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The Psychology of Altruism: Why Some People Act Selflessly to Help Others

Updated on December 8, 2015
Anyone can be altruistic at times, yet not everyone chooses to. Even fewer people adopt altruism as their general disposition in life.
Anyone can be altruistic at times, yet not everyone chooses to. Even fewer people adopt altruism as their general disposition in life. | Source

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

Group Consciousness

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.

Plants show altruism by helping their "siblings". This is called "kin altruism".
Plants show altruism by helping their "siblings". This is called "kin altruism". | Source
Altruists are ordinary people in all respects but one: they recognize common humanity in all people. They don't make distinctions between who deserves their help, and who doesn't.
Altruists are ordinary people in all respects but one: they recognize common humanity in all people. They don't make distinctions between who deserves their help, and who doesn't. | Source

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.

TED Talks: The Why and How of Effective Altruism

© 2013 Lana Adler

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    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      @Hi, kalinin1158,

      We might differ in our views as far that there would be no meeting point, right.

      I didn't mean you would have been talking abuse literally, I thought more generally, about language and altruism.

      Language might put a higher requirement and qualification on altruism. Language would not allow a human offering. Language would ask if this is the will.

      Wordless knowledge will be uninteresting to me, as such ideas always have been (Eastern spirituality, no names).

      I don't quite get the 'mind chatter, the incessant inconsequential thought-making we are so used to' that you'd mention.

      I like to think; I like philosophies and linguistics. I don't have any 'mind chatter'. :)

      Thank you for the interesting discussion, too.

    • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

      Lana Adler 

      5 years ago from California

      I love words. After all, I am a writer: without words I wouldn't be able to express myself in a way I find most fulfilling. What I'm talking about Teresa is perhaps of a mystical nature rather than a scientific one. The mystics, the shamans, the visionaries talk about the deep "wordless knowledge" within. You can access that knowledge only by quieting your mind chatter - the incessant inconsequential thought-making we are so used to. Mindful meditation is one of the best known methods to step into that sacred inner space. That's what I meant. Thank you for an interesting discussion, I certainly agree that language is very important.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      People without language are not capable of structured thought and have to rely on carers to render their intentions -- if they want to go out, stay home, do shopping.

      There wouldn't be thought without language. Separating language from thought, would you say that documents like the Declaration of Independence or Constitution, for example, are "just some words", artificial constructs?

      What would be that "deeper" wordless thing you're saying you're examining? A human without language could not be truly an altruist; you could be only talking abuse.

    • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

      Lana Adler 

      5 years ago from California

      I don't dispute that words have meanings, but that's not the focus of my article. Language is an artificial construct. Behind thoughts and words and their meanings there is something deeper, and that's what I'm examining here

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      @kalinin,

      Not being concerned with semantics, you are not concerned with the human. There are no words without meaning. Semantics is focused on meaning. There is no human thought without words meaning -- the language impaired need the unimpaired to exist, also for semantics.

    • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

      Lana Adler 

      5 years ago from California

      Hi Teresa! It seems that you're making a linguistic argument that "selflessness" is not a correct term to describe altruism, as it would mean "devoid of self", devoid of individuality. I'm not concerned with semantics; I'm concerned with the reasons behind altruistic behavior. Now if you're also arguing that selflessness or altruism doesn't exist in principle, that's a very long discussion...I think human being are very complex so there isn't just one answer to why we act the way we act. Thank you for reading!

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I cannot agree on selflessness. I hope you find this interesting,

      http://teresapelka.hubpages.com/hub/The-altruist-m...

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