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Understanding altruism

Updated on February 6, 2015
A woman donating blood
A woman donating blood

Generally speaking, altruism means selflessness, which involves unselfish concern for other people. It implies doing things simply out of a desire to help others, not because one feels obligated to, but out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons. Our everyday life is full of examples of acts of altruism such as holding the door for someone to enter, carrying the grocery bag for an old lady and helping her to reach home, giving some money to a homeless person etc. etc. Sometimes, we come across examples of altruism that involve risk to the life of the person doing altruistic act such as rescuing a drowning person, rescuing a person from the house engulfed by fire etc. However, all acts of altruism are not performed selflessly. For example, many acts of altruism are done for a variety of reasons such as guilt, obligation, duty, or even for rewards. These are pro-social behavior characterized by a concern about the rights, feelings and welfare of other people.

The researchers suggest that people are more likely to engage in altruistic behavior when they feel empathy for the person, who is in distress. Empathy, which is a capacity to understand what other person is experiencing from his or her perspective, is a pre-requisite to altruism. In other words, empathy is the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes. Both empathy and altruism are innate traits. The researchers have found that children tend to become more altruistic as their sense of empathy develops.

Characteristically, the following observations underlie acts of altruistic behavior –

  • People are more likely to sacrifice for relatives than non-relatives. The kin selection theory focuses on genes that operate on a biological level to contribute to the survival of genes by helping close relatives. The experts believe that since altruism has been practiced between kin for such a lengthy period of time, we are genetically programmed to act accordingly.
  • The people will most likely co-operate if and if only others are likely to reciprocate.
  • The concept of reciprocal altruism provides an explanation for the conditions leading to evolution and continuance of altruistic behavior between non-related individuals.
  • There are different levels of altruism in different situations ranging from complete altruism (altruistic suicide) to something as small as food sharing.

Genetic basis of altruism –

Many debate the existence of true altruism since it means giving without regard to reward or benefits of recognition and need. Such people, who doubt the existence of pure altruism, argue that helping others is intrinsically rewarding for the altruistic person. In other words, helping others makes them feel good. However, there are dramatic individual differences in the proclivity for the altruistic behavior. On account of this difference, a question arises if altruism has a genetic basis. In 1986, the finding from twin studies of 563 pairs of monozygous (MZ) and dizygous(DZ) twins, using altruism and emotional empathy scale, indicated that 50% of variance of altruism and empathy was due to genes and the other 50% to environmental factors. In 2004, in another study of 322 pairs of twins, a strong genetic effect on pro-social behavior was replicated. In 2004, another study, in which 409 pairs of young twins between 14 and 36 months of age were investigated, showed that no genetic effect was noticed at the age of 14 months because the prefrontal cortex of the brain is not well developed. But the heritability factor of empathy, which is a pre-requisite of altruism, increased with age as the development of prefrontal cortex increased. At the age of 24 and 36 months, genetics accounted for 34- 47% of variance in empathy factor worldwide.

Furthermore, genetic association studies have successfully linked oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and the vasopressin 1 a receptor gene (AVPR 1A) to pro-social behaviors.

Oxytocin, a hormone produced in the region of the brain called hypothalamus, promotes bonding and attachment, thereby solidifying relationships. The hormone also facilitates communication among people. It fosters generosity in people and seems to affect their sense of altruism as well. Vasopressin, a hormone closely related to oxytocin, is derived from a precursor that is synthesized in the hypothalamus. It promotes pro-social behavior and pair bonding.

Factors affecting altruism -

Religiosity – There exists a positive link between religious service attendances and frequent praying and altruistic behavior such as charitable donations and volunteerism. Religiosity also predicts greater altruism when reputation related egoistical motivation is active because altruistic behavior promotes a good self image. So, some doubt that the greater reported altruistic behavior may not be a true reflection of one’s actual desire to be altruistic. A factor that affects the religiosity effect on altruism is that who is being helped. Such people make moral judgments while showing altruistic behavior.

Upbringing – A set of ethical codes followed by the parents and elders in the family lays a fertile ground for the children to develop the same ethical codes. The children will start emulating and following the same set of moral codes that are followed by their parents. If the parents do acts of altruistic behavior in the presence of children, their children are quite likely to do the same. And, therefore, altruistic acts of the elders of the family will strengthen the innate traits of empathy and altruism in the children. The ethical habits of the parents emerge similar habits in their children because they try to copy their parents.

Learning – The altruists should seek insights about the world at large from academic and non-academic perspectives. By such knowledge they will learn what to do to help others. How best to change the world requires familiarity with a wide array of ways of thinking and looking at reality. We are often mistaken about what causes we should support to make the world better. The wisdom lies in new ways of understanding how the world works.

Developing empathy – We can cultivate empathy when we will develop an attitude of understanding the general perspective of other persons and giving them preference to view things from than viewing them from our perspective. The development of empathy will emerge altruism in people.

Summary –

We practice altruism often in our day-to-day life, sometimes not thinking about an act of altruism before doing it because for many it is a well established habit. But, on the other hand, some of us shirk from helping someone in grave trouble although we can do so without any harm to us. Studies have revealed that there is a genetic basis for pro-social behavior. The pro-social behavior is genetically ingrained in children too, who can enhance such behavior, if they find conducive environment for its enhancement. The innate trait of altruism in children can be nurtured by good parental upbringing. One can also nurture the pro-social behavior by cultivating religiosity, enlarging one’s learning experience and developing empathy.

“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”

Kahlil Gibran


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    • Dr Pran Rangan profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      3 years ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      I agree with your views. Thanks for nice comments.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 

      3 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      It's good to see true acts of kindness with no reward expected in return. That's rare, however, I am happy to say I have been a recipient of such kindness. We feel better about ourselves when we do things just because it's the right thing to do.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      3 years ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks for your nice comments.

    • johnkevin3333 profile image


      3 years ago

    • johnkevin3333 profile image


      3 years ago

      true , it is of great significance


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