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Nielsen, M. (2017). Evolution, Altruism, and the Collective Superego. Psychoanal. Inq., 37(7):455-463.

(2017). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 37(7):455-463

Evolution, Altruism, and the Collective Superego

Mary L. Nielsen, M.D.

Our psychoanalytic understanding of human nature is that humans are self-interested. However, this view differs with those of evolution, ethology, and neuroscience, which show evidence of a natural altruistic capacity. A theoretical foundation for this capacity can be found in psychoanalytic works, particularly those of Melanie Klein. An emerging understanding is that of an altruistic capacity that is induced and shaped by early experience and either fortified or corrupted by social pressures and mental processes. In individuals and in collective society, superego dictates can conflict with natural altruistic impulses. Recognition within psychoanalytic theory of a primary altruistic capacity is important, because we as psychoanalysts have an impact on individual and cultural self-perceptions through our treatment of patients and through our writings and therefore contribute to the shaping of values in our society.

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