What is Altruism?
Altruism refers to the action of an individual for the wellness or the safety of others, especially those actions that do not give any direct rewards or appreciation to the one who has performed them (Batson, Ahmad, & Stocks, 2011; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005; Dovidilo, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner, 2006). According to Zaki & Mitchel (2013), altruistic actions are reflexive, intuitive and influenced by the subconscious of the person. Various actions such as helping the strangers standing on the highway, donating the blood, volunteering for the needy ones, and donating food or other necessities to the beggar are some examples of altruistic acts. It is to be noted that altruism can be considered as the act of helping, but not all the helping acts can be referred to as altruistic acts. The major difference between the helping act and the altruistic act is that the act of helping may involve self-benefit, but the primary motive behind the altruistic act is the wellness and safety of the other person only.
Why Do People Indulge in the Acts of Altruism?
You must be wondering what is it that influences an individual to involve in acts of altruism even when they are not getting any benefits in return. Let us discuss some factors that can help us understand the motives behind the people who indulge in altruistic behaviour.
1. Kin Selection
According to evolutionary psychologists, it’s the human tendency to indulge in altruistic acts. They claim that altruism may involve helping others at a certain cost, but certain altruistic acts result in the benefits to the large group to which the helper belongs. As stated by McAndrew (2002), the survival of an individual is not as important as the survival of the genes to which that individual belongs. The act of altruism enhances the safety of the individuals belonging to the species of the helper. In an evolutionary sense, if an individual shows altruism to ensure the survival and prosperity of his/her genses, then it means that the individual is more likely to help his/her relative more than the others. Research conducted by Stewart-Williams, Madsen, and some other researchers also supports this argument that individuals are more likely to show altruism towards their kin. In 1994, research was conducted by Crandall, Burnstein, and Kitayama to analyse the helping behaviour of some students belonging to Japan and the United States. The students were provided with the different situations and their responses were noted. The analyses of the responses of the students showed that when in the given situation the life of a person was at risk and the helping act involved a lot of time, struggle and danger, the students were more likely to help the ones who were closely related to them say, parents, siblings or children than the ones who were distantly related say uncle, grandparents, niece or nephew. In a study published by Borgida, Conner & Manteufel in 1992, an individual is more likely to donate his/her kidney to a close relative than to a stranger, also another study conducted by Tisak & Tisak in 1992 shows that the children are more likely to show helping or altruistic behaviour towards their siblings than their friends. The kin theory is an important factor that motivates individuals to show altruism, but apart from the genetic relationships, people’s motivation to show altruism is also influenced by the perception of the individual toward the one who needs help. For example, we are more likely to help our friends than strangers, we tend to help the person who belongs to our group than the one who does not belong to the group, and even in strangers, we tend to help the ones who have certain similarities with us (Dovidio et al., 1997; Sturmer, Snyder, Kropp, & Siem, 2006; Krupp, DeBruine, & Barclay, 2008).
It is the sense of perceived similarity, the sense of ‘oneness’ between the helper and the individual in need that motivates most helping” – Cialdini, Lewis, Brown, Neuberg, and Luce (1997)
2. Reciprocity and Social Exchange
Well, it seems reasonable to accept that people tend to help and show altruistic behaviour towards the ones who are closely related to them or share some commonalities with them; now, the question arises as that why an individual helps the unrelated people. According to Trivers (1971), this behaviour of individuals helping strangers can be explained through the reciprocal altruism principle. Reciprocal altruism refers to the notion that people tend to help others in the hope that they will also receive help from others in future. This means that by helping others we not only increase the chances of survival of others but also our own chances of survival too. Reciprocal altruism encourages people to help strangers as people assume that it will eventually help them in the future. Reciprocal altruism can be easily seen in animals. For example, Some birds and animals such as vervet monkeys give alarming calls to the other members of the group in case of an attack by the predators. While giving the alarming calls they attract the attention of the predators towards itself thus risking their lives. Dolphins help the injured and sick animals by swimming, they even swim under them to help them come to the surface for breathing. Bats provide the regurgitated blood to other members of the group who are not able to get the food for some reason. Some low-level organisms also show altruism, for example, cellular slime moulds are the groups of the cells that reside as individuals until they face a shortage of food, at this point, slime moulds form a multicellular organism, and during this process, some cells sacrifice their lives to ensure the growth of the other cells in the multicellular organism. Reciprocal altruism is an example of social exchange principles. People often help others to gain rewards and to protect themselves from distress, and help can be considered as the benefit that we give to others. Sometimes, this social exchange represents overt cooperation, for example, when the neighbours help each other in case of emergencies, and students share their books with each other. To sum up, people tend to help someone they don’t know because they expect that the others will also help them in case they need it someday.
3. Social Reinforcement
Although there are various theories proposed by different social psychologists to explain the factors that motivate people to show altruism, we can say that the altruism among individuals is influenced by both the biological factors and the social experiences of the person (Batson, 2011). According to the social learning principles people are more likely to indulge in helping and altruism when they think that they will get any benefits for doing that behaviour. A study was conducted to analyse the helping behaviour of the children, this study revealed that children who were praised for their behaviour when they shared their toys with others were more likely to show altruism later, than the students who were not praised. A study published by Farrelly, Lazarus, & Roberts in 2007 revealed that people are more likely to help a person of the opposite sex whom they find more attractive than the one whom they find unattractive.
Darley and Batson study, 1973
Darley and Batson conducted a study to understand the influence of the cost of helping. In this study, they asked the students of a seminary to prepare a presentation speech. The students were divided into two groups, one-half of the seminarians were asked to prepare a speech on the parable of Good Samaritan, and the other half were asked to prepare the speech on the jobs that seminarians like to do. The idea behind this was that asking the students to prepare the speech on the Good Samaritan will influence the students to indulge in altruism. When they were done with the preparation, the religious students were told to go to a building for recording their speeches. However, some students were told that they have enough time for their recording session, while some were told that they are late and they should hurry, and others were told that they are exactly on time. In this experiment, a strange person was assigned to stand on the way to the building where the recording session was going to happen. This person was groaning and coughing and required help. The level of help that each student can give to this person was the dependent variable of this experiment. Figure-A represents “The costs of helping.” When Darley and Batson analysed the findings of this experiment, they found the impact of the speech on helping was not much significant, i.e., the students who were asked to prepare the speech on the importance of helping and altruistic behaviour did not significantly help more than the one who did not prepare that speech. However, they noticed that the time pressure had a significant impact. Of the students who were told that they have enough time for their recording session, 63% of the students offered to help the needy person, and of the students who were told they are exactly on time, 45% offered the help, while only 10% helped from the students who were told that they were running late. These findings aligned with the social enforcement principle, i.e., when people had enough time, the helping act seems less costly, and students are more likely to help.
The Costs of Helping
As represented in this experiment, each helping act costs differently. The helping act is highly costly when it involves the utilization of major resources (time or money) and involves potential danger. For example, a helping act that involves a long-term commitment (taking care of the sick or injured person) would be more costly than a short-term helping act (helping the person to reach the hospital). As per this perspective, helping an unknown is more costly than helping the knows, hence some countries have even passed the Good Samaritan laws. The enactment of these laws raises the costs of not helping the one in need. According to Good Samaritan laws, people are required to provide help to the people in need or distress if it does not involve any danger to them, otherwise, they may be charged with a fine or other punishment. Some countries have also enacted the ‘angel of mercy’ laws; these laws reduce the cost of helping others and encourage people to offer help to others in case of emergencies and they will be protected in case their actions were purely for the safety of the others and not harmful. For example, In Germany, a fine is imposed on a person who does not give first aid to the one in need, and also to encourage the helping behaviour among people, the individual who provided the help but somehow the situation turned bad or worse, cannot be prosecuted (Bundesministerium der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz, 2014).
Apart from learning the helping behaviour from the social reinforcement, the helping behaviour is also influenced by the modeling (Bryan & Test, 1967). When we see people around us indulging in acts of helping and altruism, we are more likely to show helping behaviour and altruism. Various studies have been conducted to analyse the impact of viewing helping and altruistic acts on children. A meta-analysis of different studies was concluded by a researcher named Heaold in 1980, this revealed that watching the helping and altruistic acts on the television has more impact on the children than watching the aggressive or violent acts. Hearold encouraged the parents to demand television programmes that are based on themes of altruism and helping acts. Well, as viewing altruism makes the person indulge in altruistic acts, in the same manner viewing aggression and violence can also influence the person to show violent and aggressive behaviour. A study published by Anderson and Bushman in 2001 revealed that the ones who spent most of their time playing violent video games are less likely to help.
The definition of altruism says that altruistic people do not expect any rewards, but people do get the rewards in other forms such as reputation, appreciation and social status for showing altruism. Hence, these cognitive rewards could also be the motivation for individuals to indulge in acts of altruism. When people show altruistic behaviour it not only improves their status in the other’s eyes but also in their own eyes. People feel happy and content after performing an altruistic act. A study was published by Hardy and Van Vugt in 2006, in this study it was found that in a game played between the male subjects and the female subjects, both the males and females chose the cooperative options rather than the competitive options when their choices were made public than in the case when their choices were kept private. The research published by Nesse, Brown, Vinokur, & Smith in 2003, revealed that the people who show altruistic behaviour and often indulge in helping acts are happier and live longer than the people who do not involve in helping acts.
Examples of Acts of Altruism
1. The Best Christmas Gift, 1999
It’s a 1999 incident, David Hutmacher, an employee of a company in Georgia, experiences a sudden pain in his stomach while he was working at his workstation. After the checkup, he got to know that he is a patient with diverticulitis (an inflammatory ailment). Upon the recommendation of the doctors, he underwent two surgeries, and for nearly 3 months, he was admitted to the hospital. In December 1999, when all his sick leaves have already been used up, he received only 10 % of his total income. David was living with his wife and two daughters. David’s wife was working in a school and her income was not enough to manage all the expenses. Christmas was near, and David knew that it was difficult for him to join the office in this condition at least by the end of January. At this moment a miracle happened, David received the full salary for the December month, along with the amount that was deducted from his previous salary. This surprised David, and he immediately called his office. He came to know that all the employees at his company have donated their left leaves and vacation time to David. David was overwhelmed by the altruistic act of his colleagues. Although the employees of the company have shown altruism toward David, Sandy Davis, the controller, was the one who influenced all the employees to help David. Davis told David that one of his close co-workers came to David and offered to donate his left leaves and vacation time to David. This act of his co-worker gave Davis an amazing idea to help David. Davis formulated a mail describing David’s health and financial condition, and how employees can help him to deal with his problem by donating their left vacation time and leaves to David. He also mentioned in the mail that he himself has donated her vacation time to encourage the other employees to do the same. This mail helped David in getting 24 leaves, which was sufficient for his recovery.
It’s absolutely the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten. I love my family. I love my children. But my colleagues’ generosity has touched me more than anything else, because it was so unexpected and so freely given. That Christmas was one of the best I’ve ever had.” – David Hutmacher
2. Charlie Kees’s Act of Altruism for Yukiko Marth
It’s a September 1999 incident of an athlete named Yukiko Marth. She found her legs swollen with fluid when she woke up one morning. Earlier, she ignored it, thinking it could be because she was continuously practising volleyball for the past few days. When she consulted with a doctor she was recommended to undergo certain tests. Her test reports shocked her as she found that she is suffering from acute glomerulonephritis, and only 15 per cent of her kidneys are operating. Within a few days after that, she was on dialysis. Marth became very weak by the end of December 1999. Doctors told Marth that a kidney transplant is the only way she can recover. Doctors also told her that it can take almost three years for a cadaverous kidney transplant (using the kidney of a dead person for the transplant) and that the chances that Marth may survive for three years were very low because of her fragile condition. Marth got shattered hearing that. When Marth was losing all her hopes, her occasional tennis and volleyball partner, Charlie Kees came to help her. Charlie offered to donate his kidney to the Marth. Luckily, the blood type of Kees and Marth was perfect matches and the doctors approved the transplant. On 28 June 2001, a successful kidney transplant was done by the doctors, and Marth’s pain and suffering from the dialysis came to an end. After the transplant, Kees and Marth recovered very well, in fact, Marth even joined the court after a month of surgery. In 2002, after a year of the transplant, Marth bagged the gold in US Transplant Games.
I knew where she had been as an athlete, and I was watching her body become deteriorated and emaciated and constantly tethered to a machine. And my only thought was if there was any way I could help her get back to where she had been, I wanted to do it. It just felt like something I was supposed to do. It felt like it was my purpose to help.”- Charlie Kees
3. London Terror Attack
It’s an incident that happened on 29 November 2019. Some people were attending the conference at the Fishmongers Hall, Central London, and suddenly a person named Britson Usman Khan starts attacking the people. In this incident, five people were stabbed, and two died at the moment. The attacker even threatened the people at the blast as he was wearing the suicide vest. Although later after investigation this suicide vest was found fake. People were in distress. Darryn Frost, a civil servant who was also present at that moment did not have any weapon with himself to fight against the attacker but he still decided to save the lives of other people and ran after the attacker. Khan was wearing the suicide vest and also carrying knives, even then Frost decided to risk his life for the safety of the civilians. The police later shot the attacker on the London Bridge. This brave act of Frost is surely an example of Altruism.
4. Wesley Autrey’s Act of Altruism
Wesley Autrey is also popularly known by the names Subway Superman, The Hero of Harlem, and Subway Hero in the media for his brave and altruistic act for a person named Cameron Hollopeter. It’s a 2007 incident when Hollopeter suddenly had a seizure attack and he fell on the track. A lot of people were present there, but Autrey took the initiative and came for the help of the Hollopeter. The moment he was busy in the first aid of the Hollopeter, he saw a subway approaching them. He had no time to take the Hollopeter to a safe area. He suddenly dragged him to the trench and held him there for the time the subway passed on the track, and in this manner, he saved the life of the Hollopeter. Instead of leaving Hollopeter on the track, he dared to risk his life. This altruistic act of Autrey made him get featured in the Times 100 most influential people in the world list in 2007.
5. Americans’ Act of Altruism
It’s an incident in May 2001, an American woman, Shelia Weisenberg, was detected with breast cancer. Wessenbertg was living a well-settled life with her family at a home in Dallas, but cancer ruined her life. Sheila went through chemotherapy and a lumpectomy, but even after that, in September 2001, cancer returned. In October 2001, she underwent a right-side mastectomy and in March 2002 she continues her chemotherapy. After she began her chemo treatment, Sheila’s husband lost his job for some reason due to which they suffered a major financial disturbance. They were unable to manage their expenses. They even sold their jewellery, artworks and other precious articles. Sheila had to start a part-time job to manage the expenditure even when she was still under chemo treatment. According to the doctors, sheila can barely survive for 18 more months. Her financial condition went so bad that they were unable to buy the groceries. She had to leave her chemo treatment and start begging. One night, she came across the advertisement for an online campaign titled ‘Covering the Uninsured.’ She went onto their online page and wrote her life story. This incident remarked the turning point of her life. Two weeks later, Sheila got the call from a journalist who included sheila’s heart-wrenching story in her book that highlights the stories of uninsured Americans. This book was also featured in the New York Times. After this book got featured in the New York Times, Sheila received a call from a former CEO of an esteemed company, who offered her a huge amount for her treatment. She received help from many other people too. In this way, she managed to overcome her financial issues. To thank the helpers she sent the Thank-you notes, most of which she designed herself. One of her friends liked her designs, and she requested sheila to design her son’s birthday party cards. Later, she got the offer to design the wedding invitations of that friend’s colleague. After this, she didn’t look back and started her business designing.
There are no words to express the immense gratitude, the peaceful feeling I now have, and the awe I fell for the incredible people who reached out to me, and for the enitre mircaulous experience. The fact that I’m still alive and have a roof over my head, I completely attribute to the incredible Kindness of the Americans public and the good feelings it created in me” – Sheila Wessenberg
6. Air Florida Flight Crash
Air Florida Flight 90, a domestic flight, carrying 74 passengers and 5 crew members was scheduled from the US to Fort Lauderdale crashed into a bridge over the Potomac River in the United States in 2019. The aircraft tilted over the bridge after the crash, and all the passengers hung onto the plane. A rescue helicopter was sent by the National Park Service to help the passengers. When the helicopter was rescuing the passengers, a passenger named, Arland Williams was seen helping the other passengers to reach the helicopter safely instead of himself reaching the helicopter first. He helped all the passengers to get attached to the rope connected with the helicopter one by one. When the helicopter came to rescue the last passenger, which is obviously Arand Williams, he was not there. William was drowned in the river. This incident can be considered an example of pure altruism. Arland helped the other passengers at the risk of his own life. He could have saved his life, but he chose to help others first.
7. Massai Herders
Massai herders are well known for showing altruistic acts towards the other members of the community. Osotua is a tradition of Massai herders that says that they can not refuse if someone asks them to help. Massai herders are commonly seen sharing their livestock such as goats, sheep or cattle with the other members of the group if they lost their livestock for any reason. Some suggest that altruism is common among the Massai herders because their future is highly unpredictable. For earning, Massai herders only rely on one source, i.e., their livestock. The chances of occurrence of natural disasters or prevalent diseases are quite common on the Serengeti plains due to which they are highly likely of losing their livestock. This can eventually make the life of Massai herders very difficult as in case they lose their livestock there is not any other source of income for them. Massai herders understand this, which is why they never step back from helping other members of the group because they hope for receiving help from the others members in case they may face such difficulty in future.
8. Battle at Kruger
Battle at Kruger is a wildlife video captured at the Kruger National Park, South Africa by Jason Schlosberg and David Budzinski in 2004. This video was posted on YouTube on 3 May 2007, and it instantly got viral after it was published and is considered one of the most-watched wildlife videos on YouTube. Many popular publications and websites such as Time Magazine and National Geographic featured this video. In this video, A group of adult buffalos and a baby buffalo were seen herding near a river, and suddenly a group of lions attacked them and tried to capture the baby buffalo. After some time, the lions got successful in dragging the baby buffalo away from the group of adult buffaloes in a nearby lake. The moment the lions started attacking the baby buffalo, two crocodiles intervened. A battle for the baby buffalo begins between the lions and the crocodile. Eventually, the lions got successful in bringing the hunt out of the water. At this point, a group of buffalos came to protect the baby buffalo. Buffaloes fought with the lions with bravery and were able to chase them off. This act of altruism of the adult buffaloes saved the life of the baby buffalo.
9. Humpback Whale’s Act of Altruism
Robert Pitman and John Durban, marine ecologists, witnessed an interesting incident in West Antarctic Penisula in January 2009. They described it in a research journal titled Marine Mammal Science. They saw a seal lying on an ice floe and out of nowhere some killer whales arrived and begin attacking the seal. Well, this is not unusual as killer whales are usually seen attacking the seals as it is their food. The unusual thing was that some humpback whales came to the rescue of the seal. One of the humpback whales even carried the seal over its body and protected it from slipping into the water. This behaviour of humpback whales is quite unusual as they often do not interact with the killer whales as killer whales and humpback whales are both natural enemies. Also, the seal is not the food of the humpback whales so clearly they did not intervene in the situation for the hunt. Their only purpose of intervening can be assumed as protecting the life of the seal from the killer whales.
10. Altruistic Act of a Doctor Saved Many Lives
Let us discuss an interesting example that shows how an act of altruism saved a number of lives. It’s an incident of the second world war, during the Battle of Bulge between the Germans and the United States at the Hurtgen Forest. A United States sergeant, Iowan Elmer, was allotted to lead the troops in this battle. During the fight, the German troops shot Elmer and captured him. German soldiers took Elmer to their medical camp, where Ludwig Gruber, a German doctor, felt pity for Elmor after seeing his condition and begin treating him. Hospital’s commander rebuked Ludwig and told him not to treat Elmor as he is not a German soldier. However, Ludwig ignored what the commander said, and he continued Elmor’s treatment. While Elmer was still under the possession of the Germans, the Army Captain of the US arrived for the negotiations at the German camp. After some hours of negotiation, both the parties admitted to cease the bombing, and the American officer thanked the Germans for treating the Elmor. Elmer was then taken to the US military camp, but unfortunately, he was not able to survive due to his severe injuries. Dr Gruber’s act of kindness can be considered an important factor, if not the only factor, that made the captains of both the nations negotiate and cease the bombing, thus saving the lives of a number of troops.
11. A Dog’s Act of Altruism
An eleven-year boy was playing in his backyard and suddenly a cougar entered the backyard. The cougar was about to attack the boy and then suddenly the pet dog named Angel came to the rescue. Angel stands in between the boy and the cougar. During this moment, the nearby police intervened after hearing the barking voice of the dog and the screaming of the boy. The police found Angel fighting with the Cougar. The Cougar eventually got killed while protecting the Angel. Police took the angel to the hospital, and it got discharged after a few days of treatment. This daring and altruistic act of the Angel can be considered as an example of pure altruism because Angel saved the life of the boy at the risk of his own life.
12. Dolphin’s Act of Altruism
Usually, whales and dolphins do not intermingle, but the following video shows how a pod of dolphins helped a female humpback whale and her little baby. In this incident, a female humpback whale and her baby were swimming off the Flinder Bay coast of Australia, and suddenly some male humpback whales came near them and starts fighting with each other, probably to mate with the female whale. While the male humpback whales were fighting, the mother whale and the baby get separated from each other. Both the mother whale and the baby got very scared. A pod of dolphins arrived at this moment to help the mother and the baby. The dolphins managed to bring the baby whale back to the mother whale, and they chase off most of the humpback whale after an hour-long effort. While chasing off the male humpback whales one of the dolphins even scared the male humpback whales by showing its teeth, this behaviour of dolphins is rarely seen. The dolphins did not have any personal benefit in fighting with the male humpback whales, they only got involved in the fight for protecting the female humpback whale and its baby. Hence, it can be considered an example of altruism.
13. A Dog’s Altruistic Act Saved its Owner’s Life
There are a number of examples that strengthen the fact that dogs are one of the most altruistic animals. One such example is a dog named Sadie, who saved its owner’s life. Sadie’s owner, Brown, shared a post on his Facebook account describing Sadie’s act of altruism. He mentioned that while he was alone at home, he suffered a cardiac attack. Sadie stayed with the Brown whole this time and licked his face to keep him awake. Sadie also helped Brown to reach his mobile, and in this way, he managed to call the Ambulance. Brown mentioned that he could not have been able to reach the mobile without the help of Sadie.
14. Run for Heros Campaign
Run for Hero was a campaign initiated by a British woman named Olivia Strong for the healthcare workers fighting against the covid-19 pandemic. She aimed to raise the fund of five thousand Euros through this campaign; however, this campaign turned out to be a huge success and it ended up raising over five million Euros. At that time, the British government had passed the lockdown rules, according to these rules, people could leave their homes only for the necessary work, and for one exercise per day. Strong thought of an amazing idea, she used this liberty of one daily exercise in his campaign.
If we combine our one form of exercise a day that we’re currently getting because everyone’s out running anyway, then maybe we can make a difference.”- Olivia Strong
‘Run, Donate, Nominate’ was the tagline of this campaign. This campaign involved running, walking or cycling the 5km, donating five Euros, and then nominating the five more individuals to follow the same steps. Almost 8 lakh people joined this campaign. The raised fund was provided to the ‘NHS Charities Together.’
15. Gorilla’s Act of Altruism, 1996
Binti Jua, a female gorilla showed an amazing act of altruism in the zoo in Illinois. Nealy 3-year-old boy accidentally fell into the enclosure of gorillas. Binti saw this and immediately captured the boy. She even protected the boy from the other gorillas in the enclosure and carried him to safety. After some time, the zookeeper arrived to save the boy, and Binti Jua handed over the boy to the zookeeper. This kind act of Binti Jua saved the little boy’s life.