The Psychology of Altruism: Why Some People Act Selflessly to Help Others
altruism (n .) "unselfishness, opposite of egoism," from French altruisme, coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the 1800s. From Latin alteri, or alter - "other".
It is defined as, "devotion to the welfare of others, regard for others, as a principle of action: opposed to egoism or selfishness." (Oxford English Dictionary)
People who are driven to help others without self-gain are often regarded as heroes. A more scientific term would be altruists.
Their behavior seems irrational, even self-destructive at times. What accounts for such deviation from the norm? What causes some people to act heroically (or altruistically) despite possible harm to themselves?
Why, during Holocaust, some people risked their lives to protect total strangers while others remained indifferent? Why are people like Mother Teresa deeply moved by the suffering of their fellow human beings while the selfish masses couldn't care less?
To answer these questions, lets look at some theories about altruism, and examine altruistic people's worldview.
Altruistic Behavior in Animals
Altruistic (unselfish) behavior is the behavior that benefits others, with no self-gain or at a cost to one's own well being.
At a first glance, such behavior can be considered strange, even inexplicable. But biologically speaking, and contrary to Darwin’s survival of the fittest maxim, altruistic behavior is common among animals, especially in species with complex social structures.
So how can altruism be explained from a scientific point of view?
The answer has to do with the group consciousness of the species. Although disadvantageous on an individual level, on a group level altruism is extremely beneficial. Individual self-sacrifice insures the survival of the species in the long run, therefore it is embedded in our genetic code.
Even plants know altruistic behavior! Studies show that plants can recognize their siblings and prefer them over others, and that siblings that grow together are healthier overall. This is referred to as "kin altruism" - members of the same species or family preferring or helping each other.
Plants were also shown to form partnerships with one another. For example, there are networks of fungi that help the neighboring plants by exchanging nutrients, water, and protection from pathogens for sugars. This is called "reciprocal altruism" - members of different species or families collaborating with each other for the mutual benefit.
Quotes About Altruism
- 42 Quotes on Altruism and Selflessness
Karl Lagerfeld: 'Don’t sacrifice yourself too much, because if you sacrifice too much there’s nothing else you ca...
Altruistic People's Worldview
So why do people act altruistically? Isn’t it normal to just take care of oneself? After all, self interest is the foundation of our economy, and society in general.
In order to explain altruism, we have to dig deeper. It’s not just different behavior, it’s a different view of the world.
Kristen Renwick Monroe, author of The Heart of Altruism and The Hand of Compassion who interviewed hundreds of rescuers of Jews during World War II, describes altruistic people this way:
“These people were very interesting in a variety of ways. They were ordinary people in the sense that they weren’t heroic types, they were just like you and I. Demographically, there weren’t more men than women or more women than men; there were not more religious people. There would be some differences along some of these lines. But the critical variable seem to be how they saw themselves in relation to other people, and when an altruist or rescuer looked at a stranger, they would just see another human being. They thought of themselves as people who were tied together, bonded together, to other people through the common humanity that we all shared. So the attitude that rescuers had towards other people – and ironically this included Nazis as well as Jews or allied airmen, or anybody else that they were saving – was that we are all human beings. We’re all part of this together. ”
According to her and many other researchers, this all-inclusive deeply humanistic attitude is the main distinguishable difference between altruists and regular bystanders.
“The self-concept may actually shift, to include other people in that sense of your welfare. This might happen in the same way that if there were shooting in a schoolyard and you had a child there, you would immediately go, you would do anything, you would give up your life for your child. It wouldn’t even be a question for you : you can’t separate your happiness from that of your child. Altruists have something akin to that with other human beings. ”
Researchers also found that altruistic acts are usually spontaneous. As one rescuer who saved over a hundred Jews during Holocaust said, “the hand of compassion was faster than the calculus of reason.” Seems that altruistic people just take action without considering the costs to themselves. They feel as if they don’t have a choice. Their humanity dictates that when another human being is in trouble, you help.
To Learn More About Altruistic People
- 5 Altruistic People Who Made the World a Better Place
World's greatest altruists in their own words.
TED Talks: The Why and How of Effective Altruism
Quiz: How Altruistic Are You?
© 2013 Lana Adler