How Kindness Can Define Who You Are

By Nathan Collins | August 24, 2015 | 0 comments

Research on neurodegenerative diseases suggests that identity Is lost without a moral compass.

What defines a person? Is it their memories? Their hobbies? Look deeper, argue a pair of researchers—into the soul, so to speak. According to a new study, moral traits like kindness or loyalty are what really constitute someone’s being.

“Over the past few years my research has gradually been shifting toward personal identity, and specifically the question of what makes you you,” Nina Strohminger, lead author of the new paper and a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Management, writes in an email.

In previous work, she and co-author Shaun Nichols found that moral traits, such as empathy or politeness, seemed to be the most important component of identity. But that research focused on hypothetical situations—if a friend became a jerk, would he or she still be the same person you knew before? The new study “is an expansion of that work that aims to see if this privileging of moral traits extends to a real-world example of radical mental change, neurodegeneration,” Strohminger writes.

Strohminger and Nichols focused on three neurodegenerative diseases: frontotemporal dementia (FTD), Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS served as a control since it primarily affects movement, and not memory or moral behavior. Alzheimer’s, for it’s part, primarily affects memory, but also has some impact on moral behavior. Of the three, FTD is the one most likely to have a moral impact—its symptoms include a loss of empathy, poor judgment, and increasingly inappropriate behavior.

Next, Strohminger and Nichols recruited 248 people from online support groups for friends and family of patients suffering from FTD, Alzheimer’s, or ALS, and they asked questions like, “Do you feel like you still know who the patient is?” using five-point scales. Friends and family of ALS patients averaged about 4.1 points on that scale, but the number dropped to 3.8 for Alzheimer’s and to 3.4 for FTD, suggesting that morality was at the core of how people conceived their loved ones’ identities, perhaps even more than memory.

Following up with a more detailed analysis, Strohminger and Nichols discovered that symptoms of declining morality were strongly associated with the perception that a patient’s identity had changed, while failing memory, depression, and more traditional measures of personality appeared to have almost nothing to do with a person’s identity. The only other symptom that had any discernible impact on identity was aphasia, a language impairment.

“Contrary to what generations of philosophers and psychologists have thought, memory loss doesn’t make someone seem like a different person,” Strohminger writes. “Rather, morality… played the largest role in whether someone comes across as themselves or whether their identity has been swallowed up by the disease.”

This article originally appeared in Pacific Standard magazine.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

 
About The Author

Nathan Collins studied astrophysics and political science and managed to get a job as a tenure-track professor before realizing he wanted to learn about all kinds of science while avoiding faculty meetings as much as possible. He’s written for Scientific American, ScienceNOW, and others.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training
International House
December 9-10, 2016


Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training

This workshop is an introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), an empirically-supported training program based on the pioneering research of Kristin Neff and the clinical perspective of Chris Germer.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

How Pleasure Works By Paul Bloom Bloom explores a broad range of human pleasures from food to sex to religion to music. Bloom argues that human pleasure is not purely an instinctive, superficial, sensory reaction; it has a hidden depth and complexity.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement