Last summer, UCI political psychologist Kristen Monroe visited a town near Germany to talk with a woman who’d been head of the Dutch Hitler Youth Movement during World War II. Alone with the woman and another guest – a younger male convert to Nazism – Monroe listened to their complaints of misunderstanding and misrepresentation: The Germans had actually put Jews into concentration camps so they could give them more food, and the Allies put the blood in later; Hitler was a hero comparable to Jesus Christ and Gandhi.

At one point during the intense barrage, Monroe took a break. In the hallway, she found an elaborate shrine to Hitler. Fear swept through her. “I hope I didn’t do something really stupid here,” she thought. “If I disappear, they’ll never find me.”

The interview was one of Monroe’s stranger encounters in a 12-year journey of inquiry that moved – in the image she herself tends to invoke – from light to darkness.

Beginning with a study of altruism – mankind’s most shining examples of selfless generosity to others – Monroe ultimately found herself compelled to study its nightmarish opposite, genocide. The connection was inevitable because Monroe had been talking with rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. “The work I was doing on the rescuers was set in the context of genocide, so I had to look at that. It was the light in the darkness, but the darkness was all around.” Offered a chance to talk with a former German soldier, she took it.

“I don’t spend much time with racists so I found him fascinating at an intellectual level, but emotionally he gave me cold chills. It took me two years to go back and interview him again. I just wanted to get away.” But she went on to talk to other “genocidalists,” as well as other altruists. Using each extreme as a lens to view the other, she found a commonality: It was the concept of self in relation to others that made the difference.

“For both groups of people, how they viewed themselves was critical. The genocidalists saw themselves as embattled, under siege, wronged and needing to assert their rights rigorously in order to protect themselves. The altruists didn’t view themselves as wronged.” Even though, in some cases, they were being hunted down by the society and the regime, they didn’t see themselves as people who had anything to fear from other people.

“I don’t think a lot of them were anxious to die, but they felt that if they didn’t do certain things, it would be hard to live with themselves afterward. That was very important to them.” So consistent was the tendency of altruists to see themselves as bonded with all other humans that Monroe at first wanted to call her book “John Donne’s People,” referring to the poet’s “no man is an island” concept.

Moving from her “lovely, warm” interviews with altruists to conversations with genocidalists wasn’t easy for Monroe. She sees herself as almost laughably optimistic – “to me, the glass is always half-full, and it’s cream” – and trying to understand people who had harmed others while believing they were in the right was a somber undertaking. “I got interested in genocide not because it was pleasant to do,” she said. “It was very difficult to do the interviews that I’ve done.”

Otto, a concentration camp survivor, had tried to understand his captors too. He told Monroe about having asked a guard whether he’d ever had to kill anyone. “The guy said, ‘Only once; I had to kill six Jews.” And he said, “When you get such an order, it’s very difficult, you have to be hard. Besides, they weren’t really human anymore.”

“Otto said, ‘That really is the key to it. It’s dehumanization. Once you take away their clothes and shave their heads and take away food so they’re just a skeleton, and then you take away soap and they’re dirty and they smell, and then put them in situations where they’ll do anything to each other, they’re not human anymore.

“There’s distancing, polarization and dehumanization that goes on. Once that happens, the unimaginable becomes possible.”

Monroe’s exploration of the two poles of human behavior has led her to deeper conclusions as well. For one, perhaps the idea we’ve all gotten so accustomed to – that people always act out of their own self-interest – is wrong, and we need to start rethinking basic human nature. For another, maybe some attributes of human motivation, the qualities underlying our basic morality, are inborn and universal to all cultures, and maybe we even share some of them with other primates. For a third, if there is such a thing as “human nature,” it should be possible to quantify and analyze it. Maybe, she suggests, science should claim a place next to philosophy and religion at the table where human nature is laid out for examination.

She sees danger in anything that encourages us to view ourselves as distant from and different from others. That includes “identity” politics, like appeals to voters based on their ethnic affiliations, and “diversity appreciation” currently encouraged in elementary schools. “I am not a strong supporter of multiculturalism after doing this work,” Monroe said. “A lot of the evidence I see from social identity theory suggests that stressing our group differences frequently ends up with ‘different than’ sliding into the dangerous territory of ‘better than.'”

These ideas, large in their implications, come from a UCI professor of political psychology whose latest book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Monroe’s The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity, also received the 1997 Best Book award from the Political Psychology Section of the American Political Science Association.

Monroe, 53, is a warm and occasionally startling mix of scientist and nurturer, provocateur and peacemaker, mom and assertive feminist. The walls of her office are papered with pictures of her family and friends, a deliberate emphasis that she has been told can be professionally risky but which she maintains because she wants to demonstrate to her students that family and a serious career do not conflict and “you can work it out.”

Equally forthright in conversation about the importance of her domestic role, she describes insights into human conflict that arose from squabbles with her husband (rarely conflicts of interest, she says, almost always misunderstandings) and parenting her three children. She spices speeches with references to Sesame Street characters and, in at least one straight-faced footnote, amplified a pattern of human interaction by describing how Bert had treated Ernie. “I wanted to see if anybody would notice,” she said.

When she began her study in 1988, Monroe fundamentally believed in the centrality of self-interest. “I was a rational choice theorist, someone who believed that economic theory explains a lot.” But, like many scholars, she knew that several human behaviors didn’t seem to fit the model. “It doesn’t work too well on collective behavior, and it doesn’t seem to work on altruism. I decided I’d look at altruism first because it’s a smaller case and I thought I could get through it faster and then go on with collective behavior.”

She posed a research question she considered important enough to be worth studying, and simple enough not to take her far from home and a new baby. A clear and direct writer, she places the question at the beginning of the introduction, at the beginning of the book: “Most social and political theory since Hobbes is constructed on the norm of self-interest. As a guiding principle, self-interest informs many public policies and directs our daily lives. Yet even in the most vicious of Darwinian worlds, altruism and selfless behavior continue to exist. Why?”

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British philosopher famous for describing the natural state of human life as “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” denied that people are naturally social beings and held that human motives were invariably selfish. Shocking at the time, Hobbes’ views, buttressed by Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concepts, gradually came to form much of the intellectual framework of the modern world, shaping economics and social theory.

But if people are selfish, why are they sometimes self-sacrificing? Monroe decided she would ask the altruists themselves. “I tried to think of people who would not fit a standard benchmark or baseline for self-interested behavior. I looked at people who got Carnegie Hero Commission awards because they actually risked their lives. And then the rest – I don’t know where I got this idea – but I knew there were people who rescued Jews during the war.

“I wrote to them and called them without any introduction. Sometimes they didn’t want to talk to me, which was really interesting. One man in Mission Viejo heard screaming when he was out hiking and came across a mother whose toddler had been carried off by a mountain lion. He tracked the mountain lion down, picked up a big stick and started attacking it so the mountain lion would get mad at him and drop the child.”

The man was attacked by the lion; the child was alive and taken to the hospital. But the man didn’t want to talk to Monroe about it.

“He said, ‘No! I didn’t want this award. I didn’t do anything unusual and I shouldn’t have gotten an award. It’s what everyone should do.'”

Monroe sought out other heroes, and many of them did talk to her. They are quoted extensively in her book. Otto, an ethnic German, had saved many Jews from the camps. Lucille was a crippled old woman who attacked a much larger man to save a young girl from rape (see sidebar at right). Tony spent four years in hiding, working in the Dutch Resistance during World War II, and protected many from the Nazis. Each, Monroe found, felt they simply had no choice.

This “I had no choice” mindset common to the altruists was particularly interesting to Monroe. “There are things in this life you have to do and you do them,” one of the rescuers told her. But Monroe also interviewed a bystander who had maintained a hiding place in her Dutch home throughout the war without ever thinking of offering it to her own cousin, whom she knew was in hiding from the Germans. And the Dutch Nazi who maintained a shrine to Hitler in her house was, Monroe knew, absolutely sincere in believing Hitler a hero.

So how does the split occur? How do some people become altruistic, and others genocidal? Most of us probably have the potential to be either depending on circumstances, Monroe believes, but the critical differences are likely to occur early in life, when each individual’s cognitive framework – their perception of reality – is being formed. It’s a question for science, she believes.

She is working on the creation of a center for the scientific study of morality at UCI. “We’re going to try to raise money to bring in top scholars to see what we really know scientifically.” Neurobiologists have pertinent information, she believes, so do social scientists and evolutionary theorists. What is the effect on moral behavior of Prozac? Of Ritalin? If biochemists confirm that oxytocin (a hormone released in mating and breastfeeding) causes human attachment, she asks, does that mean it could or should be given to autistic children to help them form bonds? Do primates other than humans have a moral sense?

“There is a lot of evidence in child development literature that certain things bother young children – if they see another child who’s crying, who’s unhappy, it upsets them. This suggests to me that this is something which is built in; it’s not just programmed by one particular culture – it’s part of our human nature. If that’s true, if there is a human nature, then we can talk about doing science.

“Once we understand how people construct a sense of self in relation to other people, it’s going to open up a lot of doors we weren’t aware of before.”