Altruism: Why We Risk Our Own Well-Being to Help Others

Young woman being kind
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Everyone knows at least one of those people who are willing to jeopardize their own health and well-being to help others. What is it that inspires these individuals to give their time, energy, and money for the betterment of others, even when they receive nothing tangible in return?

Defining Altruism

Altruism is the unselfish concern for other people; doing things simply out of a desire to help, not because you feel obligated to out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons.

Everyday life is filled with small acts of altruism, from the guy at the grocery store who kindly holds the door open as you rush in from the parking lot to the woman who gives twenty dollars to a homeless man.

News stories often focus on grander cases of altruism, such as a man who dives into an icy river to rescue a drowning stranger or a generous donor who gives thousands of dollars to a local charity. While we may be familiar with altruism, social psychologists are interested in understanding why it occurs. What inspires these acts of kindness? What motivates people to risk their own lives to save a complete stranger?

Prosocial Behavior and Altruism

Altruism is one aspect of what social psychologists refer to as prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior refers to any action that benefits other people, no matter what the motive or how the giver benefits from the action. Remember, however, that pure altruism involves true selflessness. While all altruistic acts are prosocial, not all prosocial behaviors are completely altruistic. For example, we might help others for a variety of reasons such as guilt, obligation, duty, or even for rewards.

Theories for Why Altruism Exists

Psychologists have suggested a number of different explanations for why altruism exists, including:

  • Biological reasons. Kin selection is an evolutionary theory that proposes that people are more likely to help those who are blood relatives because it will increase the odds of gene transmission to future generations. The theory suggests that altruism towards close relatives occurs in order to ensure the continuation of shared genes. The more closely the individuals are related, the more likely people are to help.
  • Neurological reasons. Altruism activates reward centers in the brain. Neurobiologists have found that when engaged in an altruistic act, the pleasure centers of the brain become active.
  • Environmental reasons. A study at Stanford suggests that our interactions and relationships with others have a major influence on altruistic behavior.
  • Social norms. Society's rules, norms, and expectations can also influence whether or not people engage in altruistic behavior. The norm of reciprocity, for example, is a social expectation in which we feel pressured to help others if they have already done something for us. For example, if your friend loaned you money for lunch a few weeks ago, you'll probably feel compelled to reciprocate when he asks if you if he can borrow $100. He did something for you, now you feel obligated to do something in return.
  • Cognitive reasons. While the definition of altruism involves doing for others without reward, there may still be cognitive incentives that aren't obvious. For example, we might help others to relieve our own distress or because being kind to others upholds our view of ourselves as kind, empathetic people.

Other cognitive explanations include:

  • Empathy. Researchers suggest that people are more likely to engage in altruistic behavior when they feel empathy for the person who is in distress, a suggestion known as the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Researchers have found that children tend to become more altruistic as their sense of empathy develops.
  • Helping relieves negative feelings. Other experts have proposed that altruistic acts help relieve the negative feelings created by observing someone else in distress, an idea referred to as the negative-state relief model. Essentially, seeing another person in trouble causes us to feel upset, distressed, or uncomfortable, so helping the person in trouble helps reduce these negative feelings.

Comparing the Theories

The underlying reasons behind altruism, as well as the question of whether there is truly such a thing as "pure" altruism, are two issues hotly contested by social psychologists. Do we ever engage in helping others for truly altruistic reasons, or are there hidden benefits to ourselves that guide our altruistic behaviors?

Some social psychologists believe that while people do often behave altruistically for selfish reasons, true altruism is possible. Others have instead suggested that empathy for others is often guided by a desire to help yourself. Whatever the reasons behind it, our world would be a much sadder place without altruism.

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Article Sources

  • Carey, B. Stanford Psychologists Show That Altruism Is Not Simply Innate. Stanford Report. Published December 18, 2014.
  • Sanderson, CA. Social Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2010.
  • University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. Helping and Altruism. In: Principles of Social Psychology. 2010.
  • Vedantam, S. If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Only Be Natural. The Washington Post. Published May 28, 2007.