Why do we help strangers? Is there a genetic basis for compassion? Or does evolutionary biology tell us a just-so story about why we care for others? These questions lie at the heart of this conversation between EconTalk Russ Roberts and Michael McCullough, who joined Russ to talk about his new book, The Kindness of Strangers.

McCullough, a psychologist, tries to find answers to these questions in a lab setting, with many parallels to what we see in experimental economics. What did you take away from this episode? We’d like to know. Use the prompts below to help us continue the conversation.




1- How does McCullough explain the origins of the Golden Rule? What is the significance of its coincidence with the rise of religions? Is it really just “self-interest rewritten” as many economists might have us believe?


2- How do we internalize moral principles, and why do we believe certain things right or wrong (even when we can’t explain why? (Think about McCullough’s example of Roe v Wade. Can you come up with other similar examples?)


3- What can we learn from Adam Smith about how we behave with regard to others? Where do our other-regarding preferences come from? Why, for example, do people tend to share money in the Dictator Game?


4-  What does McCullough mean when he talks about a behavior continuum from highly externalized to highly internalized behavior? Which do you think has the greatest influence on our behavior? What role does superstition, for example, play in our motivation to help others?


5- Roberts and McCullough discuss the growth in humanitarian aid since 1500s, and Roberts asks why we don’t talk more about how futile it is? What would constitute effective humanitarian aid? Should we be more macro- or micro focused in our approach? (Roberts, for example, suggests visiting the sick might have a much greater impact on the world than large-scale foreign aid.)