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We volunteer to help others, but research shows how much it helps us, too


Jan 13 2020

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Faculty, In the News

By Jamil Zaki 

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., Ebenezer Baptist Church, Feb. 4, 1968

Two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. described a mistake that wastes many lives. He called it the drum major instinct, “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”In some ways, there is nothing more natural. Foals and shorebirds can fend for themselves the day they’re born, but human children remain helpless for years. They must crave attention; without it, they would die.

But instead of subsiding with age, the drum major instinct spreads across our lives. We’ve even elevated it into an ideology, defining success as the ability to beat our enemies and outshine our peers — as though self-obsessed competition will make us thrive.

This notion is both comically and tragically backward. Decades of evidence demonstrate that social connections sustain us. Chronic loneliness increases mortality risk about as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We flourish not by besting others, but by being part of something greater than ourselves. By clamoring for status, we deprive ourselves of one thing that would actually help us — each other.

In a revealing series of studies, the psychologist Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues asked freshman college students about their social goals. Some cared most about making a good impression: showcasing their strengths and hiding their weaknesses. You might think this is a wise strategy among young adults sizing one another up, but it wasn’t.

The more students focused on themselves, the more lonely, depressed and anxious they became, and anxiety in turn made students worry even more about their image. Scratching the itch of their drum major instinct, they made it worse.

That cycle is everywhere in our culture. We crave wealth, overspend and end up broke. We desire attention but end up alone. We sprint toward what we want and away from what we need.

As King saw it, our addiction to self poisons not only our personal relationships but also our culture.

“Do you know,” he preached, “that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? . . . A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”

To admire ourselves, we cut down other groups, even other nations, and devolve into reckless aggression — which King called a “suicidal thrust that we see in the world today.” A half-century later, we still see it.

But if the drum major instinct is poison, there is an antidote. Let’s call it the drummer’s instinct: an urge not to lead the parade, but to be part of it — in rhythm with others, creating something together that no one could alone. The drum major instinct zooms us in on ourselves, but the drummer’s instinct drives us to care for our bandmates, and it runs deep. Young children crave attention, but they also prefer kindness over cruelty, and spontaneously help others in need.

Where the drum major instinct depletes us, the drummer’s instinct fulfills us. In her studies, Crocker measured not just the college students’ desire to stand out but also to be kind. Students who held these “compassionate goals” suffered less depression, anxiety and loneliness. They received more support from their peers, but that is not what predicted their well-being. Those who helped others were most likely to thrive.

This pattern, too, is widespread. Children and adults draw joy from helping others. Doctors who feel compassion for their patients burn out less often. Colleagues who support one another perform more effectively and are more fulfilled at work. And older adults who volunteer live longer and remain healthier than those who don’t.

The evidence is uncontroversial — by serving others, we help ourselves. Why, then, do we keep making the same mistakes? I see two reasons.

First, individualistic cultures like ours valorize selfish pursuits, and then teach us — wrongly — that whether we like it or not, selfishness is at our core. This turns up the volume on our desire for attention, making the drummer’s instinct harder to hear.

Second, people often help others to help themselves. We give to charity for that rush of “warm glow,” or to confirm our character in moments of doubt. We advertise our virtues by changing our profile picture, or donating just enough to get our names on the opera house wall. These acts are generous on the surface, but hide the drum major instinct underneath.


This shallow kindness can also be a trap, because it extends only as far as our own comfort. Speaking in 1967, King said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. . . . It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” When we benefit from those structures, real kindness requires moving beyond what makes us happy.

King said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But he also cautioned against complacency, which he called a “negative peace.” In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. . . . Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”

The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, when we bend it that way. When we choose whether to be a drum major or drummer, we change how we live and how we feel. But if that’s our only priority, we’ve already made the wrong choice.


The holiday honoring the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — the third Monday in January — was first observed in 1986. In 1995, it was designated a national day of service. With the 25th anniversary of the MLK Day of Service on Jan. 20, six volunteers — an advocate for sexual assault victims, a cuddler of sick babies, a cancer survivor helping child cancer patients and others — reflect below on how service has made a difference to themselves and others.

Jamil Zaki is an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”