Around the world, people give up time, money, and energy every day to improve the lives of others.
It can be as simple as helping a neighbor with their shopping. Or more noteworthy, putting themselves at risk to rescue a stranger, changing healthcare policies to benefit communities, or helping to rid the world of a devastating disease, impacting millions.
And yet, psychologists and philosophers argue over the motivation behind compassionate, kind-hearted, considerate, and benevolent actions.
Are these people self-less or self-interested?
Some believe they are driven by altruism, with no regard for themselves or their wellbeing, while others claim self-interest drives even the noblest action.
In this article, we explore the meaning of altruism and discuss whether behavior can be motivated solely by another’s wellbeing. And if so, why? We also uncover human and animal examples of altruistic behavior and the biological and philosophical implications beneath.
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What Is Altruism in Psychology?
Altruism describes behavior motivated by the goal of increasing someone else’s welfare. In contrast, egoism defines acts driven by our self-interest (Batson, Ahmad, & Lishner, 2020).
For example, the motivation behind stopping to help someone with a flat tire:
- Egoistic view – the driver stops so that they appear caring in front of their new partner.
- Altruistic view – the driver is motivated to stop by their concern for another’s wellbeing.
The underlying motivation defines whether an action is altruistic.
But, isn’t altruistic behavior commonplace? After all, many of us give to charitable appeals, visit relatives in the hospital, or help one another with loss.
Not everyone agrees.
The theory of universal egoism is commonly held by psychologists, biologists, and economists, partly due to its simplicity and lack of nuance (Batson et al., 2020).
According to this model, the goal or motivation behind each act is self-benefit.
We behave in such a way to feel good about ourselves, receive material rewards, or avoid feeling shame about our actions or inaction.
- We help a friend because we do not want to lose the closeness we share with them. If we see them upset, it causes us to feel bad, so we intervene.
- We offer someone a ride because at some point we may need their help.
Even a heroic life-saving act, according to universal egoists, is an attempt to escape guilt and be seen in a positive light (Batson et al., 2020).
And yet, believing that every action is motivated by self-interest alone seems cynical and devoid of humanity, and offers a bleak view of the world.
Can we believe that there are no selfless actions?
The altruist is more generous with the motivation they attribute to such acts.
While much of our behavior is underpinned by egoistic motivation, under certain circumstances, help is given with the sole aim of improving or safeguarding the wellbeing of others – this is altruism.
If we assist someone in trouble, we are therefore not motivated by a future, unknowable reward or recognition.
But why would we engage in behavior that favors another over ourselves?
Our actions are motivated by our emotional reactions – including empathy and sympathy – to a situation.
In a literal sense, we experience the pain of our friend’s grief, so we offer our time and help. Ongoing brain research has confirmed that mirror neurons help us represent the actions or emotions of the people around us (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010).
When we see a starving child on a TV commercial, we feel their distress and that of their family before donating.
Empathic motivation results from a combination of our feelings – tenderness, compassion, and sympathy – and the recipient’s sadness, loneliness, and distress.
We perceive the needs of another or imagine their feelings.
Egoists counter this view by suggesting that we are still motivated by self-interest; we help another to remove or reduce our uncomfortable feelings that result from our empathy.
Collectivism (or group selection)
The collectivist believes that the ultimate goal behind the way we act is to benefit the group, rather than oneself.
Instead of focusing on ourselves or the person we help, we are motivated to improve the wellbeing of the group to which we belong.
It is perhaps best summed up by psychologist Robyn Dawes, it is “not me or thee but we” (Dawes, Kragt, & Orbell, 1988).
However, when framed by egoists, the motivation to benefit the group also promotes self-interest.
Logically, behavior that motivates us to keep the group safe may indirectly (or even directly) harm those outside the group. Principlism, however, avoids this dilemma, suggesting that altruism is motivated by the goal of upholding a principle and is therefore universal and impartial.
However, even behavior motivated by principlism can be seen as egoism if upholding moral principles is for personal gain.
While egoism remains a strong challenge to altruism and is dominant in many social sciences, there are plenty of human and animal examples that appear to counter this stance.
Recent research supports the idea of altruism, finding that people feel happier when they engage in behavior motivated by others’ wellbeing (Aknin, Broesch, Hamlin, & Vondervoort, 2015).
4 Inspiring Examples
While we must be cautious in attributing altruism to the behavior of animals or humans without fully understanding their motivation, examples in this section seem to offer anecdotal evidence in support of the theory.
Osotua – asking for help
For the Maasai herders of the Serengeti plain, asking for help – known as osotua – is part of their tradition (Holmes, 2016). It is the tribe’s custom that as long as it does not jeopardize their survival, they are obliged to help. And it could mean giving up some of their herd without expecting payback or anything in return.
According to research, similar acts of altruism also exist elsewhere – from Texan cattle ranchers to Fijians – and works because the world is unpredictable. We never know when there will be a crisis and when we will need to ask for help (Holmes, 2016).
Air Florida Flight 90
After Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River, the remaining passengers clung to the plane’s tail in 30-degree water.
When a helicopter from the National Park Service dropped a line to the survivors, Arland Williams, in better shape than the rest, helped each person, in turn, to attach. They were then towed to safety, one at a time.
When it was finally Williams’s chance to reach safety, the helicopter returned to find he was no longer there, succumbing to the water’s freezing temperatures.
He paid the ultimate price to save others’ lives without reward, except for the knowledge of his fellow passengers’ safety.
Bravery and altruism
In a 2019 terror attack on London, civil servant Darryn Frost used an unlikely weapon to defend others from a man wielding a knife and wearing a fake suicide vest.
Grabbing a narwhal tusk from a wall display in the room where the attack began, he chased the man onto London Bridge where police subsequently shot him. Frost’s selfless actions on that day undoubtedly saved many lives, without regard to his safety.
Wesley Autry – the Subway Hero
In 2007, Cameron Hollopeter, then 19, suffered a seizure and fell on to the tracks at a subway station in Manhattan. With a train approaching, Wesley Autry, a New York City construction worker, leaped off the platform’s edge and pinned Hollopeter to the ground. The train braked and passed overhead with inches to spare (Wesley Autrey, 2020).
Autry’s heroic act earned him New York City’s Bronze Medallion and caused a media frenzy, leading to newspaper interviews and multiple appearances on primetime TV.
But when Autry, a humble man, acted, he did it to help, not to be rewarded.
The Biology of Altruism: 5+ Interesting Findings
Biologists and social scientists tend to look at life from a different perspective from psychologists and, as a result, have an alternate view of altruism.
For a biologist, altruism is not the motivation behind behavior but refers to increasing the reproductive fitness of another animal at the cost of their own (Arbia & Carbonnier, 2016).
As Richard Dawkins puts it in The Selfish Gene (2016), “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.”
And yet, from an evolutionary perspective, this seems counterintuitive.
After all, if most animal behavior is hereditary, how would altruistic behavior be consistently passed on to subsequent generations, when it results in fewer offspring?
But kin altruism (also referred to as the inclusive fitness theory) suggests that helping a relative (who shares a large part of our genetic code) increases the likelihood of some of our genes being passed down (Buss, 2014).
Altruistic behavior promotes the genes rather than the individual. Research has shown that such activity decreases as the genetic variation (representative of the degree of distance within family terms) increases.
However, how does this explain altruistic behavior toward strangers who share much less genetic material?
At this point, evolutionary biologists turn to a branch of applied mathematics known as game theory.
This mathematical model shows that reciprocity – exchanging help for mutual benefit – can explain biological non-kin altruism (Buss, 2014; Arbia & Carbonnier, 2016).
Reciprocal altruism states that adaptations “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).
Reciprocal Altruism and the Animal Kingdom
The theory of reciprocal altruism and its biological underpinnings help explain why animals are motivated to help those to whom they are not related.
Such behavior is likely to be repaid down the line and is therefore extremely valuable as it benefits both animals.
There are many examples within nature of animals helping others – even from different species.
When a younger chimpanzee seized control of the group from an older dominant male at a zoo in the Netherlands, the latter was not ready to retire. Working with a more youthful, up-and-coming male, he was able to challenge the new dominant male and secure some of the aforementioned mating rights he had lost when dethroned (Buss, 2014).
By working together for a common cause, both the older male and his younger partner experienced mutual benefits.
Vampire bats feed on the blood of horses and cattle. Research shows that well-fed bats, living in a colony, regurgitate blood from their night’s hunting, giving it to those who are hungry and whom they have received blood from in the past (Buss, 2014).
The closer the connection between the bats, the more likely they are to share their hunting success.
While the reciprocal nature of the altruistic relationship in the next example is unclear, it provides an interesting example of inter-species behavior.
In 2009 marine ecologist Robert Pitman experienced a surprising act of altruism in the frozen waters of Antarctica. When killer whales began attacking a seal, lying precariously on a small ice floe, an unlikely hero came to the rescue.
When the seal began to wash off the ice – and the killer whales prepared to attack – a humpback whale appeared. It rolled over onto its back, allowing the seal to lay on its stomach, protected. When the seal started to slip, the whale nudged it back onto its stomach (Howgego, 2016).
A Note on Effective Altruism
Greg Lewis wanted to make a difference in the world and use his 80,000 hours (the average number of hours in our career) as effectively as possible (Firth, 2017).
Lewis believes in effective altruism. His philosophy is to use science to understand and make decisions based on the positive effect he can have on the world.
But when he explored the impact of his plans to become a doctor, he found that his potential was better realized if focused elsewhere. By working in the public health sector – where he could direct policy and have a far-reaching effect on a population’s wellbeing – and making charitable donations based on a better salary, he could help the most people.
Using a statistical tool known as Quality Adjusted Life Years and information from the 80,000 hours website, he understood the effects of where time and money are spent and found a way of maximizing the good he could do.
Pure Altruism: A Philosophical Take
Acts of altruism include those that not only help another or improve their wellbeing, but also reduce their chance of being harmed.
For example, taking extra care driving near a school does not directly benefit a child but reduces their potential for harm (Kraut, 2016).
And yet, life is messy, and often so are our motives.
The driver may be acting altruistically by taking care around the school, while also showing some self-interest. They are perhaps driving slowly to avoid accidents and possible reputational damage or to escape a ticket for driving too fast.
Pure altruism occurs when there is a single motive.
If the driver’s only goal is the safety of the children, with no benefit to themselves, then the behavior is considered purely altruistic.
The following book is a detailed introduction to positive psychology and provides an insightful and highly engaging chapter on altruism and empathy.
- The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology – by Shane Lopez and Rick Snyder (Amazon)
The next two books on evolutionary psychology offer a fascinating exploration of our evolved mind and the adaptations that continue to shape who we are.
- Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind – David Buss (Amazon)
- Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction – Lance Workman and Will Reader (Amazon)
Check out the following link for a philosophical grounding on altruism:
- Altruism – Richard Kraut (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
For those who wish to find a way of making their working life more altruistic, the following website provides information on careers that add value to people’s lives:
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A Take-Home Message
Daily we see small acts that appear to be motivated by altruism. And occasionally, we witness or read in the news about someone saving a life or giving the gift of time or money to change someone’s world for the better.
Such acts display the very best of being human.
When we witness a fall, a car accident, or a child about to step into oncoming traffic, there is no time to consciously deliberate the gain we might receive.
Our drive to act appears to be instinctual. We wish to stop, or at least reduce, harm.
Perhaps, our reaction, while automatic, suggests some degree of delayed (or indirect) reciprocal altruism. We hope that if one of our loved ones were in danger, someone would step in, without thought for their safety.
Whether pure altruism exists may remain a matter of philosophy. Until we can see the true, and most probably complex, motivation within our own and others’ behavior, we can only guess what goes on inside our brain.
Either way, we must strive to benefit one another and ensure wellbeing both locally and globally.
Why not take time to read articles or biographies of those who have helped others without thought for themselves, whether during war, famine, disaster, or economic crisis? See the positive in their actions and the good in the world, and consider what you could do with your time.
The roles we play in society affect those around us, even if we don’t see it. Use your time wisely, invest in daily and longer term altruism, and know the difference it can make.
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- Aknin, L. B., Broesch, T., Hamlin, J. K., & Vondervoort, J. W. (2015). Prosocial behavior leads to happiness in a small-scale rural society. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), 788–795.
- Arbia, A., & Carbonnier, G. (2016). Human nature and development aid: IR and the biology of altruism. Journal of International Relations and Development, 19, 312–332.
- Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., & Lishner, D. A. (2020). Empathy and altruism. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 417–426). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Buss, D. (2014). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Dawkins, C. R. (2016). The selfish gene. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Dawes, R. M., Kragt, A. J., & Orbell, J. M. (1988). Not me or thee, but we: The importance of group identity in eliciting cooperation in dilemma situations: Experimental manipulations. Acta Psychologica, 68(1–3), 83–97.
- Firth, N. (2017, February 22). How to be good: Can science show us how to save the world? New Scientist. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331142-800-how-to-be-good-can-science-show-us-how-to-save-the-world/
- Holmes, B. (2016, August 10). The kindness paradox: Why be generous? New Scientist. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23130860-400-the-kindness-paradox-why-be-generous/
- Howgego, J. (2016, October 12). I saw humpback whales save a seal from death by killer whale. New Scientist. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23230950-700-i-saw-humpback-whales-save-a-seal-from-death-by-killer-whale/
- Kraut, R. (2016, August 25). Altruism. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism/
- London Bridge attack: Darryn Frost on using a narwhal tusk to stop knifeman. (2019, December 21). Retrieved August 21, 2020, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-50870309
- Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: Interpretations and misinterpretations. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 264–274.
- Wesley Autrey. (2020, August 14). Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Autrey
- Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2014). Evolutionary psychology: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.