an emergent and dynamic theory on altruism.
Embodiment, anthropology, grounded cognition, economic theory, altruism, cultural
psychology, situated conceptualization, inferential pattern completion, lived history
Corresponding author:
Zarak Ahmed, Department of Community Health Sciences, Aga Khan University, Aga Khan University
Hospital, National Stadium Road, Karachi, Sindh 74800, Pakistan.
Culture & Psychology
0(0) 1–14
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1354067X20957557
At the heart of this paper is an attempt to provide a dynamic and emergent
account on altruism. The emphasis on dynamism and emergence positions this
inquiry against the universalizing and static conception of altruism presented by
economic theory. In short, economic theory propagates a model of the human
being commonly known as homoeconomicus; an individual with a rational orien-
tation directed towards maximizing his/her preferences (Urbina & Ruiz-Villaverde,
2019). Albeit with a tinge of exaggeration, the dispositions of homoeconomicus
and to a larger extent modern economic theory, can be exemplified through classic
Hollywood action movies. Consider a typical ransom exchange scene that occurs in
just about every such movie. Two parties meet at a disclosed location to exchange a
kidnapped person for ransom. As they tentatively move closer and closer to make
the exchange, the antagonist always finds a way to defect with both the ransom and
hostage. In doing so, the antagonist masterfully exemplifies the nature of homo-
economicus by ruthlessly seeking to maximize desired outcomes.
Contrary to the relentless pursuit of self-interest depicted above, our everyday
lives involve many altruistic acts. These can range from small gestures of kindness
such as holding a door open for another person, to heroic feats such as risking
one’s life to save a child from drowning. During our lives we also meet certain
people that instantly induce our kindness. Our nicety in these moments in not
based on a pursuit to optimize our material desires. Rather, we allow our feelings
and intuitions to guide the course of our actions. How do we reconcile these
experiences against the economic conception of human nature as inherently selfish?
To address this contradiction, the paper will deconstruct the economic view and
repositioning it as the product of an epistemological stance that distorts our view
of altruism. An alternative model on altruism will then be developed by merging
anthropological theories on value with insights from cultural psychology and
grounded cognition. Through this process, a passage will be shown from static
and universalizing perspective towards an emergent and dynamic theory on
Deconstructing the economic view
To understand how economic theory distorts altruism, one must observe how the
discipline reacts to altruistic acts. This process can be witnessed through the
explanations offered by behavioral economists regarding the results of zero-sum
games. Zero sum games such as the dictator game study conflict and cooperation
by constructing scenarios during which one person’s gain is another’s loss
(Neumann et al., 2018). To play the dictator game a certain amount of money is
put on the table, after which the individual assigned the role of the dictator decides
how the cash will be split with the other participant. During simulations of the
game, dictators on average share 28% of the reward and many split the cash down
2Culture & Psychology 0(0)
the middle (Neumann et al., 2018). By choosing to be altruistic by giving away
some of their rewards, these participants violate the tenets of homoeconomicus.
As should be evident, these results do not match the hostage exchange scenario
described earlier. However, rather than modify their fundamental assumptions,
economists use the concept of utility to fit the results within their existing frame-
work through a pattern of circular logic. Utility refers to the total satisfaction
received from participating in an act such as consuming a good or service
(Mankiw, 2018). Economists assume that by being perfectly rational, homoecono-
micus will think through all possible outcomes and choose the course of action
leading to maximum utility (Urbina & Ruiz-Villaverde, 2019). From this perspec-
tive, sharing half your spoils when you can walk away with everything makes no
sense. The pattern of circular logic becomes evident when we see that the ratio-
nality implied by homoeconomicus is not limited to utility derived from material
gain. Therefore, a case can always be made that some other form of utility is being
extracted (Ng & Tseng, 2008). For example, by giving away their money it can be
claimed that participants were maximizing utility by enhancing their self-image.
Moreover, economic theory has in built assumptions that label behavior that goes
against its tenets as irrational. For example, most courses in the area of behavioral
economics offer a module on irrational behavior which covers several theories that
explain suboptimal decisions. These include cognitive bias, herding effect, irratio-
nal exuberance, discrimination, sunk cost fallacy, and lack of control. Implicit in
all these theories is the assumption that anything other than self-interest is not
The underlying assumptions of economic theory tend to be positioned as uni-
versal laws (Urbina & Ruiz-Villaverde, 2019). However, when analyzed through a
critical lens, they lose their universal lure. In particular, the assumption of homo-
economicus can be shown to be a byproduct of an epistemological stance based on
the drive to view human nature through statistics. To see this, one must take a
historical detour to the mid nineteenth century when the ideas of modern econom-
ics were just emerging. This period has been described by the philosopher Ian
Hacking as a time when “the world became numerical and measured in every
corner of its being” (Hacking, 1990). Elaborating on this, he describes how
between the years 1820 to 1840, European states established offices to collect
and publish statistics about various forms of deviance including: suicide, vagrancy,
madness, prostitution, and disease. As a consequence of this surge in numerical
data, it was now possible to compare such statistics across time (Hacking, 1990).
The printing and distribution of this kind of information constructed a particular
perception of reality. For example, it became evident to the naked eye that year
after year the same proportion of people were committing suicide using the same
methods, in the same regions (Hacking, 1990). In turn, the astonishing regularity
of these statistics made it possible to conceive that perhaps human nature was also
governed by statistical laws (Hacking, 1990). Data about averages and dispersions
had the additional effect of engendering the idea of normal people. The use of
probability distributions on numerical data, allowed for people to be categorized in
Ahmed 3
terms of their relation to the said data. While previously the word normal had
stood synonymous for ordinary, with the arrival of numerical data ‘normal’ was
now something to be strived for. People were normal if they conformed to the
central tendency of statistical laws (Hacking, 1990).
This was the backdrop of the emergence of modern economic theory known as
neoclassical economics; it carried with it a penchant for statistical information and
a strong idea of normativity (Ekelund & H
ebert, 2002). This transition is depicted
in the work of William Stanley Jevons, a man considered the pioneer of neoclas-
sical theory. In the preface to The Theory of Political Economy, Jevons describes
his work as an attempt to treat the economy as a calculus of pleasure and pain.
Jevons (1871/2013) explains that rational people base decisions on extra marginal
utility and seek to obtain the greatest amount of what is desirable. While the
concept of utility was used by earlier thinkers, it was viewed more as a conceptual
tool. However, starting with Jevons, neoclassical economists began to conceive of
homoeconomicus as an accurate description of human nature (Mele & Gonza
on, 2014). Humans were termed normal if they were rational. Rationality in
turn implied a constant drive to obtain the greatest amount of what is desirable. In
sum, Hacking shows us that ideas do not emerge in a vacuum; they are formed
under a particular context. In the case of homoeconomicus, the rational calculating
conception of the human mind emerged at a time when the world was already
becoming numerical and calculable.
Economic theory continues to add layers of complexity in its attempt to study
rationality through quantification. This is exemplified through the development of
behavioral economics, which builds upon the assumptions of the neoclassical doc-
trine by adding experimental testing. The rise of behavioral economics has paral-
leled developments in the discipline of cognitive psychology (cognitivism) which in
itself is influenced by the invention of the microcomputer (Michaels & Palatinus,
2014; Shastitko, 2017). Therefore, cognitive psychology constructs the mind as an
information processing device that goes through life solving problems (Thompson,
2007). To arrive at a decision, we take in data points and code them through
symbolic representations. These representations are then manipulated by our com-
puter like brains to arrive at the optimal decision (Thompson, 2007). The disci-
pline’s influence on economic theory is exemplified by the studies of economists
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who demonstrate that people choose
between different alternatives based on how information is presented. By altering
the manner in which information is phrased, individuals can be made to violate the
tenets of perfect rationality (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). The way these studies
conceive the mind is akin to a game of chess. To arrive at a decision, our job is to
take in the right kind of information and compute it efficiently to come up with our
best moves; any distortions occurring during this process may lead to suboptimal
decisions. This perspective has reached such dominance that we see it in the use of
everyday metaphors. Utterances such as my wiring has gone wrong or I did not
process things correctly exemplify this.
4Culture & Psychology 0(0)
Rather than leading to a universal insight on human nature, experimental stud-
ies conducted by behavioral economists show how theoretical frameworks work as
umbrella systems that restrict the phenomenon under study (Valsiner, 2017). For
instance, to develop explanatory accounts for altruism, behavioral economists start
their research under the assumption of a computational mind. Resultantly, the
theoretical frameworks they use to guide their experiments favor an information
processing approach. This in turn feeds into their experimental design, exemplified
in the use of simulations such as the dictator game which attempt to replicate the
interactions of the mind through quantitative data. This data is then subjected to
inductive reasoning to develop further frameworks advancing the same computa-
tional view. In each step of this process the phenomenon under study is being
restricted in order to fit the underlying assumptions of the researchers.
Moreover, conceptualizing the mind as a computer does not do justice to its
dynamic and emergent nature. This dynamism is essential for our survival as it
enables us to internalize stimuli and make situated meanings. In a looping process,
these meanings prepare us for the future by influencing how we perceive subse-
quent stimuli. This is not a novel perspective. Philosophers such as Heidegger
(1927/2018) have commented on the unique and situated nature of human exis-
tence. Heidegger’s notion of thrownness, for example, posits that we are thrown
into dealing with a particular set of entities, into a particular life, and into a
particular culture or tradition. By virtue of this, our sense making abilities are
partially determined by prior experiences (Withy, 2014). To illustrate, suppose that
before being recruited to play the dictator game, a participant dropped his wallet
on the streets of a crowded urban neighborhood riddled with inner city crime and
poverty. Disillusioned with what has happened and with no hope for retribution,
he is approached by a homeless man who hands him over his wallet. He is now
elated with a renewed trust in humanity. He carries with him this experience when
he participates in the dictator game. The manner in which he internalizes the game
and the meaning he creates is a dynamic outcome mediated by his unique history.
However, this phenomenon cannot be captured on a quantitative instrument
which seeks to frame his mind as a computer. No matter how he answers, his
perspective will always be viewed in terms of a superimposed concept of rationality
driven by the mind’s computational powers.
Attempts have been made to challenge the notion of utility maximization pre-
sented by homoeconomicus. This has led to the development of two alternative
perspectives: homo sociologicus (Dahrendorf, 2006) and homo socioeconomicos
(Rolle, 2005). The former assumes that the individual behaves according to the
expectations related to the societal roles assigned to him or her. Homo sociologicus
is guided by the expectation that if behavior fulfils social expectations, he/she will
be rewarded with approval. On the other hand, if the behavior violates norms, he/
she will be socially marginalized. In contrast, homo socioeconomicos is understood
as an individual who is cognizant of these restrictions and attempts to balance
desires with societies expectations. Consequently, while still seeking to maximize
his or her benefits, homo socioeconomicos takes into consideration the social
Ahmed 5
consequences of various actions to come up with the best course of action
(Rolle, 2005).
Neither of these theories are able to capture the dynamic and situated nature of
the human mind as reflected in Heidegger’s notion of thrownness. Rather, each
perspective projects a negotiated process as a predefined outcome. Both
homoeconomicus and homo socioeconomicos assume that we are maximizing
self-interest, albeit the latter is more aware of social pressures. In contrast,
homo-sociologicus is responding to societal norms without displaying any
agency. In this manner these theories propagate what anthropologist Margaret
Lock calls the body proper; the assumption that we all have the same bodies and
minds (Lock & Farquhar, 2007). In doing so they leave us blind to how human
minds vary over time and the contribution of various discourses, institutions,
practices, technologies, and ideologies in shaping them. Rather than an imposed
idea of rationality, a theory that allows us to understand the process through
which individuals come to construct their own rationalities is more useful for
understanding altruism. This calls for a theoretical framework that positions the
mind as a dynamic entity that always creates meaning in relation to its unique
position in the world.
Towards an alternative
In order to develop a theory on altruism that captures the dynamic and emergent
nature of the mind, several aspects are needed. Such a theory must take into
consideration the specificity of human bodies and how they impact the mind.
This is essential if we are to move beyond the static conception of altruism put
forth by economic theory that promotes the body proper. For this purpose, the
notion of affordances described by James Gibson in his ecological theory of mind
is a good starting point (Gibson, 1966). Affordances refer to the opportunities for
action offered to us by our environment. For example, a chair affords sitting when
an observer needs a place to rest, and a tree affords climbing if an observer needs
to flee. An object can only be perceived as an affordance if a person is capable of
interacting with it (Riener & Stefanucci, 2014). Therefore, to perceive an object
such as a knife, one must know what to do with one. Our history of environmental
interactions influences what we perceive as an affordance (Casasanto, 2014). This
was illustrated in a space valence experiment during which right-handed students
were asked to perform a motor fluency task while wearing a cumbersome glove on
either their left or right hand. After twelve minutes of lopsided motor experience,
participants removed the glove and performed a test of space-valence associations.
Participants who had worn the left glove still thought “right” was “good,” and
participants who had worn the right glove similarly showed a left-is-good bias,
even when they were right-handed (Casasanto & Chrysikou, 2011). A few minutes
of acting more fluently with the left hand changed right-handers’ implicit associ-
ations between space and emotional valence, causing a reversal of their usual
judgments (Casasanto, 2014). The experiment affirms that despite sharing the
6Culture & Psychology 0(0)
same experience, people may perceive different affordances based on their history
of environmental interactions.
The results of the space valence experiment have strong implications for our
understanding of altruism. They show that our lived experience constructs our
reality and determines our affordances by framing our interactions. When we
meet someone, we do so under a particular context. The representations we
form do not exist in the world outside, they are enacted during the interaction.
An approaching stranger in a dark alley will be perceived very differently by a
trained police officer than a corporate executive. Having interacted with this kind
of setting on many occasions, the police officer may become more attentive and
vigilant. By internalizing the situation as a potential threat, he will unlock a unique
set of affordances; he may unbuckle his holster and grip his gun. In contrast, the
corporate executive may also recognize the situation as a threat. However, unlike
the police officer he will be more likely to retreat as his environmental interactions
would unlock affordances that would encourage flight rather than fight. In each
case the external object remains the same, but the internal representation varies.
Furthermore, an emergent and dynamic account of altruism must also bring
emotion back to the forefront. From the perspective of behavioral economics,
cognition is viewed as a purely logical process free from emotion (Strejcek &
Zhong, 2014). The pervasiveness of utterances such as the ‘best decisions are
made on a cool head’ exemplify this perspective. However, the importance of
emotions in decision making has been depicted in case studies of patients with
damaged orbitofrontal cortices (Damasio, 1996). Individuals with lesions in this
area become devoid of emotions. Rather than improve their reasoning, as the ‘cool
head’ analogy suggests, these lesions cause individuals to lose the ability to make
basic life decisions. Pertinent to our understanding of altruism is the fact that these
individuals are able to reason and make logical decisions in an experimental set-
ting, but lose this capacity in real life (Damasio, 1996). In particular, their inter-
personal skills suffer, and they are unable to maintain friendships. These results
point towards the idea that we need emotions to understand each other and main-
tain relationships. This notion is captured by the term affective framing which
emphasizes the way emotions and feelings permeate our interpretations and pat-
terns of attention and thereby enable us to make sense of the world (Maiese, 2014).
Affective framing attunes individuals to their environment and allows them to
recognize which factors are relevant given the current situation. Valsiner (2014)
adds more depth to the notion of affective framing by highlighting how certain acts
of communication evoke a field of memories and productive fantasies in the per-
sonal world of the hearer. For a person who has been subjugated to emotional
abuse, an assertive instruction may evoke feelings of nervousness and anxiety.
Conversely, the same tone may alert another person and galvanize them.
Therefore, every interaction has the potential to evoke a unique set of feelings
which permeate our thoughts and direct our actions. Taking this into consider-
ation, emotions are likely to play an important role in acts of altruism.
Ahmed 7
Constructing an emergent model on altruism
While trying to account for the existence of altruism, evolutionary biologist
William Hamilton made a simple argument. He hypothesized that since being
altruistic puts people at a disadvantage, humans must have developed a genetic
marker that enables people with altruistic dispositions to recognize each other
(Hamilton, 1964). This would allow them to direct their altruistic acts towards
others with similar dispositions and ensure mutual survival. Richard Dawkins
(2006) later renamed these hypothetical genes green beard genes in light of the
physical marker through which bearers would recognize each other (a green
beard). While Hamilton was making a mere conjecture, his idea is nonetheless
thought provoking. We encounter people on a daily basis that strike us in ways
that make us want to be nice to them; there is a certain feel to these interactions.
Perhaps the marker Hamilton was searching for is not overt but comes in the form
of an embodied feeling.
Hamilton’s conjecture provides a passage into the model of altruism proposed
by this paper. The model explains altruism as a dynamic interaction between three
facets in any given situation: an individual’s lived history, the affordances offered
by the interaction, and the emotions evoked by the interaction (Figure 1).
The linkages between these facets become visible when we cease to view the
mind as a computer and see it as a function of the whole human being in inter-
subjective relations with others in the environing world (Toren, 1999). Simply put,
the contents of our mind including our dispositions, schemes of thought, and
emotional attunement are all formed in the course of our lives through our rela-
tions with others and the meaning we construct out of these experiences (Toren,
1999). Consider our early interaction with a parent or an older sibling that
informed us about the appropriate behaviors that a boy or girl must follow.
These interactions structured the conditions of our lives including what we wore,
what was said to us, what toys we played with, how we sat, how we walked, and so
on (Toren, 1999). Our brain played a mediating role by solidifying these experi-
ences and resultant meanings into unique dispositions (Fuchs, 2018). To illustrate,
research has shown that newborn babies are able to imitate the facial expressions
of others (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989). By virtue of this mimetic capacity they are
also able to transpose the gestures and expressions of others onto their own pro-
prioception and movement. Bodily mimesis evokes corresponding feelings as well,
and so a mutual affective resonance gradually develops; infants learn how to
understand themselves through others (Gallese et al., 2004). The mirror neuron
system supports this process by solidifying these interactions into dispositions and
skills. As we go through life, the plasticity of our brains allows us to continuously
assimilate further layers of experience into our interactive schemes and dispositions
(Fuchs, 2018). This process never ends.
Toren (1999) and Fuchs (2018) highlight the role our lived history plays in
developing our patterns of interactions, emotional attunement, and schemes of
thought. In his book Towards an Anthropological Theory on Value, Graeber
8Culture & Psychology 0(0)
(2001) posits that the value of an object lies in its ability to convey a history of
actions. For instance, the value of an heirloom is really that of actions whose
significance has been absorbed into the object’s current identity whether the
emphasis is placed on the inspired labors of the artist who created it, the lengths
to which some people have been known to go to acquire it, or the fact that it was
once used to cut off a mythical giant’s head. While Graeber (2001) refers to inan-
imate objects, his theory can be applied to humans. Simply put, given that our
historical interactions and experiences form our mental constructs and worldview,
a reversal of this process would enable us to peer into people’s histories through
the clues they offer us in the present. It would allow us to grasp their nature in a
manner akin to the green beard gene.
The link that enables us to understand how we look into the past to guide the
present comes from grounded cognition, a field that proposes that modal simu-
lations, emotions, and situated action underlie thinking (Barsalou, 2007). In par-
ticular, the notion of situated conceptualization provides a mechanism through
which we can use our lived history to guide our interactions with others (Barsalou,
2016). Situated conceptualizations enable us to predict what incoming sensory
input stands for, which properties are salient, and what to do with the input
(Oosterwijk & Feldman Barrett, 2014). To illustrate how this works, consider
the case of our interactions with dogs. When we close our eyes and imagine a
Figure 1. Dynamic model on altruism.
Ahmed 9
dog, the kind of image each of us conjures is different. In the past, whenever we
interacted with a dog, or heard a story about dogs, different areas of our brain
were activated to capture the experience. These included distributed associative
patterns across the fusiform gyrus (shape), premotor cortex (action), inferior pari-
etal cortex (spatial trajectory), and posterior temporal gyrus (visual motion)
(Sakreida et al., 2013). In addition, information related to the context under
which we interacted with dogs and the emotions we felt were also captured
(Barrett et al., 2014). In our present lives, this bank of memories and experiences
are used to generate situated conceptualizations to guide our current interactions
(see Figure 1). When we now meet a dog, our brain categorizes the type of situ-
ation currently being experienced in terms of what was experienced in the past. On
many occasions, the best fitting conceptualization may come from a familiar
repeated situation; on others, it may come from a specific memory of a relatively
unique situation. On rare occasions, no relevant situated simulation may be avail-
able in our memory, and the situated conceptualization constructed to represent
the current situation functions on its own. Regardless of where it comes from,
when the best fitting situated conceptualization is found, it becomes active and
guides us in the current situation (Barrett et al., 2014). This concept is supported
by Kriz (2009) who highlights how meaning in conversations is created according
to the cognitive ordering processes in an individual’s own head. These ordering
processes have more to do with the person’s own biography rather than the mes-
sage. Along the same lines, Valsiner (2014) states that the individual references the
past and adapts it in the service of what might come. In this sense, looking back is
actually looking forward.
When we meet someone and are compelled to be altruistic towards them, it is
likely that we have generated a situated conceptualization favorable to this kind of
action. To see how this model works, imagine a situation where two people meet
and develop altruistic dispositions towards each other. The encounter carries a
certain feel that makes one or both individuals benevolent towards the other. This
feeling is often difficult to articulate but individuals often allude to aspects such as
the other person’s energy, vibe, or aura. What exactly happens during this process?
When we meet the other person, we first take them in through our senses. Different
aspects of their physical being including but not limited to: clothes, smell, muscular
definition, and gait are internalized and given a unique meaning. This sensory
information is coupled to a vast array of stored simulations. In turn, these simu-
lations enable us to connect our present to instances from our past where similar
patterns led to certain outcomes. We come up with a tailored situated conceptu-
alization which gives meaning to the stimulus in the present. We may experience a
positive or negative affective state depending on the generated conceptualization.
At the same time this process is shaping our affordances by enabling us to
anticipate the future. This has been alluded to by Valsiner (2014), Kriz (2009),
and Barsalou (2016) who dubbed this process inferential pattern completion. In
short, we get hints about what is likely to happen in the present situation based on
what we have experienced in the past, and our behavior is modified accordingly
10 Culture & Psychology 0(0)
(see Figure 1). For example, a woman sitting in a cafe on a blind date may connect
the sound of a particular accent to a memory from her previous dating experience.
If this accent is connected to a pleasant experience, it may evoke a positive situated
conceptualization. This could potentially result in a more open body language and
a hormonal release of endorphins as she primes herself for an engaging conversa-
tion. However, if this particular accent is associated with a terrible dating experi-
ence or a narrative indicating that people who speak in similar ways are
‘pretentious’, it will have the opposite effect. Her body language may close, and
the conceptualization may trigger the release of stress hormones. This process will
remain dynamic and evolutionary. The initial sensory information is used to gen-
erate a situated conceptualization. Through inferential pattern completion we pre-
dict what is likely to happen in the future and structure our behavior accordingly.
The person at the receiving end of the resultant behavior will respond with their
own situated conceptualization in turn creating a new round of stimulus. This
process will ensue through a looping mechanism. As illustrated in Figure 1, the
dotted line going from reaction to lived history highlights the looping mechanism,
depicting how the present moment ultimately becomes part of our lived history
and guides the emerging moment.
General systems theory posits that when input and output are interconnected
through feed-back certain stable patterns can emerge (Kriz, 2009). These patterns
can also be seen in our interactions and are referred to as a meaning attractors
(Kriz, 2009). The meaning attractor emerges after multiple rounds of stimulus
exchange at a junction when our situated conceptualizations become highly
refined. At this junction we have come to a stable understanding on our stance
towards the other person. What the meaning attractor will gravitate towards
cannot be predicted beforehand but is an emergent product of the interaction.
From this standpoint, an altruistic disposition is one trajectory the meaning attrac-
tor can take. Whether we choose to be nice to each other is not a matter of
rationality or irrationality. It is a process that each one of us takes as we go
through life attempting to make sense of the world, we find ourselves thrown in.
Life is not chess.
Way forward
This paper will conclude with a brief discussion on how the proposed theory can be
further developed. A dynamic theory requires a dynamic research approach. This
tenet is captured in the microgenetic method which seeks to trigger, record and
analyze the processes behind the emergence of new phenomena (Wagoner, 2009).
Rather than forcing phenomena to fit consensually validated methods, the micro-
genetic approach seeks to understand the complexity of the phenomena, and adjust
methodology to it (Wagoner, 2009). Therefore, to study the dynamic processes of
altruism, we must move away from our reliance on large sample sizes, standardized
methods, and quantitative data. Rather, we need to see how variables systemati-
cally relate and function together in particular individuals. The starting point for
Ahmed 11
an empirical approach should therefore come from single case analysis. This would
enable researchers to access contextualized qualitative data including observations,
knowledge of lived histories, and comments on the experimental process
(Wagoner, 2009). In addition, a two-way interaction between theory and experi-
mental design will also be facilitated. For example, rather than being filtered out
variations, cases that deviate from the theoretical assumptions would serve as
quality control measures to refine the theory further (Wagoner, 2009).
In terms of actual experimental design, studies could use the technique of
Aktualnese as a template. The technique which was used by the second Leipzig
school to study perception involves a carefully crafted process that slows down
perceptual processes and catches them in their intermediate stages (Wagoner,
2009). Following a similar pattern, experiments based on the proposed theoretical
framework can be designed to slow down the process of situated conceptualiza-
tions. Interpersonal encounters can be recreated in controlled environments and
participants can be presented stimulus in a stepwise manner. At each junction,
their precepts can be recorded to capture the constructive steps that go in altruistic
situated conceptualizations.
In sum, the computational approach to altruism proposed by economic theory
imposes a forced order on the human mind. It reduces what is a unique and
situated process into a static entity. Our lived experience tells us that we can be
indeed altruistic and that our rationale for doing so can vary from person to
person. In response, this paper has laid the groundwork for a dynamic theory
outlining the processes that lead to altruistic dispositions. It is hoped that through
further studies based on the microgenetic method, initiatives will be taken to refine
this theory so that it may do justice the richness of our lived experiences.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.
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Author biography
Zarak Ahmed, MA, is a research fellow at the department of Community Health
Sciences, at the Aga Khan University Karachi. As a medical anthropologist he is
interested in the intersections between culture and health. Presently, Zarak is work-
ing on two qualitative studies that seek to shed light on how food culture is
impacting the health of pregnant women in rural Pakistan. In addition, he has a
keen interest in human behavior and constantly seeks to understand how social
context shapes our patterns of thoughts and interactions.
14 Culture & Psychology 0(0)
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