What Is Altruism?

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What Is 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. It involves acting out of concern for the well-being of other people. 

In some cases, these acts of altruism lead people to jeopardize their own health and well-being to help others. Such behaviors are often performed unselfishly and without any expectations of reward. Other instances, known as reciprocal altruism, involve taking actions to help others with the expectation that they offer help in return.

Signs of Altruism

Everyday life is filled with small acts of altruism, from holding the door for strangers to giving money to the homeless. 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 donor who gives thousands of dollars to a local charity.

Some signs of altruism include:

  • Doing something to help another person with no expectation of reward
  • Forgoing things that may bring personal benefits if they create costs for others
  • Helping someone despite personal costs or risks
  • Sharing resources even in the face of scarcity
  • Showing concern for someone else's well-being

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?

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. Some people differentiate prosocial behavior from what is sometimes referred to as pure altruism, which involves true selflessness with no expectation or desire for personal gain.

While all altruistic acts are prosocial, not all prosocial behaviors are completely altruistic. We might help others for a variety of reasons such as guilt, obligation, duty, or even for rewards.

Types of Altruism

There are a few different types of altruism. These include:

  • Genetic altruism: As the name suggests, this type of altruism involves engaging in altruistic acts that benefit close family members. For example, parents and other family members often engage in acts of sacrifice in order to provide for the needs of family members. 
  • Reciprocal altruism: This type of altruism is based on a mutual give and take relationship. It involves helping another person now because they may one day be able to return the favor.
  • Group-selected altruism: This type of altruism involves engaging in altruistic acts for people based upon their group affiliation. Rather than nurturing children or other genetically related individuals, people might direct their efforts toward helping other people or supporting social causes that benefit others that are part of their social group.
  • Pure altruism: Also known as moral altruism, this form involves helping someone else, even when it is risky, without any reward. It is motivated by internalized values and morals.

Explanations

Psychologists have suggested a number of different explanations for why altruism exists. Some theories include:

Evolution

Psychologists have long debated whether some people are just born with a natural tendency to help others, a theory that suggests that altruism may be influenced by genetics.

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.

Research also suggests that prosocial behaviors such as altruism, cooperativeness, and empathy have a genetic basis.

Brain-Based Rewards

Altruism activates reward centers in the brain. Neurobiologists have found that when a person is engaged in an altruistic act, the pleasure centers of their brain become more active.

One 2014 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that engaging in compassionate actions activates the areas of the brain associated with the reward system, including the dopaminergic ventral tegmental area and the ventral striatum. The positive feelings created by compassionate actions then reinforce altruistic behaviors.

Environment

One study suggested that interactions and relationships with others have a major influence on altruistic behavior. The study found that socialization had a significant impact on altruistic actions in one- and two-year-old children.

Kids who observed simple reciprocal acts of altruism were far more likely to exhibit altruistic actions. On the other hand, friendly but non-altruistic modeled actions did not inspire the same results. 

Such research suggests that modeling altruistic actions can be an important way to foster prosocial and compassionate actions in children.

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 they ask you if they can borrow $100. They did something for you, now you feel obligated to do something in return.

Incentives

While the definition of altruism involves doing for others without reward, there may still be cognitive incentives that are not 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 relieve 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.

Impact of Altruism

While altruism can have some drawbacks when taken to extremes, it is important to remember that it is a positive force that can benefit both you and others. Research suggests that altruism has a wide range of benefits that can help make people happier and healthier.

Some of the effects of altruism include:

  • Better health: Research has found that behaving altruistically can improve physical health in a variety of ways. People who volunteer have been found to have better overall health, and regularly engaging in helping behaviors is linked to a significantly lower risk of dying. 
  • Better mental well-being: Doing good things for other people can make you feel good about yourself and the world. Studies have found that people experience increased happiness after doing good things for other people.
  • Better romantic relationships: Being kind and compassionate can also lead to a better relationship with your partner. Researchers have found that kindness is one of the most important qualities that people across all cultures seek in a romantic partner. 

In addition to these benefits, engaging in altruism can also help improve social connections and relationships, which can ultimately play a part in improving health and wellness.

Tips / Tricks

While some people may come by altruistic tendencies more naturally, there are things that you can do to help foster helpful behaviors in yourself and others. Some things that you can do to help cultivate altruism include:

  • Find inspiration: Look to inspirational people who engage in altruistic acts. Seeing others work to actively improve the lives of individuals and communities can inspire you to act altruistically in your own life
  • Practice empathy: Rather than distancing yourself from others, work on building a connection and putting a human face on the problems you see. Consider how you would feel in that situation, and think about things that you can do that might help make a difference.
  • Set a goal: Find ways that you can regularly perform random acts of kindness for others. Look around you at the people in your life who may need help, or look for ways that you can volunteer in your community. Fix a meal for someone in need, help a friend with a chore, donate during a blood drive, or spend some time volunteering for a local organization.

Potential Pitfalls

While altruism is generally thought of as a positive force, there can be some possible drawbacks and difficulties. Some possible downsides:

  • It can sometimes create risk. People may engage in altruistic acts that can place them in danger.
  • It may sometimes lead people to neglect their own needs in order to care for others.
  • While it may be led by good intentions, acts of altruism don't always lead to positive outcomes.
  • It may lead people to focus their efforts on one cause while neglecting others.
  • It can lead to personal problems if you are neglecting your health, social, or financial needs.

Altruism is generally a positive force, but too much of it can lead to serious problems. For example, people who work in helping professions may find themselves emotionally overwhelmed by caring for and helping others. In a more severe example, a person who altruistically adopts animals may shift into animal hoarding, reaching a point where they can no longer house or care for the animals they have taken in. 

A Word From Verywell

The underlying reasons behind altruism, as well as the question of whether there is truly such a thing as "pure" altruism, are two issues debated by social psychologists. Do we ever engage in helping others for truly altruistic reasons, or are there hidden benefits 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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