Altruism is a trait in humans and animals that leads to certain behaviors that may be beneficial for others but not beneficial for them. It is a practice of caring about others unselfishly, even if you do not gain anything from it.
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What Is Altruism?
It is an inherent quality that enables us to willingly engage in behaviors and actions directed at the welfare of other people or animals. It is a deeply ingrained trait that motivates us to help others even when it may not bring us any direct benefits or may be disadvantageous for us. This attitude of unselfishly caring about others is not based on any obligations, like kinship, loyalty, religion or duty. It is also not based on self-interest, self-preservation or self-gain. “Altruism is generally understood to be behavior that benefits others at a personal cost to the behaving individual,” explains a 2004 study 1 . Derived from the French term ‘autrui’ meaning other, altruism makes us generous and engage in charitable activities. However, at times, it may even lead to behaviors where a person or an animal can put themselves in danger to help or save others.
Typically, this tendency to help others does not involve any expectations of gain or reward in return for altruistic behaviors. However, in some cases help or gain in return may be expected. This 2 is identified as reciprocal altruism. Regardless, this practice is primarily directed towards helping others and improving their lives. Altruistic acts may involve volunteering, charitable donations, donating blood, preventing a crime, paying money to a homeless person, giving our food to a hungry person, or even saving others by sacrificing one’s own health or life.
The word altruism was originally coined by philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century while explaining the importance of helping others in an ethical doctrine. The term was meant to define the polar opposite trait of egoism. In essence, the term involves certain elements of selflessness. However, it also involves logic, reasoning, practicality and evidence to decide what actions and behaviors can actually be beneficial for others. Research 3 indicates that moral heuristics 4 (moral short-cuts) or rules of thumb can promote or limit altruistic behavior. As this innate tendency is not associated with relationships, it is not particularly related to one’s sense of loyalty. However, experts are of differing opinions regarding the truthfulness and authenticity of altruistic behaviors & actions, as it is believed that “true altruism” cannot exist due to psychological egoism 5 in humans. Studies 6 show that assessing human nature as “universally good” or “universally selfish” is not accurate as all humans fall somewhere in the selfish-selfless spectrum, with a few exceptions falling at extremes. One 2019 study 7 argues that altruistic giving based on anonymity may be “conceptually defective and practically unproductive.” However, this argument is mainly based on whether the experience of intrinsic or emotional rewards through personal gratification of the altruistic individual is considered as a “benefit”.
Although this intuitive & reflexive tendency to help others may be driven by self-interests at times, further studies suggest that human beings are programmed more to cooperate with others, than to compete. “Cooperation is central to human social behaviour. However, choosing to cooperate requires individuals to incur a personal cost to benefit others,” states a 2012 study 8 . In fact, researchers 9 have even observed toddlers engage in altruistic helping to help people in need out of concern. Irrespective of whether “pure altruism” exists or not, such acts and behaviors makes us feel mentally and emotionally better and more satisfied in life. One 2005 research paper 10 indicates that “Altruistic emotions and behaviors are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity.”
Aspects Of Altruism
According to research, this tendency occurs “when a donor individual gives some type of aid to a recipient who is not an offspring of the donor and there is also no direct and immediate benefit to the donor.” This behavior is mainly targeted towards others’ benefit even when it involves some acts of sacrifice on behalf of the donor. However, to be considered altruistic, an act must involve the following crucial elements according to researchers –
- Well-meaning thoughts or good intentions are not considered altruism. It must include some form of an action or behavior.
- The action or behavior, whether instinctive or conscious, should be meaningful, purposeful and directed towards a goal.
- The objective or goal of the action must be others’ welfare and benefit. In case, the welfare of another person is a consequence, a secondary goal or an unintended outcome of an action primarily targeted towards self-gain or welfare, then it is not considered altruistic.
- Intention and motivation are of more importance than the outcome. Regardless of the result of the altruistic act and how much it may actually help the recipient, the intent of the actor or donor should be given more value. However, such intentions and motivations are difficult to understand, identify or calculate.
- The act possibly may cost the donor’s own welfare to some extent and involves an element of self-sacrifice. If the behavior or action is beneficial for both the donor and the recipient, then it is not seen as altruistic behavior. It is considered more as collective welfare.
- The action does not include any conditions or prerequisites. The sole objective is to help another without expecting anything in return.
Altruistic behaviors and actions contradict evolutionary theory as it challenges the concept of self-preservation 11 . It has been seen that prosocial traits are more closely related to natural selection than selfish actions. Studies 12 have observed that “self-centered psychological functioning induces fluctuating happiness, authentic–durable happiness results from selflessness.” Moreover, altruism also challenges economic principles of profit maximization.
Altruism In Animals
Altruistic behavior is also observed and well-documented in animals. Often, different animals like elephants, dolphins, non-human primates, dogs and other animals engage in behaviors and actions that can benefit their own or other species. A lot of animals are known to make calls or cries to warn others about an approaching predator. There have also been instances of dolphins 13 rescuing humans at sea or helping beached whales, as well as a leopard helping a baby baboon. Moreover, dogs 14 and cats have also been known to protect humans and even toddlers from harm. Scientists 15 have observed extended altruism in forest chimpanzees as they tend to engage in sharing food, cooperative hunting and even in adoption of orphaned youngsters, which is considered as “a highly costly behavior.” One 2010 study 16 states “Non-human primates are marked by well-developed prosocial and cooperative tendencies as reflected in the way they support each other in fights, hunt together, share food and console victims of aggression.”
In fact, in certain instances 17 semi-free ranging chimpanzees have been observed to help unfamiliar humans, just as any other human being would, regardless of the personal cost or being rewarded. Researchers 18 have revealed that extreme altruistic behaviors are present even in insect societies. However, it is believed by some experts that altruistic behaviors in animals are somewhat motivated by their need for survival as most animal species are incapable of making complex thoughts and decisions about saving others’ lives. Hence, it is believed that when such behavior is not associated with kinship, it may be reciprocal.
Altruism And Genetics
As this trait is an inherent tendency observed in humans and different species of animals, experts believe that specific genes may be associated with such behavior. “Findings from twin studies yield heritability estimates of 0.50 for prosocial behaviours like empathy, cooperativeness and altruism,” explains a 2010 study 19 . Researchers 20 believe that altruism can evolve if specific genes could increase or improve the survivability of others even at the expense of the actor’s own direct survivability. The researchers claim that genes may mediate altruistic expression. Moreover, such genes can increase in complexity and number with social-behavioral sophistication. Our genetic mechanism can also explain altruism in parent-offspring coadaptation 21 .
Altruism And Empathy
It is believed that altruism and empathy are related 22 as empathic concern can often lead to altruistic behavior 23 . We can be driven to help others when we see someone is in danger or is facing a difficult situation. Research 24 indicates that “empathy leads to altruistic rather than egoistic motivation to help.” Empathy allows us to feel and understand what another individual is experiencing imagining oneself in their situation. It is an emotional state that is associated with warmth, sympathy 25 , kindness and compassion for the other person. This emotional state can often lead to the motivational state of altruistic behavior to help or protect another related or unrelated person. The empathy-altruism hypothesis 26 believes that altruistic behavior is based on empathy for others. According to the theory proposed by american social psychologist C. Daniel Batson 27 in 1991, helping behaviors originate from empathy & compassion which trigger altruistic motivation to achieve the goal of improving someone else’s welfare.
A 2016 study 23 states “social psychologists consider empathy to be a key motivator for altruistic behavior.” Another 2017 study 28 found that people with higher empathic traits were more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior in the real world as empathy is a significant & positive predictor. “This supports the theory that the act of doing good is correlated with empathy,” adds the study. However, there are two other egoistic alternatives to the above hypothesis –
1. The empathy-specific reward hypothesis
Here, the motivation related to empathy is based on gaining self or social rewards, like pride, honor, recognition & praise.
2. The empathy-specific punishment hypothesis
This prosocial motivation to help others out of empathy is based on avoiding self or social punishments, like shame, guilt, censure & loss of reputation.
One study 29 found that the egoistic alternative theories are not supported by research, but the empathy-altruism hypothesis is supported by the findings. The study adds “prosocial motivation associated with feeling empathy for a person in need is directed toward the ultimate goal of benefiting that person, not toward some subtle form of self-benefit.” Similar observations were noticed by other researchers 30 who found that empathy-evoked altruistic motivation is mainly targeted at reducing “the victim’s need” and is not an “egoistic motivation to avoid negative social evaluation.”
Read More About Empathy Here
Altruism And Personality
Research 31 shows that altruism is associated with individual differences in personality. It was found that the Big Five personality traits can have a significant impact on the frequency of one’s altruistic behaviors towards different recipients, such as strangers, family members, friends and acquaintances, in daily life. The Big Five personality traits 32 include the following traits –
- Extraversion (vs. introversion): Characterized by sociability, expressiveness and outgoing behavior.
- Agreeableness (vs. antagonism): Having affection, trust, respect & kindness in relationships & interpersonal interactions.
- Openness to experiences (or unconventionality): Willingness to seek, explore and follow new interests and experiences.
- Conscientiousness (or constraint vs. disinhibition): Ability for impulse control and shows consistent behavior.
- Neuroticism (or emotional instability vs. stability): Marked by moodiness, distemper, mood swings, sadness & anxiety.
The researchers found that people with extraversion or extroversion trait were more likely to to help all types of recipients, such as strangers, family members, friends, acquaintances etc. However, openness was only associated with altruism toward strangers, conscientiousness was related to helping only family members, while agreeableness resulted in altruistic behaviors towards friends and acquaintances only. Another 2014 study 33 revealed that individuals high in agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness but low in neuroticism, were more likely to engage in altruistic acts and helping others. The study also found that “those more interested in ‘Getting Along’ with others were more Altruistic than those more interested in ‘Getting Ahead’ of others.”
Although there is still a debate about whether or not there is an altruistic personality, most researchers 34 agree that individuals with such personality traits “are more prosocial in all contexts.” Studies also claim that extraversion is associated with warmth while agreeableness is associated with altruism, and both traits are related to empathy. The study found that people who are altruistic and highly warm are skilled in identifying others’ emotional states and exhibit higher activity in brain regions (medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction) associated with empathy during cognitive and affective perspective-taking 35 .
Here are some common characteristic traits observed in people with an altruistic personality –
- They are very proactive
- They are highly open-minded
- They are aware of how their behaviors & actions may affect others
- They practice forgiveness and gratitude
- They feel joy and happiness after helping people
- They often put the welfare of others’ before themselves
- They have a strong sense of self-worth and self-confidence
- They practice self-love and self-care
According to a 2016 study 36 , altruism is a social 37 and interpersonal construct that is associated with human relationships and various prosocial behaviors.
Read More About Big Five Personality Traits Here
Why Altruism Is Important
Altruistic behaviors enable us to grow as human beings, families and communities. It strengthens the bonds between individuals and social groups promoting cooperation and compassion. It ensures that we thrive as a society by making sure all of us have some support to rely on when we need it the most. It helps to build closer, healthier and more positive interpersonal relationships. A 2017 study 38 states “All human relationships involve some form of cost and benefit and altruism forms the foundation upon which human relationships are built.” Moreover, studies 39 have found that altruistic attitudes can lead to higher life satisfaction, positive affect and overall wellbeing in later life. According to a 2016 study 40 , altruistic behaviors tend to enhance feelings of warmth in the ambient environment and lead to an immediate internal reward, despite the self-sacrificing nature of these actions. “Altruistic performers were likely to feel warmer about the ambient environment than those who either refused to help or did not have a chance to help,” adds the study.
This is one of the reasons why donating to charity makes us feel better about ourselves. Charitable donations activate certain brain regions associated with trust, connection, sociability and pleasure. “Generous behaviour is known to increase happiness, which could thereby motivate generosity,” explain researchers 41 . Further studies 42 show that acts of kindness by individuals can trigger the release of oxytocin 43 and endorphins 44 , which are hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate behavior, feelings of love, pleasure & well-being and also reduces discomfort and pain. These also help to develop new neural connections. “The implications for such plasticity of the brain are that altruism and kindness become self-authenticating,” add the researchers. This feeling of warmth and happiness is often known as “warm glow” or “helper’s high” even when the donor does not expect any reward or recognition for their altruism. Research 45 indicates that helper’s high is a psychological state which is associated with greater health & increased longevity.
How To Become More Altruistic
Although altruism is an inherent and somewhat genetic trait, some of us tend to be less empathic, kind, compassionate and altruistic in life than others. But it does not necessarily mean that we are “bad” people. It simply means that we need to put in some effort to develop this psychological, emotional and behavioral trait. Here are some effective strategies that can enable you to become more altruistic and help people in need –
1. Be more aware and proactive
Learn to gain more awareness 46 and be observant of your surroundings. Notice the small things we typically overlook and identify if anyone in your immediate environment needs protection or help. You should also be more deliberate and intentional in your actions about helping them without thinking how it may help you.
2. Develop empathy and compassion
As empathy is closely related to altruism, take steps to be more empathetic towards others. Put yourself in others’ proverbial shoes and imagine their thoughts and emotions as your own. When we can experience the thoughts & feelings of others, we become more likely to actively help them. Cognitive and affective perspective-taking forms the base of altruistic behavior.
3. Practice gratitude
Studies 47 show that “neural pure altruism can be increased through practicing gratitude.” practicing gratitude enables us to be more grateful and are with what we currently have and tends to make us more generous. It motivates us to forward the benefits to people in need like we have received from others.
Read More About Gratitude Here
4. Develop a positive attitude
Having a positive mindset 48 helps to reduce anxiety and worry. Positive attitudes can enable you to experience positive emotions & overall well-being, which can motivate you to be more generous and make others happier. Known as the positive feedback loop 49 , reminding ourselves of the happiness we experience by helping others can drive us to be more generous.
5. Support your community
Being more engaged in community welfare and development can help us develop a sense of responsibility that can drive more altruistic behaviors. Volunteering 50 to help needy people or at the animal shelter, raising money for shared goals, helping children gain easier access to education or simply helping another individual in your neighborhood can create a sense of communal support, companionship and compassion. Studies 51 have found that building a sense of community responsibility can increase altruistic behaviors in residents.
However, you need to be cautious and careful while cultivating altruism as trying to help others in danger can often create unnecessary and avoidable risk for you. It can also make one avoid their own safety, health and financial needs. Moreover, despite your best intentions, altruism does not guarantee a better outcome for the recipient. It may also make you ignore other important responsibilities by focusing solely on practicing acts of altruism.
Regardless of its drawbacks, altruism makes the world a better place to live in for everyone, both humans and animals. It is a trait that we should strive to develop as it leads to individual and communal development. Moreover, being altruistic also leads to several mental, emotional and physical health benefits and results in a happier, more satisfied and longer life.
Altruism At A Glance
- Altruism is an instinctive and reflexive trait that motivates a person to willingly help others in need without expecting any reward in return.
- Altruistic behaviors and actions can often be disadvantageous, dangerous, or risky for the actor or donor.
- It is associated with other related but distinct traits like empathy, compassion, sympathy, kindness, and selflessness and is the polar opposite trait of egoism.
- Altruistic behaviors are also observed in animals and insects, not just in humans.
- Altruism is related to empathy as empathic concern drives altruistic behavior.
- A person’s personality can influence their level of altruism and empathic concern.
- This trait can be cultivated and strengthened by following and practicing certain strategies.
- Altruism is beneficial for the donor’s own mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It makes the donor happier & more satisfied in life.
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