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Altruism versus Selfishness During Disasters

In disasters, it’s human nature to band together and be kind to one another in order to survive

By Maia Szalavitz @maiaszOct. 31, 2012

As the East Coast awakened to the aftermath of Sandy— with millions of people without power, many lacking running water and New York City’s transit system crippled, possibly for days—many are facing enormous emotional and physical challenges. But at least, say experts, they can rely on the kindness of strangers—not just loved ones— to temper the blow.

Although there’s a mentality that disasters provoke frenzied selfishness and brutal survival-of-the-fittest competition, the reality is that people coping with crises are actually quite altruistic.

That’s what we already seeing in the places worst hit by Sandy. Yesterday, Newark Mayor Corey Booker— who personally helped dozens of people who asked him for assistance via Twitter long into the night— tweeted, “Police have reported ZERO looting or crimes of opportunity in Newark. And ceaseless reports of acts of kindness abound everywhere. #Gratitude.”

Across the affected region, people have been checking in on sick or elderly neighbors, sharing food and information, driving carefully through intersections without working traffic lights and otherwise supporting each other. While there have been some reports of looting in parts of Brooklyn, overall, the picture is one of cooperation.

There is a long history of such cooperation in the face of crisis. Older Londoners, for example, often fondly recall the years of the Blitz, when their city was relentlessly bombed by the Germans during WWII. New Yorkers, too, tend to think back on the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a time of great solidarity. The same is true after most major earthquakes or tsunamis around the world.

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