How Psychologists Explain Altruistic Helpful Behaviors

Woman helping an elderly woman do a crochet project
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Altruism 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. In many cases, these behaviors are 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.

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. 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. 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. We might help others for a variety of reasons such as guilt, obligation, duty, or even for rewards.

Explanations for Why Altruism Exists

What is it that inspires people to give their time, energy, and money for the betterment of others, even when they receive nothing tangible in return Psychologists have suggested a number of different explanations for why altruism exists.


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.

Psychic Rewards

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.

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.


A Stanford study suggested that interactions and relationships with others have a major influence on altruistic behavior. 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 largely controlled by genetics.

The study called this theory into question, finding that socialization had a serious 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, whereas friendly but non-altruistic modeled actions did not show 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 if you if they can borrow $100. They did something for you, now you feel obligated to do something in return.


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 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.

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 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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