A theory of oppositional altruism

Author’s note: I cannot claim to be the sole author of this piece.  The idea was inspired by my 8 year old daughter who recently asked me if misinformation can ever be good for society.

Social media has been used to actively spread misinformation to meet a breadth of pernicious objectives.  The spread of health misinformation may be particularly worrisome since it may change behaviours in a way that puts individuals and society at risk.

However, what is the total health impact of health misinformation?  Is it possible that some people are motivated to make better health decisions when they encounter misinformation?  If they are, then the net negative social impact of misinformation may be less than we think. 

For example, when some people read stories about anti-vaccination proponents and vaccine hesitancy they may be more inclined to ensure their vaccines are up to date than they would have been otherwise.  This could be because 1) they are concerned that vaccine hesitancy in the population puts them at greater risk of infection and 2) they are motivated to actively oppose misinformation as a way of expressing their personal views and increasing their sense of agency.  This latter motivation is similar to what has been seen in heavily contested elections; when an oppositional political movement is particularly detestable it may motivate a larger number of normally politically inactive people to get out and vote.

I propose a theory that some people make socially beneficial decisions as an oppositional response to misinformation that they would not otherwise undertake.  I refer to this as oppositional altruism.

The motivation for an oppositional altruist is to make a personally satisfying decision in response to health misinformation.  True altruists have a different motivation (they make personal sacrifices for society) but the consequences of both altruists are the same.  If oppositional or genuine altruism is a motivating force for individuals, then the resulting behaviours could offset some of the social harms of misinformation.

Consider a timely example.  Some people publicly (and often loudly) argue that we should not wear masks to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.  If masks do offer protection from the spread of infection then not wearing them has a negative social impact—increasing spread of infection and sickness in others—and the message not to wear a mask is misinformation.  In response to this misinformation oppositional altruists may be more inclined to wear masks than they would otherwise, offsetting (at least to some degree) the decisions of anti-maskers.  Moreover, if there are considerably more oppositional altruists than there are anti-maskers, then the net impact of the misinformation may be more mask wearing overall and less infection!

There is no direct evidence for oppositional altruism that I know of.  However, the theory of risk homeostasis offers some evidence from a risk management perspective.  The theory says that people try to maintain a tolerable risk level in their life; we take some risks but we then compensate for them by avoiding others. We seek to balance these risks in order to meet a perceived level of target risk that we find satisfying.  Some risks that we face occur in the social environment, and when we see these risks increase, we may take personal actions to reduce these and/or other risks to achieve our target risk level.  When these personal decisions could also reduce the risks that others experience, it is oppositional altruism.

Oppositional altruism is not guaranteed to offset the harms of health misinformation.  However, if people do sometimes behave as oppositional altruists, it could give us reason to be optimistic and hopeful in spite of the abundance and rapid spread of health misinformation.  Perhaps the more health misinformation the greater the oppositional altruism—acting as a sort of social risk taking governor that prevents health misinformation from causing runaway social harms.