Professor Robin Hanson, a blogger at Overcoming Bias, authored an intriguing post titled ‘Impatient Idealism‘ in which he points out that in terms of altruistic investment younger members of society tend to expect the greatest returns on their venture in the present rather than fortifying their human capital and tackling benevolence in their peak years. Years in which they are theoretically far more able to have the impact they desire.
Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.
But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.
Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years. Why such a short term focus? Especially since idealism should if anything induce a far view. Yes young folks are often short-sighted, but why be more so about altruism than about school, relationships, etc.? [...]
I agree with Professor Hanson on his observation but I disagree with his conclusion in some aspects.
One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts).[...]
It seems that what little I know about the psychological make-up of young idealists they seem to be motivated by validation. This isn’t to say that they do not care about their cause but that their idealism, especially if acted upon, instead gives them a sense of purpose which is larger than what they could seemingly accomplish individually. In essence, they feel part of something larger than themselves. Surely though, there is an attractiveness quality which is associated to idealism and altruism, after all this is what emotionally incentivizes us to behave in this manner.
Also, building on this observation I believe that idealism tends to progress into realism as we age, build associations, and increase our own human value. The idealist tends to think on a much grander and strategic scale increasing the probability that most endeavors will fall well short of expected time frames and results. A realist tends to think in more narrow and tactical schemes thus increasing the chance of success but minimizing the overall potential of influence.
- My Case For Idealism (tannerwillbanks.wordpress.com)
- How Disasters Bring Out Our Kindness (healthland.time.com)
- Altruism is not a guide for living – or for business (profitableandmoral.com)
- Idealistic is Realistic (jennifermihalchik.wordpress.com)