Virtual Event: Stephanie D. Preston


The Altruistic Urge:
Why We’re Driven to Help Others


June 21, 2022
6:00 PM ET


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Harvard Book Store, the Harvard University Division of Science, and the Harvard Library welcomes Dr. STEPHANIE D. PRESTON—Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan—for a discussion of her new book The Altruistic Urge: Why We’re Driven to Help Others.

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About The Altruistic Urge

Ordinary people can perform acts of astonishing selflessness, sometimes even putting their lives on the line. A pregnant woman saw a dorsal fin and blood in the water―and dove right in to pull her wounded husband to safety. Remarkably, some even leap into action to save complete strangers: one New York man jumped onto the subway tracks to rescue a boy who had fallen into the path of an oncoming train. Such behavior is not uniquely human. Researchers have found that mother rodents are highly motivated to bring newborn pups―not just their own―back to safety. What do these stories have in common, and what do they reveal about the instinct to protect others?

In The Altruistic Urge, Stephanie D. Preston explores how and why we developed a surprisingly powerful drive to help the vulnerable. She argues that the neural and psychological mechanisms that evolved to safeguard offspring also motivate people to save strangers in need of immediate aid. Eye-catching dramatic rescues bear a striking similarity to how other mammals retrieve their young and help explain more mundane forms of support like donating money. Merging extensive interdisciplinary research that spans psychology, neuroscience, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology, Preston develops a groundbreaking model of altruistic responses. Her theory accounts for extraordinary feats of bravery, all-too-common apathy, and everything in between―and it can also be deployed to craft more effective appeals to assist those in need.

Praise for The Altruistic Urge

"Stephanie Preston knows human and animal empathy as no other. By demonstrating that helping behavior is baked into the mammalian brain, her eye-opening and well-written book takes the puzzle out of the 'puzzle of altruism.'" —Frans de Waal, author of Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist

"An innovative, breakthrough body of work. Preston provides compelling evidence that our concern for others is biologically rooted in caregiving processes present throughout the animal kingdom. Insightful parallels drawn between human heroism and rodent caregiving speak to common underlying mechanisms. Written in an engaging style, the work is marked both by scientific rigor and creativity. Preston’s compassion for all beings shines through." —Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Psychology and the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin

"The Altruistic Urge is a must-read for anyone interested in the evolution of human behavior. Those who have a pessimistic view of human nature will be surprised to learn that people often go out of their way to rescue their fellow human beings from dangerous situations at great risk to themselves. Stephanie Preston explains the science behind this extreme ‘altruistic response’ with new ideas, compelling facts, and an engaging writing style." —Dario Maestripieri, University of Chicago and author of Macachiavellian Intelligence and Games Primates Play

Stephanie D. Preston
Stephanie D. Preston

Stephanie D. Preston

Dr. Stephanie D. Preston is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, where she leads the Ecological Neuroscience Laboratory. She received her Master's and PhD degrees in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied the biology of food-hoarding decisions in animals. Her postdoctoral fellowship in Neurology, at the University of Iowa, examined the neurobiology of empathy and decision making. She currently studies how emotions impact important human decisions, particularly to consume material goods and natural resources and help other people and the environment.

Join our online event (or pre-register) via the link in the event description.
Event Series: Harvard Science Book Talks

The Harvard Science Book Talks series is a collaboration between the Harvard University Division of Science, the Harvard Library, and Harvard Book Store. The series features talks by the authors of recently published books on a variety of science-related topics and is open to both the Harvard community and to the general public. Typically, lectures are followed by a book signing with the author and refreshments. Learn more and watch recordings of past talks here

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