In this blog piece, we will discuss altruism from an evolutionary perspective as well as how it relates to everyday life.
You will also learn what constitutes true altruism and some of the theories that are subject to debate among social psychologists.
What is Altruism?
Altruism is the act of helping another human or animal with no expectations for anything in return.
It is the principle and moral practice of concern for the happiness of others, which enhances the quality of life both material and spiritual.
Have you ever seen someone in distress and immediately rush to help them?
Let’s say someone fell down on the sidewalk and was having trouble standing up.
In that moment you weren’t thinking of yourself; you were only hoping to help this person in need.
You help the person up, walk them to their destination, and go about the rest of your day. The action you just performed is considered an act of altruism.
Although you helped this person out without expecting a reward in return, you felt good for taking part in that act of kindness.
Perhaps now you are even more motivated to help others in the future. Next time you are walking on the street you look out for any stranger in need and offer to help them.
But is it true altruism if you benefited from the act itself?
What is altruism?
Altruism is when someone performs a behavior out of true concern for another’s well-being.
People often behave altruistically when they see others are in need and feel empathy to help.
In some cases, altruistic people will jeopardize their own well-being to help others.
What are examples of altruistic behavior?
Some examples of altruism include holding the door for strangers or giving money to the homeless.
These behaviors are simple acts of kindness that usually do not offer any benefit for the giver.
News stories often captivate many people by focusing on large cases of altruism.
Some examples include a man running into a burning building to save a family, or a woman donating millions of dollars to a local charity.
What is reciprocal altruism?
Reciprocal altruism is the decision to help another with the expectation that one will receive a benefit in return.
This term is commonly used by evolutionary biologists and psychologists.
Sometimes people don’t expect a reward for performing a good deed, however, they often feel happy afterward which is sometimes called the “helper’s high”.
From an evolutionary standpoint, cooperative behavior enabled our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions.
Still today, humans and many other species benefit when individual organisms act in favor of the larger group while disregarding personal costs to themselves.
What kind of people are likely to employ acts of altruism?
Researchers suggest that people who have fewer resources are more likely to partake in altruistic acts.
In addition, people who are more grounded in the present moment are more prone to acts of altruism.
Children are likely to be altruistic because they begin sharing with others at a young age.
They also naturally possess empathetic qualities when someone is in need of help.
Why are humans and animals likely to engage in acts of altruism?
Altruism is an example of prosocial behavior, which refers to any action that benefits others no matter how the giver benefits from the action.
Pure altruism, however, involves true selflessness. All altruistic acts are prosocial, but not all prosocial acts are altruistic.
For example, humans may help others out of guilt, obligation, or for rewards in return.
Kin selection is one reason why humans and other species may partake in acts of altruism.
It is a theory that proposes that people are more likely to help blood relatives because their survival increases the odds that the helper’s genes will be transferred to the next generation.
Altruism is not truly selfless because it activates reward centers of the brain.
Some brain regions activated during altruistic and compassionate actions include the dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area and the ventral striatum.
These are brain regions highly involved in reward processing.
Activation of reward centers of the brain during altruistic acts reinforces the behavior, and therefore increases the motivation to perform compassionate actions.
Some psychologists believe that people are either born with the natural tendency to perform altruistic acts while others are not.
This theory suggests that genetics play a large role in determining altruistic tendencies.
Others, however, believe that altruism can be learned through the behavior of others.
One study showed that one and two-year old children who observe altruistic behaviors are more likely to partake in those behaviors themselves.
Interestingly, these children did not learn to emulate friendly but non-altruistic behaviors.
The rules that govern society can also influence whether or not people perform altruistic actions.
For example, the norm of reciprocity is a social expectation where people feel obligated to help others who have previously helped them.
Some psychologists believe that people behave altruistically to uphold a reputable view of themselves.
This may relieve people’s distress because helping others reinforces the view that they are kind and empathetic.
In addition, people are more likely to engage in acts of altruism if they are feeling empathy for that person.
One study found that children become more altruistic as they develop a sense of empathy.
The negative-state relief model suggests that seeing another person in distress causes people to feel distressed themselves and thus help the person to relieve these negative feelings.
What are some other reasons that we behave altruistically?
Studies show that humans are wired to cooperate with others. For example, when we look for a mate, we look for kindness more than any other quality.
Altruism also facilitates social connections, happiness, and helps people live longer.
We also feel good about ourselves when we behave altruistically, which is an emotion called elevation.
Some altruists put themselves in serious danger in order to help others, even strangers.
Researchers have found that the brains of these individuals differ from the brains of less altruistic people.
Does true altruism exist?
Social psychologists constantly question whether there is such a thing as “pure” altruism, since people usually have particular motivation to help others aside from genuine concern for the other person’s wellbeing.
Some social psychologists believe that empathy is guided by a hidden desire to help yourself.
How can you incorporate altruism into your everyday life?
Whether or not “true” altruism exists, try to always be kind and help others.
If you see a stranger or a homeless person on the street who would love that extra slice of pizza, give it to them.
Even if you do feel good about yourself after helping others, these small acts of kindness will ultimately make the world a better and more peaceful place.
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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about altruism:
What is an altruistic behavior?
Altruism is the belief that the well-being of others is equally or more important that the well-being of oneself.
It involves selfless acts that put the needs of others before one’s own.
Who is an altruistic person?
Altruism describes a behavior which does not obviously benefit the person doing the behavior, but rather benefits the individual on the receiving end.
For example, humans may claim they selflessly love others, which indicates that they wish the others find happiness and generosity while expecting nothing in return.
What is an example of altruism?
Altruism is an unselfish act of kindness.
An example is being involved in giving time and money to a charity with no expectations of anything in return.
Another example of altruism is giving another person an organ such as a kidney or a part of a liver.
Is altruism a good thing?
Yes, altruism is good for our health. Research has shown that spending money on others may lower our blood pressure.
People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains, have better overall physical health, and less instances of depression.
Older people who regularly volunteer or help friends have a significantly higher chance of a longer life.
Are humans altruistic?
Altruism is the moral practice of concern for the happiness of other human beings and/or animals which results in a better quality of life in materialistically and spiritually.
What is an example of reciprocal altruism?
Cleaning symbiosis is an example of reciprocal altruism, such as when a cleaner fish cleans their host with nothing in return.
Cleaners include shrimps and birds, and hosts include fish, turtles, octopuses, and mammals.
Are people motivated by altruism?
When people perform altruistic acts motivated by empathy, they experience the pleasure of the other person.
Therefore, altruistic acts can be described as actions to benefit one’s self-interest.
Are empathy and altruism related?
Empathy-altruism is a subcategory of altruism based on concern for others.
The social exchange theory states that altruism is possible only if the benefits to the helper outweigh the costs.
Some psychologists propose that people help others out of genuine concern for their well-being.
Who does altruistic behavior benefit?
The benefits of altruistic behaviors are usually measured in terms of reproductive fitness or expected number of offspring.
This relates to the theory of kin selection, in which people are more likely to help blood relatives.
Increasing the chance of survival of blood relatives increases the likelihood that the helper’s genes will be transferred to the next generation.
In this blog piece, you have learned what constitutes altruistic behavior and some of the reasons behind it.
Want to learn more about altruism? Try these books!
Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World
Matthieu Richard, best-selling international author, describes how altruism can solve many problems in today’s society.
He discusses that engaging in acts of altruism can improve economic inequality, life satisfaction, and environmental sustainability.
In this book, Richard delves into the notion that altruistic love benefits ourselves as well as society as a whole.
Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices About Giving back
This book, written by William MacAskill, explains why humans have misconstrued ideas about how to make a difference in the world.
We as humans tend to want to make a difference, and we use assumptions and emotions instead of facts to decide how to go about achieving this goal.
He discusses a counterintuitive way using reasoning and evidence for us to do the most good possible.
A Scientific Search for Altruism: Do We Only Care About Ourselves?
The egoism-altruism theory suggests that the motivation for everything we do, even seemingly selfless acts, are ultimately for self-gain. C. Daniel Batson discusses different experiments where psychologists have investigated whether empathy is egoistic or altruistic.
This book reaches the conclusion that empathy-induced altruism is part of our nature as humans.
Altruism.Psychology Today. 2019.
Altruism: Why We Risk Our Own Well-Being to Help Others. Very Well Mind. September, 30th, 2019.
Ethics Defined: Altruism.Ethics Unwrapped. 2019.