Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Altruism versus selfishness

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Altruism versus selfishness:
To what extent is human behaviour altruistic or selfish?

Overview[edit | edit source]

To what extent is the behaviour of the human species altruistic or selfish? Which of the two is the stronger motivator? Are altruism and selfishness both innate or are they something learned over time? Often behaviour is classified as either altruistic or egotistic (selfish) (Sober, 1993) which highlights the relevance and importance of gaining a better understanding of what altruism and selfishness are and where they come from. What is also important to understand is the motivational strength altruism and selfishness can have in humans. This chapter looks into what these motivators are and the theories of why they exist and where they come from ranging from psychological theories to evolutionary theories and comparisons between altruism and selfishness. It is hard to judge which is the stronger more prevalent motivator but much of the research performed has supported altruism as the stronger, most important. However, research into selfishness has provided compelling arguments for and against altruism which indicates an ongoing need for research into this area.

[factual?]Within Congo’s Ituri Forest, the Mbuti people live as a unified group, working together in all aspects of life, ensuring that each member does all they can for the greater good of the community. They would work hard for one another to better the group. They eat together to ensure that all feel included. They hunt together and share the meat with all the tribe. A hunter’s success is not individual but belongs to the whole tribe. This unity in the tribe creates harmony and equality that help the Mbuti thrive.

A member of the Mbuti named Cephu had conflicting ideals to that of his fellow tribe members. The Mbuti would use large nets that extended sometimes up to 300 feet to catch animals for meat to eat. The men would stretch out and hang up the nets in a designated area and ahead of them the women and children would beat on the ground and trees, yelling and crying out loud to scare the animals in the direction of the traps. Cephu would slip away from the nets and set up his own smaller net closer to where the women and children were scaring the animals as to catch the first animals for himself.

Cephu was discovered in his selfish act and was brought before the tribe to account for what he had done. He proclaimed that he deserved a better place in the line of nets as a result of his personal initiative and individual responsibility and that he deserved all meat that he had obtained through it. The disagreement with Cephu’s behaviour and beliefs was unanimous among the members of the tribe and as a result he faced banishment. Cephu returned all his meat to the tribe and abandoned his individualist ways so that he could remain with the Mbuti.

Figure 1. A photo of the Mbuti, a tribe that thrives by working collectively in all aspects of life.

Altruism[edit | edit source]

Altruism is the selfless concern for the welfare of others (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003). It can be described in biological organisms as an act which improves the generative fitness of the recipient at some expense of the contributor (Cartwright, 2000). Batson (2011) argues that altruism is a state of motivation where one's ultimate goal is to increase another's well-being and that all humans experience this state. Hagen and Hammerstein (2006) agree with this statement expressing that most people genuinely care about the welfare of others. Welfare[say what?] is described as chances of survival (Dawkins, 2006) and also states that the explanations of altruism and selfishness are behavioural not subjective, interactive and not individual[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Selfishness[edit | edit source]

Defined as altruism's opposite, selfishness is the concern for one's own well-being and self-interests (Rand, 1964). Dawkins (2006) describes it as increasing one’s own welfare at the expense of another’s. It is rarely depicted as a group beneficial scheme[explain?]. Selfish strategies are considered as deviant, free-riding, egoistic, cheating, and in particularly[spelling?], as highlighted in the Mbuti tribe with Cephu, undermining altruism and cooperation (Eldakar & Wilson, 2008). 

Theories[edit | edit source]

Altruistic motivation[edit | edit source]

Why do people exhibit concern and care for others well-being? What motivates them to act on these altruistic feelings? Questions such as these have fuelled the research undertaken to understand where this motive to help others, with little or no thought of one's own benefit or detriment, comes from (Batson, 2014; Becker, 1981; Eldakar & Wilson 2008; Foster, Wenseleers & Ratnieks, 2006; Wilson 1992). Sober (1993) claimed that humans can act from altruistic motives intentionally. Is altruism biological in nature? Do genes determine altruistic behaviour? Are there psychological explanations for it? Is it dependent on the environment in which one lives? Social settings? Is altruism a behaviour that has helped the evolutionary progression of humans?

There has been ongoing debates in psychological science revolving around altruism and its existence (Maner et al. 2002) and many theories have arisen to support and argue against it and explain its origins. Following are some of the theories of altruism which help offer insight into this debate and understand the many questions surrounding this topic.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis[edit | edit source]

The empathy-altruistic hypothesis explains that altruistic motivation can be produced by empathetic concern (Batson, 2011). Empathetic concern involves emotions that are provoked and correspond with the observed welfare of someone in need (Batson, 2011). This theory states that altruism is stimulated by the empathetic desire to help someone who is suffering (De Waal, 2008). Further research has identified that pro-social altruistic behaviour can be seen to emerge in children around the age of two years old (Svetlova, Nichols, & Brownell, 2010).

Sober (1993) Empathetic altruism [grammar?] in humans operates in a fashion that is distinctly different from other forms of helping behaviour. Empathetic concern exists in humans and motivates at least some expressions of human helping.

Social exchange theory[edit | edit source]

In disagreement with the empathy-altruism hypothesis [grammar?] Maner et al. (2002) takes a more psychological approach with the social exchange thoery[spelling?]. Maner et al. explains that altruism only exists when benefits outweigh the costs. In an experiment by Maner et al., results suggested that altruistic related behaviours disappeared when non-altruistic motivators were taken into account, perhaps an explanation for Cephu's behaviour in realising the benefits of setting his own traps to obtain his own meat. Mane et al. concluded that evidence of true altruism are evasive.

Evolutionary[edit | edit source]

The evolution of altruism poses the question of how natural selection favours individuals that carry helping traits, over those that carry selfish ones (Fletcher & Doebeli, 2009).

In the typical evolutionary formulation, altruism benefits the human population, selfishness undermines altruism, and the purpose of the model is to identify mechanisms, such as kinship or reciprocity, which enables altruism to evolve (Eldakar & Wilson, 2008).

Group selection/kin selection[edit | edit source]

Dawkins (2006) said that, according to common consensus, living creatures evolve to do things for the good of the group or for the good of the species.

In Darwinian natural selection or ‘survival of the fittest’, Dawkins explained that compared to a group that put their own selfish interest first a group of self-sacrificing individuals, willing to sacrifice for the welfare of the group, are less likely to go extinct[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Henceforth we see a greater populace of groups full of self-sacrificing individuals. He went on to express that this was long presumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the evolutionary theory of ‘individual selection’. This theory was accepted as a main view but has since been seen as a comforting thought or an unrealistic ideal (Dawkins, 2006)

Expanding on group selection is kin selection which explains how altruism can evolve if sufficiently beneficial to relatives (Eberhard, 1975). The theory summarises particular restrictions to selfishness[explain?] as well as the conditions under which altruism is beneficial. Inclusive fitness is capable of evaluating the selective significance (biological function) of any social act, whether selfish, altruistic, reciprocal, cooperative, or destructive in nature. Thus, it provides an approach which could serve as the basis for a general and comprehensive theory of social behavior (Eberhard, 1975).

Fletcher and Doebeli (2009) argue that even though kinship or genetic similarity is favourable when it comes to altruistic acts and interaction between individuals it is not a fundamental requirement from the evolution of altruism. In particular, several recent studies have claimed that kin selection is a theoretically necessary mechanism for the evolution of altruism (Fletcher & Doebeli, 2009). Sober (1993) supported this stating that altruism can extend to other members of other groups but is usually restricted to family, nation, race, species.

Sober (1993) has stated that the theory and empirical evidence that evolutionary altruism is widespread and promoted by natural selection is very secure and well documented. Also that humans need this kind of altruism, that they are much better off working together.

Learned Altruism

With respects to learned altruism Dawkins (2006) expressed that it was within human capabilities to learn altruism. He stated that humans were not innately good so altruism is something we must learn over time influenced by our surrounding environment, upbringing, culture etc.

Selfish motivation[edit | edit source]

Dawkins (2006) states that usually, selfish behaviour may well merely involve the denial to share cherished food, territory or sexual partners, all, he argued, valid motives for this selfish behaviour. Following, are many theories relating to what motivates selfishness or selfish behaviour.

The ‘selfish gene’[edit | edit source]

Many of the following theories explore the biological aspects or the genetics that produce selfishness in individuals. Dawkins (2006) argues that ruthless selfishness should be expected successful gene as a principal characteristic. This gene of selfishness will typically promote selfishness in the individual’s behaviour. Dawkins believed that humans are all born selfish, that selfishness is innate and cannot initially be helped, it is a part of our genetic makeup.

Natural selection[edit | edit source]

Dawkins (2006) postulates that anything that has evolved through natural selection should be selfish.

Individual selection[edit | edit source]

In contrast to group or kin selection, individual selection argues that in every altruistic group there will be at least one selfish individual (Dawkin, 2006), as was apparent in the Mbuti tribe with Cephu. This dissenting minority are said to be more likely than the altruistic to survive and have children because they refuse to self-sacrifice and are prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest. The offspring of the selfish individuals tend to inherit their predecessors selfish traits and after numerous generations of this natural selection the once altruistic group is now overtaken by selfish individuals. In spite of this theory individual selectionists will admit that groups such as these will more commonly die out than if the group had continued in the altruistic ways and selfish minorities conformed to the group’s altruistic behaviour (Dawkin, 2006).

Psychological egoism[edit | edit source]

Psychological egoism is the term used when an individual performs an act of altruism in an attempt to satisfy their own desire or need (Slote, 1964). Behaviourist theories of the source and the operation of human motives which consider a number of essentially selfish and unlearned primary motives or drives (i.e., hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex) clarify that all other higher-order drives or motives are developed innately from these primary ones (Slote, 1964). Slote explained this resulting from the law of reinforcement (reinforced or rewarded behaviour tends to be constant as the reinforcement is also constant) and denied the functional autonomy of the higher-order (or acquired) drives or motives. He claimed the higher-order drives were functionally dependent.

Functional autonomy – when a higher-order motive becomes casually independent of primary motives in such a way that one will forever keep acting from that motive even if rewards from those other primary motives are no longer associated with such action.[Rewrite to improve clarity]

An example of this effect of the law of reinforcement and functional dependency is whenever an individual acts benevolently one would not be performing that act or continue to if that act was not accompanied with or reinforced by the gratification of selfish primary drives, such as hunger, whether those drives be the same or different from the primary drives from which the motive of benevolence actually came from.

Slote’s (1964) hypothesis in relation to psychological egoism was that individuals would never continually act in a benevolent or self-sacrificing way if such actions were not reinforced by the rewarding of selfish primary drives. However, Slote admitted that psychological egoism is still an open empirical question.

Sober (1993) talks of ‘extreme egoists’ caring only for their own welfare and having no care whether someone else is worse off. Also people only care about gaining pleasure and avoiding pain[factual?].

Comparisons[edit | edit source]

This section explores research into comparisons between altruism and selfishness to gain a better understanding of how they fit together and which one, if any, is more prevalent in and important for human behaviour.

Altruistic and selfish cooperation[edit | edit source]

Fehr and Fischbacher (2003) found experimental evidence indicating that altruism in humans is a powerful force and, in the animal world, is unique. Along with this, Fehr and Fischbacher also found that there is much individual diversity and the relationship between selfish individuals and altruists is crucial to human collaboration. Contingent on the environment, a minority of altruists can force a majority of selfish individuals to cooperate or, equally, a selfish individuals[grammar?] can provoke a great number of altruists to defect. Fehr and Fischbacher argued that current genetically based evolutionary theories cannot fully explain important repetitions of human altruism which highlights the importance of both theories of cultural evolution as well as gene–culture co-evolution.

Nature versus nurture[edit | edit source]

Dawkins (2006) believes we are innately selfish but that we can learn altruism and that it’s a human quality to defy our genes (the selfish gene). He says that to humans [grammar?] culture is so important that genes are virtually irrelevant to the understanding of human nature.

Evolution and partner selection[edit | edit source]

Referring back to the Mbuti tribe and Cephu's selfish behaviour, how successful would Cephu be in finding a partner or a mate after his crime against the tribe? It has been found that females typically desire a partner or mate who displays altruistic bahaviour[spelling?] and qualities (Fletcher & Doebeli, 2009). Women are more likely to select a man who would place her welfare at the expense of his, who would fight on her behalf at the risk of his life and who will protect her regardless of his personal safety (Batson, 2014). With this in mind a problem selfish individuals face is difficulty finding a mate and producing offspring, thus ending their line. An altruistic individual would then succeed in procuring a partner, having children and potential continuation of their line throughout generations.

Business and family[edit | edit source]

Becker (1981) looked at the difference between selfishness in business environments and altruism in the family. His opinion was that altruism is more common in families than business because altruism is more "efficient" in families and less "efficient" in business.

Becker (1981) stated that one simple argument is that altruism cannot compete against selfishness in business transactions because altruists earn poorer money profits because they charge less for their services and products. This argument is "naïve" because the focus is on fiscal benefits whereas altruists receive cognitive, intellectual and emotional benefits in place of monetary gains.

Becker (1981) goes on to explain that families have been responsible in all societies, for a substantial portion of economic activity (education system, health and medical, etc.). Becker claimed that altruism is more important in economic life than is widely understood. Unfortunately, the limitations Becker addressed were that not enough analysis of the consequences of altruism (particularly in families) has been undertaken (Collard, 1978).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

After considering much of the research gone[awkward expression?] into altruism and selfishness one can see they are two real states of motivations for behaviour. Both can be very powerful forces that drive human behaviour and understanding what they are and where they come from assists us in further knowing more about why we do the things we do and behave the way we do. Furthemore[spelling?], understanding the what, why and where from of these two motivators with[Rewrite to improve clarity] enable us to understand which of the two in more important to the evolution of mankind.

Both[what?] present compelling arguments about how each benefits the human race. We've gained insight into how selfishness and looking out for oneself can assist in the survival of an individual but for only a restricted time, preventing[clarification needed] generations that could have possibly come after that individual.

There are arguments for selfishness being innate, something that we are born with, having no initial control but possessing the ability to defy our 'selfish genes' and learn altruism.

Then we reflect on altruism being innate and something that all humans experience and are capable of, even from a very young age. And, in evolutionary progression, we see how altruistic groups help preserve a group for generations. A group of closely related individuals can be grounds for altruistic acts towards others but is not fundamental for altruistic behaviour.

As Fehr and Fischbacher (2003) expressed, altruism is a powerful and unique force to humans, one that has seen mankind progress throughout time and this world and will continue to do so. There is a great need to continue studies into better understanding to what extent human behaviour is altruistic, along with the further study of selfishness and its motivational impact on behaviour.

See also[edit | edit source]

Altruism and empathy



Social contribution

References[edit | edit source]

Batson, C. D. (2014). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Psychology Press.

Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in humans. Oxford University Press.

Becker, G. S. (1981). Altruism in the family and selfishness in the market place. Economica, 48, 1-15.

Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. MIT Press.

Collard, D. (1978). Altruism and Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene (No. 199). Oxford university press.

De Waal, F. B. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279-300.

Eberhard, M. J. W. (1975). The evolution of social behavior by kin selection.Quarterly Review of Biology, 50, 1-33.

Eldakar, O. T., & Wilson, D. S. (2008). Selfishness as second-order altruism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(19), 6982-6986.

Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425, 785-791.

Fletcher, J. A., & Doebeli, M. (2009). A simple and general explanation for the evolution of altruism. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences276(1654), 13-19.

Foster, K. R., Wenseleers, T., & Ratnieks, F. L. (2006). Kin selection is the key to altruism. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21(2), 57-60.

Hagen, E. H., & Hammerstein,P. (2006). Game theory and human evolution: A critique of some recent interpretations of experimental games. Theoretical Population Biology69(3), 339-348.

Konstan, D. (2000, January). Altruism. In Transactions of the American Philological Association (pp. 1-17). The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Maner, J. K. Luce, C. L. Neuberg, S. L. Cialdini, R. B. Brown, S. Sagarin, B. J. (2002). The effects of perspective taking on motivations for helping: Still no evidence for altruism. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin  28(11): 1601–1610

Margolis, H. (1984). Selfishness, altruism, and rationality. University of Chicago Press.

Rand, A. (1964). The virtue of selfishness. Penguin.

Slote, M. A. (1964). An empirical basis for psychological egoism. The Journal of Philosophy, 61, 530-537.

Sober, E. (1993). Evolutionary altruism, psychological egoism, and morality: disentangling the phenotypes. Evolutionary ethics, 199-216.

Steinberg, D. (2010). Altruism in medicine: Its definition, nature, and dilemmas. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 19(2), 249-257.

Svetlova, M., Nichols, S. R., & Brownell, C. A. (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child development, 81(6), 1814-1827.

Turnbull, C. (2012). The forest people. Random House.

Wilson, D. S. (1992). On the relationship between evolutionary and psychological definitions of altruism and selfishness. Biology and Philosophy, 7(1), 61-68.

Younkins, E. W. (Ed.). (2007). Ayn Rand's Atlas shrugged: A philosophical and literary companion. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

External links[edit | edit source]