Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Helping another person even when doing so could adversely affect you is considered a virtue by many. People are often applauded as heroes, as they should be, when they help others. But what happens when a well-intended action results in unanticipated harm?

Expand that thought one more step: What is the effect if the resulting harm should have been known, but the persons taking action out of supposed "altruism" based their actions on emotions rather than on data? They meant to help, but they ended up hurting someone or some group -- either themselves, the intended beneficiary of the action or a third party.

In a paper titled "Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 4, 2013), associate professor of engineering Barbara Oakley of Oakland University lays out arguments that altruism can be pathological. Actions thought to benefit another person or persons can have unreasonable, negative consequences to that person or group and even to the person carrying out the action.

"Pathological altruism," Oakley writes, "can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable ... an observable behavior or personal tendency in which the explicit or implicit subjective motivation is intentionally to promote the welfare of another, but instead of overall beneficial outcomes the altruism instead has unreasonable (from the relative perspective of an outside observer) negative consequences to the other or even to the self."

In simpler terms, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Yes, the intent was to be helpful -- but the result was harmful.

Examples: In keeping her child from failing, a parent winds up ensuring her child never learns how to deal with failure. In promoting home ownership, a government program encourages people to get in over their heads, landing them in foreclosure -- and in some cases out on the street -- when hard times hit. In that last example, another unintended consequence proved to be that taxpayers had to bail out the banks that were too big to fail.

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.