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Paying forward & altruistic behavior

Updated on August 20, 2012

Pay It Forward

As I was walking out of Wal-Mart the other day, I saw an old woman standing by her car looking perplexed. I could see her trying to stick her hands in the quarter opened windows, but only getting more visibly upset then accomplishing the task that she was trying to do. As I approached, I asked her if she was alright. Apparently she was an employee at the store, who on going home for the evening discovered that she had locked her keys in her car. I immediately asked if she would like some help. I understand in this day and age, good Samaritan gestures are not commonly welcomed and are usually seen as being suspicious, but I would not take no for an answer. All I could imagine was my poor grandmother locked out of her car after working an 8 hour day. It took a little ingenuity, but we managed to release her door handle using a piece of metal we found lying around the parking lot. She was so happy that she could go home, she offered my twenty dollars. Although I could have used the money, considering I probably just spent two hundred dollars in the store moments ago, I refused. I was not doing it for the hopes of a reward, but because deep down inside I felt the need to help her.

Why does anyone help anyone else? In psychology there are many different theories on why an individual is motivated to help others. Psychological motives help define and shape our behavior, but unlike biological motives, they are not directly linked to the survival of the individual (Lahey, 2002). What was my motive to help the old woman and not just walk by like the twenty other people that were in the parking lot? First and foremost, I have had been similar situations and know what a hassle it is to be locked out of your vehicle. Secondly, she reminded me of my own grandmother and I felt this moral obligation to help her. But besides these two motivations, there was something deeper inside of me. It was the deep feelings of wanting to help that made me decide to assist her. What was this motivation? Was it an altruistic motive or a social responsibility or was it motivated by codependency?

Codependency motivations stem from an internal attempt to relieve other’s pain or emotions in order to relieve one’s own pain or emotions (Oakley, 2010). I do not consider myself a codependent person; I am not one whose emotions are strongly affected by other people's emotions (Oakley, 2010). I am not saying that I did not feel what the old woman was going through, because our bodies are equipped with cells known as mirror neurons that help us interpret and feel with others are feeling (Oakley, 2010). Because of these mirror neurons, I could feel the old woman’s frustration and pain but I have had seen other people in similar situations, have not felt the need to help. It was not a codependent motivation that made be help the woman.

Maybe I was motivated by a social responsibility to help the woman? Social responsibility is closely linked with the morals and values that one has, but social responsibility is more focused on society as a whole. According to the ISO Strategic Advisory Group on Social Responsibility (SAG), social responsibility “is a balanced approach for organizations and individuals to address economic, social and environmental issues in a way that aims to benefit people, communities and society” (pp. 1-2). For example, turning off the lights when leaving a room, would be socially responsible. Morally, I felt like I needed to help the woman, I was raised by my grandparents and therefore I feel like I have a larger sense of responsibility to help older individuals. But I was not helping her because I felt this duty to improve society. So what motivated me to help this woman?

When thinking about my encounter, I was not helping her because I was trying to better society as whole, I was not doing it because I felt like I had to do to relieve some sort of internal emotional turbulence, but I felt I just had to help her. The long and short of it was that I was empathetic to her situation and according to research, feelings of empathy lead individuals to an altruistic motivation to help (Stocks, Lishner & Decker, 2009). Altruistic behavior, plain and simple, is helping someone because you feel like helping them. There are no other reasons for motivation behind it, just the need or the want to help a fellow human being in need. The empathy for a fellow human being in need is enough to satisfy the altruistic motivation. Altruism is more than just a motivation to help individuals; it is also a motivation to help society as a whole. When looking at both codependency motivation and social responsibility, altruism can be seen as a combination of both. It takes the social responsibility aspect of benefiting society and combines it with the codependency aspect of experiencing someone else’s feelings.

Altruism improves the human condition. Doing a good deed for someone may motivate them to do something good for someone else. The chain of good deeds would be carried forth never ending, in this case there would be no limit to altruism. Eventually this may change the mindset of society. Instead of focusing on individual needs, altruism can change the focus to other’s needs. Studies have shown that altruism can help a person feel better about themself and can enhance a person’s feeling of peace of mind (Stocks, Lishner & Decker, 2009). Research shows that the old proverb “what goes around generally does come around” is true. When a person partakes in altruistic actions it can earn them a greater standing in society among their peers, and end up receiving favors from others in society (Harbaugh, Mayr, & Burghart, 2007). Helping others in need can provide a person different viewpoint, that focuses on how fortunate they really are as well as offer a positive outlook on new events that happen in their life.

Altruism does not have to stay in a person’s private life. There are many different professions that are altruistic in nature, especially in the fields of medicine and psychology. The field of psychology is loaded with different aspects of altruism. The field itself is based on the basic principle to better human quality of life by understanding the behavior and mental processes of people. This basic principle is altruistic in nature. A psychologist has the desire to help people that are less fortunate than them; they strive to help people that are struggling with different issues and problems to become better. Even research in this field is designed to find answers to problems that are plaguing the human race.

Concerns may arise when a person acts in an altruistic manner. Many people are wary about receiving help from strangers, especially when there are “no strings attached”. People that a person is trying to help may refuse the help. But this should not stop a person from trying to help again, in a different situation. But this brings up some personal responsibilities that a person that is trying to be altruistic must take into consideration. To be altruistic there must be no ulterior motive involved. It must be just for the pure joy or feeling of helping, if people are helping for any other reason, than it’s not being altruistic. Altruism is not something that should be flaunted. It should not be done because one expects to be rewarded with praise from others; it should be done because an individual wants to.

In conclusion, an individual that behaves in an altruistic manner can generate a lot of good from their one action. The person they are helping may go on and assist someone else, the individual that is participating in the altruistic behavior may find themselves feeling a lot less stressed and more thankful for things that they have. They may find new social circles that they never had before. The altruistic behavior may end up helping them in the long run, by way of favors from others in the community and they may find a whole new perspective on life.


Harbaugh, W. T., Mayr, U., & Burghart, D. R. (2007, June). Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations.Science,316(5831), 1622-1625.

International Organization for Standardization for international Social Responsibility standards. (2004).Perceptions and definitions of social responsibility. Winnipeg, Manitoba: International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Lahey, B. B. 2002. Essentials of Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Oakley, B. 2010. Too kind? Maybe it’s codependency. Reflections on Nursing Leadership, 36(1).

Stocks, E.L., Lishner, D.A., & Decker, S. K. (2009). Altruism or psychological escape: Why does empathy promote prosocial behavior?. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(5), 649-665. Doi:10.1002/ejsp.561.


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