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True Altruism....Does It Exist?

Updated on February 27, 2012

Altruism Does Exist!


Application of Pro-Social Behavior

Copyright 2008, Jennifer Tyler

Why do people help one another and are there things we can do to increase prosocial behavior among society? According to Brehm, Kassin, and Fein (2005) and Marks (2005) there are several different factors related to whether a person helps someone or not. First, Marks (2005) indicates that people may actually help another out of benevolence. Benevolence, as Marks (2005) explains is the act of helping another without the expectation that he or she will gain an external reward for doing so. However, this does not mean the person does not gain some type of internal reward (such as promotion of self esteem) for helping another person. As Brehm, Kassin, and Fein (2005) explain, some people may help another person if they are rewarded for doing so in some shape or form. For example, some people expect that they will receive some recognition for a good deed or even a monetary money reward for helping. This thought might make a person more prone to helping others, especially if the expectation is that they will get something out of it. This would also include enhancement of self esteem.

Marks (2005) explains that some people may actually help out of pure altruism. This can best be explained as helping that does not involve any type of reward, whether extrinsic or intrinsic. However, this type of prosocial behavior is the most difficult for social psychologists to interpret. Marks (2005) indicates that heroic and nurturant altruism derives out of a person’s need to give of oneself, as generally instances where a person needs help are usually short term and thought to do no harm to the person helping. In other words, the helper expects that helping someone in such circumstances is not likely to take a lot of his or her time. It should be noted, however, that there seem to be differences when it comes to heroic or pure altruism. Women are more prone to helping someone for these reasons alone than men are (Marks, 2005). This is especially due to the fact that women are seen as more nurturant than men.

Brehm, Kassin, and Fein (2005) indicate that people sometimes help others because of a concept of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is best explained as the choice to help someone on the basis of whether the act will be reciprocated at a later time. Some people help others on the basis that if they do they will eventually be helped themselves if a need arises. However, if the act is not reciprocated it is more likely to decrease the incidences of future helping acts (Brehm, Kassin, & Fein, 2005).

Finally, situational factors may also be a reason as to why people help or choose not to help (Brehm, Kassin, & Fein, 2005). For example, in emergencies people are more likely to weigh certain factors when deciding on whether they should help or not. I can remember a case we discussed in my undergraduate psychology course that talked about a woman who was being murdered and several bystanders were present at the time. This case involved a woman named Kitty Genevese and at that time this woman was being murdered and several people stood by without coming to her assistance. In such a case, the people present at the time chose not to help because they believed that someone else witnessing the event would help. Brehm, Kassin, and Fein (2005) indicate that this is one factor that entails whether people will help or not- how many people are present at the scene of an emergency situation. In this situation people in a group believe that someone else will help so they choose not to do so.

It is believed that people may or may not help someone based on personal and interpersonal influences (Brehm, Kassin, & Fein, 2005). Accordingly, some people may be genetically programmed to help others whereas others are not. Likwise, people may help another on the basis of how they perceive the person they will help. For example, if there is physical attractiveness or similarities this may make a person more likely to help someone else.

Training people to help someone may be one of the most difficult feats yet, but is something that is not out of the ordinary. For instance, the more education and training a person receives the more likely he or she is to help others. One way this has begun to surface is through courses designed for helping others, such as Adult and Infant CPR courses. Many of the jobs in Pennsylvania that involve working in human services require these courses in order to work. This being the case, many people may feel more comfortable in helping another person if they receive more training to do so. I would venture to say that some people do not help because they feel they are not adequately trained. Furthermore, many states have begun to take the burden away from being a good samaritan. In other words, people are not held responsible if something does not go right during the course of helping others. Again, this may be one reason why some people choose not to help others, as they fear they will be prosecuted. Sometimes taking steps such as these will help a person feel more comfortable with providing assistance to another person.

Does Altruism Exist Today? You Be the Judge.

According to Brehm, Kassin, and Fein (2005) true altruism involves helping someone because we are concerned about how they feel in such a situation. However, if we help because we are more absorbed in how we know we would feel in the same situation then we are acting out of egoism.

True altruism is somewhat of a controversial issue when looked at in this country. Some people believe that true altruism is rare and therefore fails to exist. The belief is that people generally help another person because they expect to get something out of it (Kruger, 2005). According to an analysis of the literature conducted by Kruger (2005) a study that was conducted by Latane and Darley suggests that true altruism does not indeed exist. The study conducted by Latane and Darley proposes that humans do not tend to help others unless they receive something out of it or benefit in some way. For instance, Latane and Darley’s five stage model illustrates what process people go through when deciding on whether to help or not. As such, it is indicated that this model not only occurs in emergency situations, but in situations that may even preclude helping a family member. However, the other side of this debate states that true altruism does exist (as cited in Kruger,, 2005). According to studies conducted by Batson (as cited in Kruger, 2005) individuals that display truly altruistic behavior are those who are generally motivated by empathy for the other person’s feelings. This study refutes claims by other social psychologists that state true altruism cannot and does not exist, as there are people that help to benefit someone else.

In my own opinion I believe that there are indeed people who help others out of a sense of empathy. I can speak for myself as an example because I generally help someone who appears to need it without expectation of a reward or building of self esteem. Yes, there are those instances where I myself have helped someone in order to gain out of it (ie. Return favor) but there are also those instances where I have helped just to help. I do think, however, that this is one concept that needs to be pursued further. Perhaps there are certain circumstances where people only help to gain something out of (ie. Large favors).


Brehm, S.S., Kassin, S. and Fein, S. (2005). Social Psychology (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company.

Marks, A. (2005). Chapter 9- prosocial behavior.


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