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What Is Altruism In Psychology

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Negative Aspects Of Altruism

Simply Psychology: Altruism vs Social Exchange Theory
  • People who perform altruistic acts can put themselves in danger, such as when saving someone elses life.
  • They may put aside their health, social or financial needs in order to care for others.
  • It can lead to a person being emotionally overwhelmed.

However, altruism is generally a positive force and is a skill to be developed and put into practice.

Why Care About Others

Radically different ways of answering these questions can be found inmoral philosophy. The first makes self-interested motivationfundamental it holds that we should be altruistic because it is inour interest to be so moved. That strategy is often attributed to theGreek and Roman philosophers of antiquityPlato, Aristotle, theStoics, and the Epicureans .

In the modern era, a second approach has come to the fore, built onthe notion that moral thinking is not self-centered but impartial andimpersonal. Its basic idea is that when we think morallyabout what to do, reason takes a gods-eye perspective and setsaside the emotional bias we normally have in our own favor, or infavor of our circle of friends or our community. Here Kant 1785 is arepresentative figure, but so too are the utilitariansJeremyBentham 1789, John Stuart Mill 1864, and Henry Sidgwick 1907.

Altruistic Habits Lead To Longer Healthier Lives

Many studies have linked volunteerism to happiness, better physical health, and increased mental health. One such study followed a group of mothers over a 30-year period. Over the course of the three decades, 36% of women who routinely volunteered experienced a major illness. Of those who volunteered rarely or never, 52% experienced a major illness.

In another study, it was found that older adults who participated in a volunteer organization had lower depression rates, less anxiety, and an increased will to live. Another study included adults aged 55 and older. It found that consistent volunteering led to a 44% decrease in mortality rates.

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Distinguishing Between Altruism And Exchange Motivations

Distinguishing between altruism and exchanges as motivations for intergenerational transfers has been difficult. There is evidence that the strong implications of altruism models are not borne out on the data . That is, the distribution of resources within a family does affect consumption and parents do not compensate children for lower incomes on a dollar-for-dollar basis. While there is less evidence refuting theories of exchange, these models do not generate implications that are as clearly refutable as altruism .

Part of the problem in distinguishing altruism from an exchange motivation may be that the models in the literature are largely static while the world, and family members interactions, are dynamic . Moreover, testing dynamic theories of altruism and exchange requires the measurement of family members consumption, both annual and lifetime income, and financial and time transfers and in-kind transfers over a long period of time, and ideally, over the life course, which is beyond the scope of most existing surveys.

George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, in, 2012

Altruism Theory: Reciprocity Norm


If someone does something to help us, we usually feel compelled to return help, not harm, to them. This is referred to as the reciprocity norm.

The reciprocity norm isthe expectation that people want to offer help, rather than harm, to those who have helped them.

This theory explains why we are more likely to “pay it forward” if someone buys us a coffee because we become more generous when we a treated generously.

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Self And Others: Some Radical Metaphysical Alternatives

An assumption that many people make about egoistic and altruisticmotives is that it is more difficult to justify the latter than theformer, or that the former do not require justification whereas thelatter do. If someone asks himself, Why should I take my owngood to be a reason to do anything? it is tempting to respondthat something is amiss in the very asking of thisquestionperhaps because there can be no answer to it.Self-interest, it might be said, can be given no justification andneeds none. By contrast, since other people areother, itseems as though some reason needs to be given for building a bridgefrom oneself to those others. In other words, we apparently have tofind something in others that justifies our taking an interest intheir well-being, whereas one need not seek something in oneself thatwould justify self-regard. It is worth asking whether this apparent asymmetry betweenjustifying self-interest and justifying altruism is real or onlyapparent.

Assuming, then, that the distinction between these motives is real,the questions we asked at the beginning of this section remain: Whyought one to be altruistic? Does one need a justification for beingmotivated in this way? Is egoistic motivation on a sounder footingthan altruistic motivation, in that it stands in no need ofjustification?

Cultural And Biological Influences On The Selfishselfless Spectrum

Some studies have attempted to identify how the depth of social interactions an individual has is reflected in the gross anatomical structure of the human brain. For instance, a positive correlation has been recorded between the number of individuals a person regularly interacts with and the size of their amygdala bilaterally , but not the hippocampus. This correlation also held true for the number of different social groups to which a person belongs, not just the number of friends with whom an individual interacts . The amygdala is responsible for many automatic processes that influence social cognition ranging from the more mundane such as fear, vigilance and alertness to the parsing and evaluation of facial features in conjunction with the fusiform cortex . The amygdala may play a central role in regulating an individuals aversion to or propensity for social interaction based on the activation of the brains reward mechanisms during the reading of facial expressions and the subsequent regulation of comfort in social situations.

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Evolution Of The Prosocial Brain

The concept of altruism as an enhanced parental instinct relies on the evolution of several factors in both the altruist and the recipient: signaling of kinship status and need for compassion, recognition by kin of the signals, and donation-behavior by the kin . While this behavioral signaling mechanism may underlie parental instinct and compassion which is probabilistically directed toward kin, it is possible that simple parental behaviors such as offspring retrieval, sustenance and shelter sharing, and emotional comforting are behavior patterns of signaling-recognition-action that have been enhanced by evolutionary mechanisms resulting in broader altruistic behavior from prosocial brains with greater capacity for receiving and passing on experience and acquired information. And as recent studies have shown, parenting-associated prosocial helping behaviors not only enhance the survival of the offspring, but also promotes better health, slower decline in functioning levels and lower risk of mortality for care-givers . Collectively, the evidence indicating prosocial altruistic capability provides for complex interactions that have come to form the foundation of our civil, societal interactions . Social interactions often extend not only to members of our families, but to other members of our own social species, and often to members of other domesticated species on which we depend for our survival and social well-being.

What Is Altruism In Psychology 8 Inspiring Examples

Altruism Is Selfish, And That’s Ok | Max Krasnow | TEDxCambridgeSalon
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  • 09-12-2021

Around the world, people give up time, money, and energy every day to improve the lives of others.

It can be as simple as helping a neighbor with their shopping. Or more noteworthy, putting themselves at risk to rescue a stranger, changing healthcare policies to benefit communities, or helping to rid the world of a devastating disease, impacting millions.

And yet, psychologists and philosophers argue over the motivation behind compassionate, kind-hearted, considerate, and benevolent actions.

Are these people self-less or self-interested?

Some believe they are driven by altruism, with no regard for themselves or their wellbeing, while others claim self-interest drives even the noblest action.

In this article, we explore the meaning of altruism and discuss whether behavior can be motivated solely by anothers wellbeing. And if so, why? We also uncover human and animal examples of altruistic behavior and the biological and philosophical implications beneath.

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Why Are Some People More Altruistic Than Others

We cant all be Ellen DeGeneres. In fact, some of us are pretty far off from being like this do-gooder. Why is that? While researchers arent exactly sure, there is evidence that suggests our brain functions influence how altruistic and selfless we may be, according to Walden University.

A recent study conducted at Georgetown University found that people who demonstrate strong altruism actually have a more active right amygdala, which is a part of the brain essential to our feeling and perceiving emotions, especially fear. This finding hints at a possible link between altruism and the neurologically-driven capacity to observe fear and empathize with this fear in others. Psychology researcher Abigail Marsh explains this concept further in her TED Talk on altruism:

You Think About How Your Actions Will Affect Others

For example, you get super excited when you find out that your favorite fast food restaurant now has an app that allows you to place your order ahead of time and skip the line. But then you realize how annoying that is for the people who waited their turn in line their own orders will get held up because the employees will have to prioritize your order. You decide against using the app and wait in line with everyone else, simply because you dont want to inconvenience anyone.

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Nature Versus Nurture In Altruism

Given that altruistic behavior can be expressed by large segments of the population as discussed earlier, the genes underlying altruism may be commonplace. This includes genes for central dopaminergic systems engaged in the reward system and genes for oxytocin receptors that promote development of the social brain with strong capabilities for communication and mind reading of emotions .

Several hundred genes, many of them rare copy variations, have been implicated as risk factors for dysfunctions in communication and mind reading that characterize autism spectrum disorders . The large number is consistent with the broad heterogeneity of symptoms and their expression in autism. While alterations in oxytocin stimulatory proteins, oxytocin plasma levels and genetic variance in oxytocin receptors have been reported as risk factors for autism , clinical trials on the efficacy of oxytocin therapy has found only modest benefits or no positive effects . Collectively, the genetics underlying psychopathy, Williams disease and autism indicate that no one gene is responsible for the development of the human prosocial brain, but a broad network of interacting genes found in normal populations set the stage for the second system of heredity to sculpt prosocial brain functions.

Nagel And The Impersonal Standpoint


Yet another conception of impartialityand a novel argument forthe rationality of altruismcan be found in the work of ThomasNagel. In The Possibility of Altruism , he seeks toundermine both psychological egoism, in its strong form, as defined insection 2.1 above, and its normative counterpart , which holdsthat one ought to have no direct concern with the good ofothers. Indirect concern, the ethical egoist grants, can bejustified: the good of others may be instrumental to ones owngood, or one might happen to have a sentimental attachment to others.But absent these contingent relations to others, one has, according tothe ethical egoist, no reason to care about their well-being.

Nagel doubts that anyone actually is a psychological egoist , but his major concern is to refute ethical egoism, byshowing that altruism is a rational requirement on action. Hisidea is not simply that we ought in certain circumstances to helpothers for their sake it is also that we are acting irrationally ifwe do not. That is because it is required of us as rational beings toview ourselves and others from what Nagel calls the impersonalstandpoint. As he puts it,

to recognize others fully as persons requires a conception of oneselfas identical with a particular, impersonally specifiable inhabitant ofthe world, among others of a similar nature.

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Moral Motives And Altruistic Motives

Some of what we do in our interactions with other people is morallymotivated but not altruistic. Suppose A has borrowed a bookfrom B and has promised to return it within a week. WhenA returns the book by the deadline, his motive might bedescribed as moral: he has freely made a promise, and he takes himselfto have an obligation to keep such promises. His motive is simply tokeep his word this is not an example of altruism. But if Agives B a book as a gift, thinking that B will enjoy itand find it useful, he is acting simply out of a desire to benefitB. His motive in this case is altruistic.

Similarly, suppose a mother refrains from giving her adult son adviceabout a certain matter because she thinks that it is not her place todo soit would be interfering too much in his private affairs.Even so, she might also think that he would benefit from receiving heradvice she respects his autonomy but fears that as a result he willdecide badly. Her restraint is morally motivated, but it would notnormally be described as an act of altruism.

As these examples indicate, the notion of altruism is applicable notto every morally motivated treatment of others, but more narrowly towhat is done out of a concern for the good of othersin otherwords, for their well-being. Altruistic acts might be described ascharitable or benevolent or kind, for these words also convey the ideaof acting for the good of others, and not merely rightly towardsothers.

The Biology Of Altruism: 5+ Interesting Findings

Biologists and social scientists tend to look at life from a different perspective from psychologists and, as a result, have an alternate view of altruism.

For a biologist, altruism is not the motivation behind behavior but refers to increasing the reproductive fitness of another animal at the cost of their own .

As Richard Dawkins puts it in The Selfish Gene , An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another entitys welfare at the expense of it own.

And yet, from an evolutionary perspective, this seems counterintuitive.

After all, if most animal behavior is hereditary, how would altruistic behavior be consistently passed on to subsequent generations, when it results in fewer offspring?

But kin altruism suggests that helping a relative increases the likelihood of some of our genes being passed down .

Altruistic behavior promotes the genes rather than the individual. Research has shown that such activity decreases as the genetic variation increases.

However, how does this explain altruistic behavior toward strangers who share much less genetic material?

At this point, evolutionary biologists turn to a branch of applied mathematics known as game theory.

This mathematical model shows that reciprocity exchanging help for mutual benefit can explain biological non-kin altruism .

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We Are More Likely To Perform An Altruistic Deed When In A Bad Mood

Seems surprising, doesnt it? But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that humans are most likely to perform an altruistic deed when in a bad mood. The researchers concluded that this is because helping others can effectively boost our mood and help us to feel better about ourselves and our own personal situation.

The Evolution Of Altruism

Altruism | Ethics Defined

Altruism has been investigated for years because of the debate about whether there are people who are born with the tendency to help others as mentioned above or whether kinship selection increases the possibility of helping others or because of the trust that awakens the other human being to be able to help him or her.

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Altruism In Ethology And Evolutionary Biology

In the science of ethology , and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Recent developments in game theory have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:

  • Behavioral manipulation
  • Indirect reciprocity
  • Strong reciprocity
  • Pseudo-reciprocity
  • The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price’s development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.

    Factors That Contribute To Altruistic Helping

    The factors that contribute to altruistic helping may be grouped into two broad categories: those that describe the individual who helps and those that are more contextual in nature. Concerning the former, research has shown that people who are more likely to provide altruistically motivated help tend to have strong humanitarian values and feel a relatively great sense of responsibility for the welfare of others. They also tend to be more empathic and caring about others than are more egoistically oriented helpers. In one interesting line of research, Mario Mikulincer, Phillip Shaver, and their colleagues have shown that people with a secure attachment stylethat is, people who feel secure and trusting in their relationships with their closest care-givers tend to have more altruistic motives in a variety of helping contexts, including volunteerism . Insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, either discourage helping or foster more egoistic motives for helping.

    Among the contextual factors that influence altruism, characteristics of the relationship between helper and recipient are very important. Empathy is strongly related to altruistic helping, in two ways: Empathy involves taking the perspective of the other, and empathy fosters compassionate caring. Both are more likely in close, personal relationships, and because people typically care about the welfare of their close friends, both tend to increase the likelihood of altruistically motivated helping.

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