Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Altruism

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What motivates us to help others?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Helping others without concern for one's self is referred to as altruism. On its own, altruism is easy enough to understand. Derived from the French altruisme, coming from altrui meaning “to or of others, the term means “unselfishness, the opposite of egoism” and is characterised by concern for the welfare of others. (Harper, 2010).

Altruism can be as simple as setting aside time to mentor a friend that could otherwise be used in self-interest, making a charitable donation, or participating in volunteer work at a community centre. There are examples of altruism all around us, making it a visible social phenomenon. Indeed, humans are characterised by an unusual amount of pro-social, altruistic behaviour that is rarely seen elsewhere in the natural world, often allowing incurring personal cost for the benefit of another or the community at large. So the question for altruism is thus not how, when, where or what we do that helps others, but why?. To illustrate, let’s personify the act through an everyday example:

Anna is a full-time student with a part-time secretarial job. She is like her peers time-poor and encounters stress through balancing a busy lifestyle. However, Anna devotes 8 hours a week to working at a homeless shelter which she must travel across town to reach. When asked why she extracts this time from her schedule to help others, Anna’s primary motivations are:

  • “To make a difference” and
  • “It feels good to give something back to my community”

Most would have little difficulty accepting that Anna’s actions are not self-serving, as they assist others in need at a cost to herself (time and travel expenses). This satisfies our former definition of altruism. So to break down this not uncommon occurrence, here are the specifications:

  • How does Anna help others? By contributing time and effort to those in need.
  • Where does Anna help others? At a local homeless shelter.
  • When does Anna help others? Twice a week, for a cumulative eight hours.
  • What does Anna do to help others? Assists to operate the shelter.
  • Why does Anna help others? - What is the motivation that is driving her?

Most examples of altruism can be similarly broken down to observable elements. However, the last question is one that is more contentious and thus has received examination from researchers in a variety of fields. If we were to ask, Why does Anna help others?, could we rely on her self-reports of how making a difference/contributing to the community motivates this behaviour? Perhaps. However even then, there may be further impetus for this motivation.

People are not always aware of the motivational basis of their behaviour- though people report that they eat because they are hungry, on a physiological level it is the hormone ghrelin being released into the bloodstream that causes people to experience the psychological need of hunger and subsequent drive to eat. (Reeve, 2009) Could it be a similar case with individuals such as Anna and similar acts of altruism that we perceive in everyday life? When altruism represents one of the most cherished aspects of our collective humanity, it is important to- as with basal needs like hunger- explore it at its deepest in the interest of understanding this fascinating behaviour.

Later in the chapter, altruism will be explored from a number of angles- in a socio-cultural light and also in terms of an anatomical explanation for this behaviour. Then some other theories on the subject will be appraised, keeping in mind that same quintessential question about altruism: why? For a more digestible summary of these different approaches,click here.

As you read through, compare the dynamic nature of altruism to your own beliefs- how much do you agree or disagree with how the phrase has changed in meaning? Does it seem to you like an action that is motivated by genetic predisposition, lifestyle, culture or a combination of? Keep this in mind- your thoughts will likely have taken new perspective by the end of this chapter!

A triumph of the soul?[edit | edit source]

Altruism is alluring because of its overriding, romantic simplicity- an impulse to help others unfettered by selfish concerns of the cost incurred by the individual giving aid. In many ways, the presence of altruism helps preserve the belief that goodness is the essential self of humanity, and that egoism, hatred and causing harmful affect towards others are a distortion of this fundamental course. Up until the 18th century this belief was common amongst naturalists, with the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserting human beings possessed a core morality that was inherent. Altruism is, perhaps, one of the strongest remaining proponents of this collective wish to believe the best about humankind.

Its presence certainly cannot be denied. One of the most powerful examples of altruism in modern times is that of Father Maximilian Kolbe. In 1941, when the Nazi terror was unleashed Kolbe chose to stay with his pastoral group as they were herded into the notorious camp at Auschwitz. Not only did he share their imprisonment, but continued to preach within the walls of the camp despite the knowledge this was punishable by summary execution. It was policy at Auschwitz to kill ten prisoners for every one that escaped and in July 1941, a siren announced the attempted escape of another prisoner.(Masters, 1996). The following day camp commandent Fritsch came to collect the feared toll.

When one of the men, a young father of three, was selected from the ranks the man burst into tears. Calmly stepping to the front of the line, Father Maximilian Kolbe stated "I would like to die in his place." and the sheer conviction swayed Fritsch to allow his request. Locked in an underground cell and condemned to death by starvation, Kolbe made the ultimate sacrifice to spare the suffering of another.

Few examples of altruism are so pure, but this case is not stand-alone either. It is hard to conceive what moves human beings to extraordinary lengths for their fellow man, but it is in our best interests to try.

Altruism: A learned response?[edit | edit source]

Some scholars have argued that altruism is a learned construct. Terming it a marker of “sociocultural evolution”, it has been theorised by anthropologists that individuals across most cultures are taught to sympathise with others from a young age in order to achieve the group rewards of an interactive society- thus helping others is a conditioned behaviour with a foundation in early childhood where hedonistic inclinations are countered by culturally-dependant values.(Mueller, 1993)

An experiment in 1995 where participants were given a fee for participating in a mock study and asked whether they wanted it donated in a charity showed that prevalence of donation increased in groups as opposed to reflecting on the ultimatum alone. This and other studies have shown clear evidence for altruism being socially motivated (Sally, 1995).

Another experiment conducted in London with a sample group of 11 men and 13 females recorded that when participants were asked to hold a painful physical exercise to directly benefit a range of different parties, (in the form of a cash benefit) kinship was the primary factor that determined their persistence. This provided evidence that altruism is linked to relatedness, and aiding others is far from universal in how individuals apply helping behaviour (Madsen, et al., 2006).

By this interpretation, cultural framework provides a means by which individuals can personalise altruism to the extent that it seems inherent, however at a base genetic level people are geared merely for optimal survival- a genetically coded end-goal that would not make provisions for helping others at personal expense.

Morality and the struggle for existence[edit | edit source]

The view that altruism cannot be a genetic predisposition stems from Charles Darwin's defining work The Origin of Species and it's controversial doctrine of “survival of the fittest”. By its underlying premise this widely accepted model of evolution states (among other principles) that individuals with the most adaptive traits amongst a species survive to pass on these genes, and that survival involves competition for limited resources between organisms. Therefore altruism- a selfless intervention for the welfare of others, often at personal cost- directly contravenes this inference that individuals act in the interests of their own survival (Haselhurst & Howie, 2011).

Therefore, there does not seem to be any biological basis for what we know as altruism.

This view is strengthened by studies of how altruism differs across cultural boundaries in quality and frequency. In a repetition of the same experiments by Madsen et al, it was shown that two of the South-African communities involved in the study showed less distinction on basis of kinship than the London sample group, and thus experienced altruism in different forms based on ingrained cultural variables. For example, less distinction was made between sisters and cousins to more extended family, possibly because of differences in what constitutes a family group in both countries. (Madsen, et al., 2006) Altruism is therefore not defined or enacted universally, meaning how it changes form across cultures lends credence to it being a purely social construct.

An anatomical basis for compassion?[edit | edit source]

Popular consensus about a biological explanation for altruistic behaviour centres on the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain that serves higher cognitive functions such as abstract thought and self-awareness. Specifically theories about why people are motivated to altruistic behaviour implicate the prefrontal cerebral cortex, a small frontal area of this brain structure that has been strongly tied to (among other behavioural outcomes) personality, mood, working memory and judgement.(Swenson, 2006)

Could the key to empathy and "helping" behaviour be locked away within our frontal cortex?

A study by Dr. John Grafman yielded interesting results in this area. Using a simulation program and mapping participant brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI) Grafman revealed some appealing insights about how our brain operates when we do something we believe altruistic at a cost to ourselves[factual?].

In a close trial of 24 people, each was assigned a pot of $128 which they could walk away from the study with pending completion. Each was also given a separate pool of funds which could be distributed to causes and charities at their discretion when prompted by the computer interface. Participants could choose to donate, oppose donation, or receive a personal payoff adding to their pot. In some cases donating to a charity meant losing money out of their own pot.

When participants donated at a cost to themselves, there was significantly higher activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex. Further, when questionnaires about the participants were collated it was shown that those with the highest charitable involvement also displayed highest activity in the prefrontal cortex region during the tests. This provides tantalising evidence that altruistic behaviour does have an anatomical origin which could be identified, particularly as the prefrontal cortex is already linked to aspects of personality, judgement and decision-making. (Stimson, 2007)

Alternative explanations[edit | edit source]

As with most aspects of human behaviour, it is difficult to fully understand altruism as a whole mechanism. While a fascinating area of study, the contention about whether the motivation to assist others arises from a socio-cultural or genetic level is only one difficulty. It should be understood, however, that while altruism can be easily defined there is some debate over whether people helping others actually demonstrates this behaviour in so pure a form. For example, discussion has emerged over whether actions that we traditionally label as altruistic are actually motivated by other more selfish causes, as famously proposed by aspects of Sigmund Freud’s psychodynamic theory stating that our motivation towards action is largely attributable to subconscious causes. (Ispas, 2007)Although summarised below, a more comprehensive look at these other aspects of helping behaviour can be found here.

The dark side of altruism[edit | edit source]

While altruism is popularly defined by its status of being selfless, there have been any number of theories about how sub-conscious motivations and expectation of reward perpetuate this behaviour. In direct opposition to the view that altruism cannot be an evolutionarily desired trait, these theories propose that altruism occurred in the human species as an interaction of the following benefits it incurs:

  • Reciprocity: There is an expectation, whether realised or not, that the helper will be aided in return at a time of their convenience.
  • Survival instinct: Helping your own genes is helping yourself.
  • Dependency: Altruistic group members perpetuate a community’s existence, so in short it is hard-wired that helping is good because it allows for united group efforts.

Therefore “helping” behaviour in humans is a result of a naturally selected predisposition that is activated and influenced by cognitive and social processes. There are two basic motives for helping under this explanation: our desires for mastery and concrete rewards, and connectedness with others. Both influence survival outcomes. (Smith & Mackie, 2007)

Negative-state relief model[edit | edit source]

The negative-state relief model is one of the most interesting and controversial hypotheses to explain the occurrence of altruism. Because human beings are naturally predisposed to empathy, a certain amount of emotional distress is inflicted by witnessing the suffering of another. This is, according to negative-state relief theory, the catalyst for most cases of altruism rather than a selfless desire for good- in fact, this line of thought reduces altruism to another face of the egotistic self. Walking away or avoiding a situation also relieves this distress(Batson et. al, 1989).

Altruism: Beyond polarities[edit | edit source]

Some of the most progressive work in this field was conducted by Karen Monroe, who has focused on individual assessment to explain what quantitative group estimates could not about this complex behaviour. To evaluate the occurrence of altruism in real-life, Monroe interviewed rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust[factual?]. Through the interview extracts of people who assisted others under significant duress, and by interviewing other citizens, Monroe classed people into three categories; entrepreneurs, philanthropists and heroes, and charted these broad categories across an “egoism-altruism” spectrum. (Monroe, 1996) This concept of altruism and egoism existing on a continuum rather than as distinct behavioural sets, allows for subtle differences in perceived behaviour that better includes the variety of our motivation to help others. While this approach to altruism has been criticised for diluting the traditional view on altruistic behaviour, it is an important consideration for how the topic is to viewed in a contemporary light.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Altruism persists as a fundamental mystery of the psyche. Addressed in various forms by philosophers and anthropologists over time, the compulsion to help others at a cost to oneself has driven theories of how morality becomes internalised. Why does altruism occur? Two explanations for why people engage in altruistic behaviour are:

  • There is an anatomical basis: Although research in this area is limited by the current technologies available, fMRI has revealed interesting links between brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and the ability to empathise and thus engage in altruistic behaviour.
  • Altruism is a learned response: This opposing theory draws on sample studies which infer the way altruism is enacted varies across cultures, leading away from a tidy categorisation of this behaviour as universal. This is most closely linked to related theories that altruism is actually practiced for an end goal that will benefit either the individual or group at large.

It was identified that while these represented main areas of inquiry into the subject, alternative explanations can't be ignored in studying this diverse aspect of human nature. The negative-state relief theory, altruism-for-survival and the altruism-egoism spectrum as devised by Karen Munroe were all considered.

Ultimately understanding altruism will likely require the synthesis of multiple approaches. The answer to the perennial question "Why do we help others?" cannot be a neatly defined, simplistic solution any more than the human beings who perpetuate it embody those same attributes. Disentangling the threads of our overt behaviour to trace the origins of this paradox- that humanity is fine-tuned for survival yet in some cases abandons self-interest to aid others- will not come easily. However, understanding the fundamental why of altruism is understanding the what of our very selves, and so the importance of this knowledge should not be underrated.

Key terms & concepts[edit | edit source]

  • Anatomical: Of or relating to bodily structure.
  • Altruism: Behaviour exhibited by one organism that directly benefits others at its own expense.
  • Cerebral Cortex: A sheet of neural tissue outermost to the cerebrum in the mammalian brain, and playing a key role in many higher-order tasks such as memory, perception and aspects of personality.
  • Egoism: An ethical theory that defines morality in terms of complete self-interest; effectively the conceptual antithesis of altruism.
  • Empathy: The ability to deeply understand and share the feelings of another.
  • Hedonism: A philosophy that states pleasure is the highest good, and that man should strive above all else to achieve his own satisfaction.
  • Prefrontal cortex: A region of the human brain anterior to the frontal lobe which is implicated in intelligence, personality and basic ethical decision-making.

References[edit | edit source]

Harper, D. (2010). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 14, 2011, from Online Etymology Dictionary:

Haselhurst, G., & Howie, K. (2011). Charles Darwin: The Theory of Evolution. Retrieved September 14, 2011, from On Truth And Reality:

Ispas, A. (2007, August 3). Psyched out by numbers: Altruism and the dangers of methodolatry. Retrieved September 14, 2011, from Europe's Journal of Psychology:

Jherding, 800×749×8 (2007-07-31 16:28) The Frontal Lobes. Retrieved 2nd November, 2011 from Wikiversity.

Madsen, A. E., Tunney, J. R., Fieldman, G., Plotkin, C. H., Dunbar, R. I., Richardson, J.-M., et al. (2006). Kinship and Altruism: A cross-cultural experimental study. London: The British Psychological Society.

Mfarguson,(2009-02-25) 2School8.JPG. Retrieved 2nd November, 2011 from Wikiversity.

Monroe, K. R. (1996). The heart of Altruism: perceptions of a common humanity. Princeton University Press.

Mueller, D. C. (1993). The public choice approach to politics. New York: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Oliner, P., Smolenska, Z., Oliner, S. P., & Baron, L. (1995). Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological, and Historial Perspectives on Altruism. New York: New York University Press.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (5th ed.). Iowa: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sally, D. (1995). Rationality & Society. Cornell: SAGE Publications.

Smith, R. E., & Mackie, M. D. (2007). Social Psychology: Third Edition. London: Psychology Press.

Stimson, D. (2007, April 4). Inner Workings of the Magnanimous Mind. Retrieved September 5, 2011, from National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

Swenson, R. (2006). Review of Functional & Clinical Neuroscience. DC: Dartmouth Medical School.