Have you ever wondered why some people help others without demanding anything in return? Why do some people donate money to NGOs or to the ones in need, even when they are not receiving anything in exchange for that help? Why do your parents try to provide you with all that you want by sacrificing their own needs? Well, the answer lies in Altruism. Altruism refers to the self-less behaviour or action that you do for the benefit of others. Helping the person in the distress is the primary motive behind the altruistic act, and there is no intention of rewards, repayment or recognition. In other words, altruism is similar to selflessness. Altruism can be seen among close relatives such as families, friends to strangers, and in various traditions and cultures around the world. In this article, we’ll understand what is altruism, egoistic and altruistic views, types of altruism, various examples of altruism observed in humans and animals, research related to altruism, benefits and drawbacks of altruism and a lot more.
Altruism vs Help
It may seem that helping someone and altruism are similar concepts, but they are quite different from each other. Altruism does not involve any self-benefit, while helping may involve your benefit. For example, you see that the poor children in your locality can not afford the tuition fees, hence you decide to provide them free of cost tuition, this does not involve any self-benefit, hence it’s an example of altruism. Now, suppose someone’s car stops in your driveway, and you decide to help them in fixing their car because it’s in your driveway, it’s an example of helping and not altruism because your benefit of reaching your destination is involved in your helping action. When you help someone it may or may not involve any self-benefit, hence we can not say that every help is altruism. Hence, help and altruism can be distinguished by the motivations of the person behind their actions.
Background of Altruism: Understanding the Egoistic and Altruistic View
The early studies on helping behaviour grew the interest of psychologists in exploring altruism. The early studies were generally focused on the idea that whether the person will help or not in the given situation, i.e., the focus was mainly on the act of helping. Later, the researchers begin to explore the motive behind the act of help. The researcher identifies that the idea behind the acts of helping could be understood through the two major classes of motivation, i.e., the egoistic view, and the altruistic view (Batson Ahmad, & Lishner, 2020). The egoistic view is mainly concerned about the possible benefits that the helper will receive in exchange for the help, the benefits may involve repayment, future favours, appreciation, recognition or gratification. On the other hand, the altruistic view involves compassion and sympathy for the person in the distress, i.e., the altruistic view focuses only on the benefit of the person receiving help. Hence, the motivation of the person behind helping the other defines whether the action is altruistic or not. For example, there could be either of the following motivations of an individual behind helping the beggar.
Egoistic View: The person gave the food to the hungry beggar as he wanted to be praised by his/her new partner. Hence, egoism describes the self-interest of the individual in helping others.
Altruistic View: The person gave food to the beggar because he was motivated to do that for the well-being of the beggar. Hence, altruism describes the purpose behind the individual’s motivation of helping others.
Some researchers argue that altruism does not exist in reality because the act that may seem altruistic could be a certain type of egoistic motive, also known as distress reduction. You might have encountered a beggar, who was in a bad condition asking you for help, try to remember that feeling of distress that you felt at that moment. You feel upset when you witness others in distress, if your motivation behind helping them is to reduce your negative feelings of distress then the act is considered more egoistic rather than altruistic. Let us understand through another example, if you are donating money to any NGO it means that you are helping the one in need without receiving any personal benefit. However, even if the person has helped someone, and he has not received any materialistic awards in return, it gives them rewards in other forms, for example, the person feels good and satisfied in return. Hence some researchers argue that it is not always true that every act where the helper is not receiving any materialist benefits is an altruistic act. They argue that the act is altruistic if the person’s only motive behind helping is to relieve the person from his/her sufferings, while the act would be egoistic if the motive behind help is to relieve one’s feeling of distress.
You might think that altruism may be a common thing as most people donate to charity, help each other with their problems and think of the wellness of others. However, not everyone thinks the same. Let us understand the different approaches to understand more about altruism.
The Universal egoism theory (Batson et al., 2020) is strongly favoured by various psychologists, economists, and biologists because of its clear and concise explanation. According to this theory, the self-benefit is the primary motivation behind each act of helping. People help others to feel good about themselves, to avoid the guilt or shame of not helping, or to get materialistic rewards. A person helps his/her friends as he/she does not want to lose the friendship. For example, you might have provided your mobile phone to another person for a call not only because you wanted to help that person, but knowingly or unknowingly you helped that person because you might be thinking of that if you will be in the position of that person in future then the others will also help you. According to Batson et l., 2020, even the heroic act of help that may risks the life of the person can also be explained through the approach of universal egoism because the self-benefit involved in this case is to avoid the feeling of guilt of not helping. You help the one in distress to avoid the bad feelings as you feel pity for their condition.
Although most of the helping acts can be explained through the universal egoism approach, some researchers argue that one can not explain each act of help through universal egoism because some people do selfless actions. Sometimes the only motive of the person behind helping others is the well-being of that person, and this is termed altruism. When a person helps the other without thinking about any rewards or recognization, this can not be explained through universal egoism. You may wonder, if there does not involve any self-benefit then why does the helper intervenes in that situation. Well, this can be understood through empathetic motivation.
According to some researchers, the emotional reactions (empathy and sympathy) of an individual motivate him/her for altruistic behaviour. We help our friends or family because we tend to feel their grief or pain. According to research (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010), mirror neurons are responsible for empathetic motivation when we see the one’s in need. In general, the combination of various feelings of helpers, which includes compassion, empathy and sympathy, and the receiver’s feelings of sadness, and distress results in empathetic motivation. People perceive and imagine the distress of others. For example, you see in the tv commercial that the child needs the money for his surgery, but his parents can’t afford that much money, and you decide to donate them the money because you feel the distress for that child and his family. Egoists’ view counters this approach because it suggests that even if the empathetic motivation is involved, self-interest is still the motivation behind the help, i.e., we help others to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling of distress due to empathy.
According to the collectivism approach, people help others for the benefit of the group, rather than for their benefit. This approach highlights that people mainly focus to improve the condition of the group to whom they belong, instead of themselves. The following statement given by psychologist Robyn Dawes best explains this approach.
not me or thee but we” (Dawes, kragt, & Orbell, 1988)
Like other approaches, this approach is also countered by the egoist’s view, as it suggests that self-interest is behind the motivation of helping for the benefit of the group because the person himself/herself is a part of that group.
If we think logically, it may be concluded that an individual’s motivation to perform the acts that ensure the safety of one’s group can directly or indirectly harm the one who does not belong to that group. However, principlism contrasts this by suggesting that altruism is impartial and universal as it is motivated by the idea of supporting moral principles. However, it is argued by some theorists that even the helping act motivated by the principlism is also can be considered egoism if there are any personal gains in upholding the principlism. The egoism view strongly challenges altruism, but various human and animal examples counter this view. We’ll discuss these examples further in this article. A recent researcher (Aknin, Broesch, Hamlin, & Vondervoort, 2015) supports the concept of altruism and suggests that people feel good about themselves when they engage in the helping act which is motivated by the well-being of others.
Types of Altruism
Generally, there are four types of altruism. It includes genetic altruism, group-based altruism, reciprocal altruism, and moral altruism. These types are discussed below.
1. Genetic Altruism/Nepotistic Altruism
In this type of altruism, the person shows altruistic behaviour to help his/her close relatives say parents, partner, or close friend. The example of genetic altruism can be commonly seen in families where a family member sacrifices his/her needs for the happiness of the other member of the family. For example, the father decides to buy a new laptop for his son rather than buying a new pair of shoes for himself or the mother sacrifices her time for the better upbringing of her child. Some people can argue that as the person is helping his/her family member so it is a selfish act, but it is still considered a type of altruism.
2. Reciprocal Altruism/Mutualism
Reciprocal altruism involves the concept of give-and-take, i.e., you are helping the other person today in the hope that one day that person will also help you when you’ll need it. It is to be noted that it is still altruism because the helper is not receiving any personal benefit at the current time.
3. Group Selected Altruism
Group selected altruism involves helping the people that you have a certain group affiliation with. People tend to help the ones that belong to their social group or follow the same values or beliefs. They help people that belong to the group that is supporting any social cause that the person himself/herself supports. For example, the person raising his voice against the discrimination against the person belonging to his/her community.
4. Pure Altruism/Moral Altruism
Pure Altruism is the extreme form of altruism. It involves helping the other without any intention of selfishness even when the risk is involved in the help. Pure altruism is also known as moral altruism because this type of altruism is based on the internalized beliefs and values of the person. The act of altruism is referred to as pure altruism when there is only one motivation behind that act, i.e., the motivation to help the other. If the person has any other motives such as any personal benefits or reward in exchange for that help it is not considered pure altruism. For example, if the person drives the car slow near the schools for the safety of the children then it is pure altruism, but if there are other motives such as being praised, or avoiding the challan of high speeding then his act of driving slowly near schools is not pure altruism. The wellness of the others is the only motivation behind the help in the case of pure altruism. Pure altruism is also known as true altruism, and it is argued by the theorists that the concept of true altruism does not exist in reality.
Understanding Altruistic Behaviour
Now you may get familiar with that what is altruism, but you might be wondering what are the factors that lead to altruism among people? Why do people take risks to help someone even when any self-benefit is not involved in that help? What motivates them to do the act of kindness? Social psychologists have conducted several researchers to explore the concept of altruism. Altruism is considered one of the aspects of prosocial behaviour. Any action perform for the sake of the other, without considering the motivation and the interest of the giver in doing that action is called prosocial behaviour. All the actions of altruism are prosocial, but vice-versa is not true. People help others due to several reasons say obligation, guilt, happiness or rewards. There is not a clear explanation that why altruism exists. Following are some of the different concepts given by psychologists that explain the concept of altruism.
Some psychologists argue that some people are born with the altruism qualities. A theory suggested that the altruistic behaviour of the person is influenced by genetics. The closeness and the relationship between the two individuals define their tendency to help each other. According to an evolutionary theory titled Kin selection, people tend to help people with the blood relationship as they believe in that it will increase the chances of gene transmission to the future generation. Hence, the genetic basis could be related to altruism.
According to some neurobiologists, when a person engages in any act of altruism, an increase in the activity of the pleasure centres of their brain is observed. It is found that engagement in altruistic behaviour results in the activation of the specific brain areas that are related to the reward system, and the positive feeling of committing compassionate actions results in the motivation of involved in altruistic behaviour in future.
Some theorists argue that altruistic behaviour is not only influenced by the genetics of the person but is also influenced by the kind of environment he/she is living in. Relationships and socialization can significantly impact altruism in children. It was shown in a study that the children who observed simple acts of altruism were less likely to show altruistic actions. On the contrary to it, the results were different when they were shown friendly and not altruistic actions. It is found that when people observe prosocial behaviour more often they are more likely to indulge in the helping behaviour. Although this depends upon several factors such as gender, perception of the person, culture, and traditions.
The decision of whether to show altruistic behaviour or not can also be dependent upon the expectations, rules and norms of the society. For example, in the norms of reciprocity, i.e., social expectations, the person feels obliged to help the other person, if he/she had ever taken any favour or help from that person. Let’s understand it through an example, Suppose you had once taken some money from your friend to invest in your protection. Now, when the same friend of yours asks you for a loan of a thousand dollars, you will feel obliged to give him the loan because you might think that you should help him as he also helped you when you required the money to invest in your project.
As we have learned earlier in this article, altruism means helping others without any rewards in return; however, some theorists argue that even if a person may not be receiving any materialistic rewards, there may still be the involvement of cognitive incentives. For example, if the person is helping others to feel better about themselves, the person gets a positive feeling by helping others. Following are the other two ways of the cognitive incentives.
Empathy: Psychologists argue that empathy could be a reason behind altruism. Individuals tend to show altruism when they feel empathy towards the person who needs help. Hence, the person with high empathy tends to show more altruistic behaviour.
To avoid negative feelings: Altruism can also be explained through the negative-state relief model. When you see someone suffering from something bad, you may develop feelings of pity, distress and upset. The person shows altruistic behaviour to suppress these negative feelings.
Altruism Examples in Humans
One can not remark any act as an altruistic act without the proper knowledge of the motivation behind that act. Here are a few real-life examples that explain the act of altruism in humans and animals.
1. Altruism in Traditions and Cultures
It is observed that Massai herders belonging to the Serengeti plain consider asking for help (osotua) as a crucial part of their tradition. (Holmes, 2016). It is the custom of this tribe that they are obliged to help others as long as it does not cost their life. The act of altruism may include giving away some of their herd to others without the expectation of any rewards in return. Some researchers have highlighted the existence of similar acts in other areas, such as Cattle ranchers of Texas and Fijians. According to Holmes, 2016 these acts are observed because of the unpredictability of the world as no one knows when any crisis could occur and people may need the help of others.
2. Air Florida Flight Incident
It is the incident when the Air Florida Flight got crashed into the Potomac River. Some passengers of the flight clung to the tail of the plane at around 30 degrees water. It was seen that when the rescue helicopters of the National Park service dropped a line to rescue the survivors, a person named Arland Williams, who was in better condition than the others helped the other passengers to attach to the line. All the passengers were towed to the safety area. When the helicopter returned to rescue William, it was found that he was succumbing to the freezing temperature of the water. This was an act of pure altruism. He was found dead and he costs his life and paid the ultimate price without any reward. The only reward he gained was the knowledge that the fellow passenger whom he helped has reached the safety area.
3. London Terror Attack Incident
The London terror attack incident of 2009 of a civil servant named Darryn Frost is also a great example of Altruism. Darryn Frost did not have a suitable weapon but he still managed to defend the other people from the men holding the knife and with the duplicate suicide vest. He grabbed an unlikely weapon, i.e., the tusk of a narwhal hanging on the wall, and he ran after the man to kill him, the man was finally shot by the police on London Bridge. This selfless act of Frost, even when his own life was at risk, saved the lives of many people.
4. Manhattan Subway Station Incident
In a 2007 incident, a 19-year-old person named Cameron Hollopeter fell at the Manhattan subway station due to a sudden seizure. The train was approaching him, and then suddenly a construction worker named Wesley Autry came to his rescue. The train braked instantly and Hollopeter got saved. This act of Wesely was witnessed by many people and highlighted by many media channels and leading newspapers, and he appeared on various primetime TV. He also received the New York’s Bronze Medallion for his bravery.
Altruism Examples in Animals
The reciprocal theory of altruism tries to explain the motivation of the animals behind the act of altruism toward the ones that they are not even related. It is observed that such acts of altruism result in the benefits of both the animals. Following are certain examples of animals helping the species that they are not even related to.
1. Altruism in Chimpanzees
The closest relatives of humans, chimpanzees, also show altruistic behaviour like humans. This was supported by the researcher of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Felix Warneken and his colleagues in 2007. In their study, they showed that chimpanzees helped strangers without the expectation of any rewards in exchange. There are various examples where chimpanzees are seen helping and saving the lives of each other. It is said that the chimpanzees prefer to help the closely related chimpanzees to ensure the spread of their genes or the hope to get help from the one they helped in case they demand it in future. Whatever the reason is, the helping behaviour eventually benefits both the helper and the receiver.
2. Altruism in Vampire Bats
Vampire bats drink the blood of other animals such as cows, horses, and pigs for their survival. Some researchers have shown that vampires living in a colony help each other by sharing their hunt with the ones who are hungry. They share some blood with the Hungary bats and with the ones they had received the blood in the past. More the closeness between the bats (belonging to the same colony) more likely they are to share their hunt.
3. Altruism in Humpback Whales
The Humpback whale incident of 2009 is another popular example of altruism in animals. This incident was witnessed by an ecologist Robert Pitman in the waters of Antarctica. He observed that a humpback whale came to the rescue of a seal that was freely lying on the ice floe from the whale who was about to kill that seal.
Researches Related to Altruism
Aknin and Colleagues (2015, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General)
This study was conducted to check the differences in the emotional rewards of altruism in children belonging to the small island of the South Pacific (Vanuatu) and the children belonging to a western country like Canada. In this experiment, the researcher provided eight candies to the children (a valuable commodity). The children were then told by the researcher to give one of their candies to a puppet (costly giving). The researcher provided the children with another candy to give to the puppet (non-costly giving). The emotional expressions of the children in both cases were videotaped to analyse their happiness. It was found that the children belonging to Vanuatu showed more happiness than the children belonging to Canada when they provided their candy to the puppet (costly giving) as compared to when the researcher provided them with the candy to give to the puppet (non-costly giving). This shows that the children feel happier in case of the costly giving, i.e., in the act of altruism. Also, the act of altruism is dependent upon the tradition and the culture of the person.
Stock, Olesen, and Massen (2015, Journal of Comparative Psychology)
This study was conducted to check whether the long-tailed macaques show altruistic behaviour or not. In this experiment, Macaques A were kept in room X consisting of two handles. A closely related say sibling or offspring was kept in an adjacent room of room X, and another adjacent room of room X was kept empty. If the Macaques pull handle A, it will give them a high-quality reward say apple and low-quality rewards say bread to the empty room, while if they pull handle B, it will give the high-quality food to their relative and low-quality food to themselves. This means that if the Macaques want to provide their relative with a high-quality reward, it will cost them the high-quality reward, i.e., the donor will receive the less quality food reward. It was found that the Macaques always choose to pull handle A, they did not bother that their relative won’t receive any food. This shows that the macaques do not possess altruism.
Why Do People Have Different Levels of Altruism?
You must have heard of the well know personality Ellen DeGeneres. She is a rich, and successful woman and could have had spent her money to fulfil whatever she desires but instead, she decided to spend her time and money on the ones who need her. Ellen DeGeneres is considered a good example of altruism as she put others’ well-being first, and she cares about others even when she does not have any personal ties with them. But, not everyone around us is like Ellen DeGeneres, not everyone thinks of selflessly helping others. Have you ever wondered, why is that? Well, there is no clear evidence to answer this, but a study conducted by Walden University has suggested that the functioning of the brain mainly influences the selfless and altruistic behaviour of the person. According to the research conducted by Georgetown University, it was found that the right amygdala of people who possess a high degree of altruism is highly active. Amygdala is a part of the brain that is responsible for perceiving emotions and feelings. This shows the linkage between neurobiology and altruism. This is explained below.
Biology Behind the Altruism
We have studied altruism through the psychological perspective in this article, but social scientists and biologists look at the concept of altruism from a different perspective, hence having another view of altruism. According to a biologist, altruism is defined as an act of enhancing the reproductive fitness of the other species at their own cost, rather than the motivation behind the helping behaviour. (Arbia & Carbonnier, 2016).
According to Richard Dawkins,
An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another entity’s welfare at the expense of it own.” (The Selfish Gene, 2016).
However, this concept seems implausible from the perspective of evolution because if the behaviour of most animals is hereditary, then how could the altruism be passed to the next generations, when it leads to lesser offspring? However, kin altruism is also known as the inclusive fitness theory, helping the person that shares a significant part of our genetic code results in the increased probability of passing down the genes. (Buss, 2014). Hence, in terms of biology, altruism promotes the gens instead of individualism. Some researchers show a decrease in the number of such activities with the increase in genetic variation (distant relatives in the family). But, this does not explain the act of altruism toward a strange person, which does not share significant genetic material. To explain this biologists took the help of applied mathematics brach, i.e., game theory. According to this theory, biological kin-altruism can be explained through the reciprocity-exchanging approach for mutual benefit. (Buss, 2014; Arbia & Carbonnier, 2016). According to reciprocal altruism, adaptation
providing benefits to non-relatives can evolve as long as the delivery of the benefits is reciprocated at some point in the future.” (Buss, 2014)
Characteristics of Altruism
You might want to check whether you possess altruistic behaviour or not. Well, here are a few points that can help you analyse whether you or the other person is altruistic or not.
1. Putting Others First
Have you ever given your lunch to someone else even though you were hungry? Have you ever given your bus seat to the others who needed it the most? Have you ever tried to help others even though it may cost you a lot? If the answer is yes, you possess altruism. The person who possesses altruistic behaviour put the needs of others first over his/her own needs. It does not mean that your needs are not important it is just that you prioritize the well-being of others.
2. Observing the Effect of Your Actions on Others
Suppose you are assigned by the government the task of distributing rations to the people who have suffered from a recent natural disaster. Now, as the whole ration is under your surveillance. You have the opportunity to keep a large portion of the public ration for your benefit, but you think about the impact of this action on the sufferers of the natural disaster. You possess altruism if you think that it would be inappropriate to use the public ration for personal benefits and you decide to equally distribute the ration to the people.
3. Feeling the Joy and Happiness of Helping Someone
The people who possess altruism do not show off whom they helped and how they improve the lives of others, instead, they perform acts of altruism as it gives them internal happiness and joy.
4. Proactive Behaviour
The altruistic person does not wait for the right time or opportunity to help others, instead, he/she is proactive. The person who possesses altruism is ready to help the one in need even if he/she is not asked for it.
5. Having a High Self-Esteem
When you help others, you get the feeling of satisfaction. Seeing the happiness of the people who you have helped, helps you to strengthen your beliefs on your moral values and result in high self-esteem. You feel that helping others not only ensures the well-being of others but also makes your own life better.
How can One Become More Altruistic?
Numerous neurologists have suggested the association of altruism with the functioning of the brain and high compassion. However, even if someone does not possess the qualities of being altruistic genetically, one can adopt altruistic behaviour by following the given steps below.
- Altruism involves helping others selflessly. For that one needs to stay away from negativity and believe in spreading love, positivity, and kindness. When you think positive about others you are more likely to involve in altruistic acts.
- Start exploring your community and try to help wherever it’s needed. If you are aware of what’s going on in your surroundings you are more likely to see and feel the pain of the ones in need. One can help by helping the NGOs in raising the funds, being a volunteer at the various programmes that suns for the wellness of others. Hence, one should keep an eye on what is needed to be improved in society for the betterment of the people.
- When you perform an altruistic act it leads you to think good about yourself. Some argue that these positive feelings could be a selfish reward but your act remains an altruistic act. One should embrace these feelings rather than deny them. Feeling happy and joy after helping someone is a sign of altruism and not selfishness.
- Try to read about or look at the people who do altruistic acts. When you look at the others performing altruistic and how their altruistic acts are improving the lives of the others and the satisfaction it gives to the helper, it will inspire you to act the same and possess altruism.
- One should practice empathy. Imagine yourself in the place of the person who is suffering because when you feel the distress of the person who is suffering, you are highly likely to help that person even if it is costing you a lot.
- Look around, you may find many who may need your help. Set a goal of helping others each day whether it is a small act of kindness or saving someone’s life.
Drawbacks of Altruistic Behaviour
Although altruism promotes wellness in society, there exist some drawbacks to altruism too. In extreme cases, engagement in the act of altruism can put the life of the helper in danger. Altruistic people tend to neglect their own needs and perform several helping acts; they fail to analyse that the particular helping act may cause them financially or sometimes socially. The intention of the person may be the wellness of the person but it does not ensure that their helping act will result in a positive outcome. For example, group-based altruism may encourage the person to help the one belonging to his/her group, but it may directly or indirectly negatively impact the ones that do not belong to their group.
Positive Impacts of Altruism
Altruism may have some drawbacks in extreme cases, but it has several benefits, and it ensures the benefits of both the helper and receiver. Some of the advantages of altruism are given below,
- If the person behaves altruistically, it is observed that it positively impacts the physical health of the person. Altruistic people engage in several volunteer activities and it gives them internal peace and results in better overall growth.
- Altruism results in better psychological health for the person. When the person helps the ones in need, it gives the helper a sense of joy and happiness and explained earlier in this article, altruism is also related to brain functioning. The altruistic acts make the person feel good about themselves which results in better mental health.
- If the person possesses the traits of altruism, he/she is more likely to become a good partner. Kindness and compassion are the traits possessed by the altruistic person. If the person is kind and compassionate he/she always tries to understand the feelings of his significant other, which results in a better relationship. Altruism is not only beneficial in improving romantic relationships, it also helps in improving the social network and family relationships, which eventually improves overall wellness.
- Altruism increases the self-esteem and self-confidence of the person. This helps the person in almost every aspect of his/her life.
- Altruism helps in making the world a better place to live. If everyone possesses the traits of altruism, the cases of crimes will be reduced and people will start trusting each other and working for the benefit of each other.