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06/03/2017

Extraordinary Altruism in Voluntarily Donating a Kidney to a Stranger: A Conversation with Professor Abigail Marsh (June 2nd)

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Approximately 8,700 Americans die annually awaiting a kidney donation or become too ill to receive one.  This is half the number of those who annually receive a kidney, or 17,000.   Over 100,000 at any time are awaiting a kidney.  The median wait time is over three and a half years.  One-third of kidney donations are live donations typically from a child, parent, sibling, spouse or other relative.  However, an increasing number of live donations are made by strangers voluntarily choosing to donate. The number of these donations while small, at less than 400 annually, has doubled in recent years.  The benefits of receiving a donated kidney are pronounced, the expected benefits to the recipient are estimated at 100xs the expected costs to the donor. 

During this 26 minute conversation Professor Marsh explains why she became interested in altruism particularly extraordinary altruism, what her and her colleagues' research has found that explains donor reasoning in providing a kidney, how "social discounting" and other factors play into their decision making, how brain development, or the size of a donor's amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for decision making and emotional reactions including compassion), plays a factor and to what extent normalizing voluntary kidney donations may over time reduce or eliminate the shortage of kidney donations.

Professor Abigail Marsh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in MarshNeuroscience at Georgetown.  Prior to Georgetown, Dr. Marsh conducted post-doctoral work at the National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institutes of Health from 2004 to 2008.   Her areas of expertise include social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotional processes like empathy and how they related to altruism, aggression and psychopathy.   Her work has appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Psychological Science, the American Journal of Psychiatry, JAMA Psychiatry and Nature Human Behavior.  Dr. Marsh was graduated with a BA in Psychology from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard.   

Professor Marsh's June 2016 TED talk, "Why Some People Are More Altruistic Than Others," is at: https://www.ted.com/talks/abigail_marsh_why_some_people_are_more_altruistic_than_others.

A 10-page, footnoted discussion weighing the pros and cons of voluntary donating a kidney can be found on the Effective Altruism Forum website, at: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/ay/kidney_donation_is_a_reasonable_choice_for/

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