Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Extreme altruism

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Extreme altruism:
What motivates us to risk our lives for others?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Consider the following questions: Would you donate blood to save someone's life? Yes? Generally people would agree to donate blood. What about jumping in front of a bullet to save someone's life? Or running into a house that is on fire to save a person? Extreme altruism is a bizarre phenomenon that has been researched for many reasons (West & Gardner, 2010). What would motivate someone to risk their lives for a stranger, friend or a family member? What theories try to explain the motives and reasons behind altruistic behaviour? Do we favour some lives over others and are certain people more inclined to behave extremely altruistically? This chapter will discuss findings and research behind altruism and give a better idea what motivations lie behind extreme altruism.

Fictional case study
Julia has been known to be a selfless and a kind-hearted person. She volunteers at the homeless shelter every week and donates blood as well as being on the list as a bone marrow donor for her sister who has leukaemia. In times of crisis, Julia volunteers with the SES and helps people evacuate their homes and removes trees and branches to prevent any accidents. Julia works full-time as a fire fighter and has saved people from burning houses. Recently she witnessed a woman being mugged and threatened with a knife, Julia stepped in and helped the woman, while the thief ran away.

Before reading the chapter think about this case study and with your own knowledge try and answer the questions: What activities that Julia has done can be classed as extremely altruistic? What type of personality do you think Julia has? What types of altruism does Julia display?

Definition[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

What is altruism?[edit | edit source]

Altruism is a type of social behaviour where the act benefits someone else, at the actor's cost (West, Gardner & Griffin, 2006; Zwick & Fletcher, 2014). This behaviour is a combination of helping, a behaviour improving another person's situation, and empathy, sharing the perceived emotions of the person (Byrne, 2008). Altruism is a phenomenon that is a part of various disciplines, one of them being psychology (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). The concept of psychological altruism being the genuine motivation to improve another person's well-being (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013)[grammar?].

When does altruism become extreme?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Firefighting is an example of extreme altruism.

Extreme altruism involves improving another person's situation, when the cost to oneself is high, without any other intrinsic motives than to help them (Rand & Epstein, 2014). The behaviour involves an actor, person helping, and a receiver, the one being helped (West et al., 2006). The factors involved in risking one's own life to save another has been investigated and results show that people who have saved other people's lives have done so instinctively (Rand & Epstein, 2014). An example of extreme altruism is the story of Mr Thompson and his friend saving the life of another friend who was being attacked by a great white shark in 2015 (Gage, 2016). When he and the friend tried rescuing the victim, the shark attacked the friend again trying to drag him under water. Despite the risk of the shark attacking either of the men, they held their friend's head above water and swam him to shore (Gage, 2016).

What behaviour can be regarded as altruistic?[edit | edit source]

Table 1. Acts of altruism and extreme altruism

Altruism Extreme altruism
Donating blood or bone


Jumping into a flooded river to save

someone from drowning

Volunteering at a homeless


Stepping in when a person is being


Giving money to a


Giving someone your life jacket when


Types of altruism[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Nepotistic altruism[edit | edit source]

From Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory, altruism does not make sense (West et al., 2006). Why would someone risk their life for another person, when they could survive?

William Hamilton's kin selection theory (1970) explains how altruism between close relatives makes sense (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013; West et al., 2006). Saving someone closely related to the person means that, even if the actor cannot reproduce anymore, the receiver will still be able to pass on some of the same genes to the next generation (West et al., 2006).

His formula being[grammar?]: rb - c > 0

The r stands for the relatedness, b is the benefit for the receiver and c stands for the cost to the actor, meaning that altruism is higher when the relatedness or the benefit to the receiver are higher and the cost to the actor lower (West et al., 2006).

Nepotistic altruism, also known as reproductive altruism, is where you act altruistically towards people closely related to oneself. (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). This form of altruism is most commonly found among social insects such as honey bees (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013; West & Gardner, 2010). The main focus of nepotistic altruism is the outcome of the act, meaning the motivation is for the kin to survive (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013).

Reciprocal altruism[edit | edit source]

Reciprocal altruism is a type of altruism which goes by the unspoken rule of you treating others, as you, yourself would like to be treated (Zwick & Fletcher, 2013). This is most commonly found among in-group members such as friends or distant relatives (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). There is an expectation, that also works as the motivation, of reciprocity after the act (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013; Kinnunen, Singh & Windmann, 2015).

Preferential altruism[edit | edit source]

Preferential altruism is helping an individual at a cost to oneself, although one could just ignore the person (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). Basically this type of altruism would be about strangers, people that have no relationship to the actor (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). There are no expectations for a reward (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). The motivations behind this type of altruism rely on the individual's subjective motivations, this could be for selfless reasons or they could also be about an individual's self drive, to help people and fulfilling an intrinsic goal (Clavien & Chapusiat, 2013).

Biological finding for altruism[edit | edit source]

One explanation for individual's[grammar?] being more inclined to act altruistically is an increase in oxytocin (Israel, Weisel, Ebstein & Bornstein, 2012). Participants who received the neuropeptide compared to a placebo, showed increased willingness to help people and also expected the same from other people in their in-group (Israel et al., 2012). Other research has found similar results with participants exposed to higher doses of oxytocin favouring saving a life of someone in their in-group rather than the out-group (De Dreu, Greer, Van Kleef, Shalvi & Handgraaf, 2011). Oxytocin motivates trust and prosociality among in-group members while deteriorating the relationships in the out-group members (De Dreu et al., 2011).

Cognitive reasoning behind altruism[edit | edit source]

A study using results from individuals who had received an honour medal for attempting to, or saving another person's life, showed the motivation behind their behaviour was mainly due to instinct (Rand & Epstein, 2014). The cognitive processes involved were fast, automatic and intuitive, supporting previous research (Rand & Epstein, 2014). While a cross-cultural study found that moral courage was linked to rational cognition rather than intuitive thinking, while altruistic acts like sharing were linked to intuitive thinking (Kinnunen et al., 2015)[grammar?]. Results showed that different forms of altruism used different cognitive and motivational processes (Kinnunen et al., 2015).

One theory about the evolution of altruism towards strangers, suggests that altruism stems from maladaptative social and cultural cognitions (Andre & Morin, 2011). The evolutionary theory explains that through maladaptive social cognitions, the actor is not able to correctly risk assess the situation to see that the costs outweigh the benefits (Andre & Morin, 2011). Different to maladaptive cultural cognitions, where the actor imitates maladaptive behaviour indiscriminately and does not know in which situation the behaviour is good for them or not (Andre & Morin, 2011)[grammar?].

Theories about altruism[edit | edit source]

There is debate among psychologists about whether altruism is motivated by selfish needs or if some people might genuinely put others[grammar?] welfare above their own (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013). The main difference in motives being, altruistic motives and selfish motives (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013)[grammar?]. The altruistic motives involve them doing the act whereas the selfish motives think about the reward and punishment involved and reputation building possibilities (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013)[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Theory of planned behaviour[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Model of theory of planned behaviour

The theory of planned behaviour proposes that behaviour is directed by intentions, which are guided by attitude, norms and perceived control (see Figure 3) (Ajzen, 1991). Attitude is the perceived consequences of the behaviour and the evaluation of the consequences, norms is the perceived social approval and control is the perceived behavioural control of the individual (Ajzen, 1991; Ferguson, Atsma, de Kort & Veldhuizen, 2012). When thinking about altruism, a person will go through these steps to see if the behaviour is worth it (Ferguson et al., 2012). The theory of planned behaviour therefore contradicts the evolutionary theory, that altruism is a behaviour started from maladaptive social and cultural cognitions (Andre & Morin, 2011).

Kohlberg's theory[edit | edit source]

To be morally courageous, another term for extreme altruism, the person's moral reasoning has to be well developed (Kinnunen et al., 2015). Following Kohlberg's (1973) stages of moral development, a person who displays moral courage will be in the post-conventional stage, the final stage of moral reasoning. In the two final stages of Kohlberg's model a person will act altruistically, because it is the right thing to do, not because it is legal or instrumental (Friedland & Cole, 2013; Kohlberg, 1973). People with this high level of moral reasoning are more likely to be altruistic more frequently so their cognitive development increases (Friedland & Cole, 2013)[explain?].

Nagel's theory[edit | edit source]

Nagel's theory of altruism (1970) discusses that altruism is the willingness to help others without any ulterior motives (Liu, 2012). The urge to act altruistically is for the receiver's interest and there is no self interest involved, with moral justification being motivation enough to be selfless (Liu, 2012). This theory is strictly basic not taking any other factors into consideration, people are not always rational, especially in a situation where their life might be at risk (Liu, 2012)[grammar?]. A person who acts altruistically in regards to Nagel's theory would have no sense of self-preservation and be purely motivated for empathic reasons (Friedland & Cole, 2013; Liu, 2012). Although this theory does tie in with Kohlberg's (1973) stages of moral reasoning, this stage of moral reasoning is rarely found in the adult population[factual?].

Differences in altruism[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Gender differences[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. There is[grammar?] no behavioural differences in altruism but there is in motives in gender[explain?]

In a survey asking students why they would enter a health care profession, there was no difference in altruism levels between genders (Byrne, 2008). The only differences were in the reasons for entering the profession (Byrne, 208). For men it tended to be because of societal reasons while women did it for individual reasons (Byrne, 2008). Altruism in men has been linked to acts of heroism, chivalry and physical needs, whereas in women it is more based on the other persons'[grammar?] emotional and personal needs (Byrne, 2008).

Some research found that when comparing gender differences to being altruistic towards strangers, there was no difference based on gender (Oda et al., 2014). Other research conducted in Germany,[grammar?] showed that when men and women were asked about making living organ donation, both had similar results to closely related people, but women were much more likely to donate to distant relatives, friends and even strangers (Decker, Winter, Braehler & Beutel, 2008). They also found a significant difference in compensation requests, while women were happy to receive no compensation, men wanted to receive a financial compensation from the health insurance for their donation (Decker et al., 2008).

Although there are only minor differences between genders in regards to the [what?] act on it's own, the underlying motivations are very dissimilar (Visser & Roelofs, 2011). Women tend to do it [what?] because of moral reasons and compassion, whereas men tend to do it for a reward (Decker et al., 2008). Linking this back to the different types of altruism it might be that men are more of reciprocal altruists, while women fall in to the nepotistic altruist category[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Cultural differences[edit | edit source]

Nepotistic altruism has been found to be cross-culturally valid (Madsen et al., 2007). When comparing an individualistic to a collectivist culture (Germany and India), both indicated levels of altruism but in different forms (Kinnunen et al., 2015). Sharing and willingness to help other people was higher in the Indian sample,[grammar?] this could relate to their sense of being one and collectivist nature of the people (Jellal & Wolff, 2001). Collectivist cultures have a high sense of family and looking after the older generations (Jellal & Wolff, 2011). This is passed onto younger generations and is how altruism is passed on generation to generation (Jellal & Wolff, 2011). Altruistic punishment, when an individual accepts to receive a cost through others[grammar?] unfairness, i.e.[grammar?] reporting someone to the authorities and gossiping, was found to be high in the German sample (Kinnunen et al., 2015). Moral courage, standing up for someone in a threatening situation was also found to be higher in the German sample (Kinnunen et al., 2015). To be able to withstand the potential physical abuse and stand up for the victim requires moral reasoning at the post-conventional level (Kinnunen et al., 2015). All altruistic behaviour depends on moral convictions, which according to Kinnunen et al (2015) are culturally shaped. In individualistic cultures the needs of the self are sometimes prioritised over those of the group (Kinnunen et al., 2015). The complete opposite in collectivist cultures where the self is seen as connected to multiple in-groups[grammar?]. These cultural values can be seen in their tendencies for altruistic behaviour: while collectivist cultures stick to the norms and share and help the group, individualist cultures tend to question these traditions/norms for the greater good (Kinnunen et al., 2015).

Table 2. Individualistic vs collectivist differences in altruism (based on Kinnunen et al., 2015) 
Individualistic Collectivist
Greater moral courage present Higher willingness to help and share
Higher altruistic punishment Greater feeling of oneness

Personality differences[edit | edit source]

Personality differences could be one reason why some people act more altruistically than others, but seeing as altruism also depends on the relationship between the actor and recipient, certain traits may enable altruism towards people, who are related to the actor (Oda et al., 2014). Table 2 explains how personality traits and relationship to the recipient contribute to acting altruistically. Using the Five Factor model for comparing traits, showed some interesting differences between the traits (Oda et al., 2014). People high in Conscientiousness are more family orientated, that is why they would be more likely to be altruistic towards family members (Oda et al., 2014). Only Openness and Extraversion showed exhibits of acting altruistically towards strangers, with individuals high in Openness are[grammar?] generous to others without the guarantee that they will receive the same (Oda et al., 2014). People high on Neuroticism did not value altruism,[grammar?] this could be because they may be too self absorbed and might think that no one would do such a thing for them (Furnham, Treglown, Hyde & Trickey, 2014; Oda et al., 2014). Individuals that[grammar?] were interested in getting along with colleagues showed higher altruistic tendencies than individuals who wanted to get ahead of others (Furnham et al., 2014). There were only noticeable gender differences if the individual's personality traits were higher or lower than the average across the five traits, showing that personality is a better indicator of altruism than gender (Visser & Roelofs, 2011)[explain?].

Interestingly, people with narcissism and histrionic personality disorder scored high on altruism (Furnham et al., 2014). This could be explained due to their artificial altruism that they display to manipulate people (Furnham et al., 2014). Other personality disorders associated with high altruism were: dependent personality disorder, they are eager to please people, and schizotypal personality disorder (STPD),[grammar?] it is unclear as to why people with STPD are high in altruism except for the fact that they might find it interesting (Furnham et al., 2014).

Table 3. Personality traits vs relationship to recipient in altruism as adapted by Oda et al. (2014)
Relationship to Recipient Openness Conscientiousness Extraversion Agreeableness Neuroticism
Family - High High Low -
Friends - Low High High -
Strangers High - High - -

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Various terms have been used to explain and define extreme altruism, from moral courage to pro-social behaviour to selflessness. They are all different ways of describing extreme altruism. Motivations behind acting this selfless[grammar?], range from benefits of kin surviving, feeling good and successful in life, to feeling an obligation because of one's personality or culture. It can depend on the relationship to the person and even the neurochemical balance in a person's brain. Extreme altruism is an act of selflessness in a moment of danger. The costs outweigh the benefits for the actor and their life might be seriously impaired afterwards.

Most of the studies, for ethical reasons, used self-report questionnaires for their results (Rand & Epstine, 2014). The issue being that on paper[grammar?], people will mostly agree to save a person or act heroically, when in reality there are many other factors that could disturb this ideological thinking (Liu, 2012; Madsen et al., 2007).

Extreme altruism, because of ethical reasons has not been as thoroughly researched as altruism itself. Future research should investigate into[grammar?] careers associated with this behavior, such as paramedics or fire fighters and see if their personality and altruism levels are any different to the general population. Another topic of interest would be a longitudinal study investigating the risks and costs over a person's lifetime, is a young person more likely to help someone because they have no other commitments in life compared to a family father.

Think back to the case study.

Think back to Julia and her behaviour. Were your answers correct? Did you have an idea about all the differences behind motivations of altruism?

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Test yourself

Here are some quiz questions - choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Are females or males more likely to act altruistically?

Males because of their need to protect
Females because of their nurturing side
Neither it depends on the relationship to the person
Both act altruistically but have different motivations behind the act

2 Which personality traits are more likely to exhibit alstruistic[spelling?] behaviour toward strangers?

Extraversion and Openness

3 What is one of the main issues with studies researching extreme altruism?

Extreme altruism does not exist
It isn't cross-culturally validated
It is unethical to enact situations of extreme altruism
Self-serving bias among participants

4 Whose theory talks about why parents and relatives are more likely to save their kin?

Darwin's theory
Triver's hypothesis
Hamilton's theory
Nagel's theory

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behaviour. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179-211. doi:10.1016/0749-5978(91)90020-T

Andre, J.,& Morin, O. (2011). Questioning the cultural evolution of altruism: Cultural altruism? Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 24, 2531-2542. doi:10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02398.x

Byrne, N. (2008). Differences in types and levels of altruism based on gender and program. Journal of Allied Health, 37(1), 22.

Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Greer, L. L., Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shalvi, S., Michel J. J. Handgraaf, & Massey, D. S. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108, 1262-1266. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015316108

Clavien, C., & Chapuisat, M. (2013). Altruism across disciplines: One word, multiple meanings. Biology & Philosophy, 28(1), 125-140. doi:10.1007/s10539-012-9317-3

Decker, O., Winter, M., Brähler, E., & Beutel, M. (2008). Between commodification and altruism: Gender imbalance and attitudes towards organ donation. A representative survey of the German community. Journal of Gender Studies, 17, 251-255. doi:10.1080/09589230802204290

Eswaran, M., & Kotwal, A. (2004). A theory of gender differences in parental altruism. Canadian Journal of Economics, 37, 918-950. doi:10.1111/j.0008-4085.2004.00254.x

Furnham, A.,Treglown, L., Hyde, G., & Trickey, G. (2016). The bright and dark side of altruism: Demographic, personality traits, and disorders associated with altruism. Journal of Business Ethics 134, 359-68. doi:10.1007/s10551-014-2435-x

Gage, N. (2016, 17th March). Shark attack hero, surfer who tried to rescue swimmer among South Australians honoured at bravery awards. ABC News. Retrieved from:

Israel, S., Weisel, O., Ebstein, R. P., & Bornstein, G. (2012). Oxytocin, but not vasopressin, increases both parochial and universal altruism. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37, 1341-1344. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.02.001

Jellal, M., & Wolff, F. (2002). Cultural evolutionary altruism: Theory and evidence. European Journal of Political Economy, 18, 241-262. doi:10.1016/S0176-2680(02)00079-4

Kinnunen, S. P., Singh, M., & Windmann, S. (2015). Dissociating facets of self-reported altruism in India and Germany: Preliminary evidence. Psychological Studies, 60, 193-203. doi:10.1007/s12646-015-0309-7

Kohlberg, L. (1973). The claim to moral adequacy of a highest stage of moral judgment. Journal of Philosophy, 70, 630–646. doi:10.2307/2025030

Liu, J. (2012). Moral reason, moral sentiments and the realization of altruism: A motivational theory of altruism. Asian Philosophy, 22(2), 93. doi:10.1080/09552367.2012.692534

Madsen, E. A., Tunney, R. J., Fieldman, G., Plotkin, H. C., Dunbar, R. I. M., Richardson, J., & McFarland, D. (2007). Kinship and altruism: A cross-cultural experimental study. British Journal of Psychology, 98, 339-359. doi:10.1348/000712606X129213

Oda, R., Machii, W., Takagi, S., Kato, Y., Takeda, M., Kiyonari, T., . . . Hiraishi, K. (2014). Personality and altruism in daily life. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 206-209. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.09.017

Ong, Q., Ho, K. W., & Ho, K. C. (2013). Altruism within the family: A comparison of father and mother using life happiness and life satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 111, 485-510. doi:10.1007/s11205-012-0016-x

Piliavin, J. A., Callero, P. L., & Evans, D. E. (1982). Addiction to altruism? opponent-process theory and habitual blood donation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1200-1213. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.43.6.1200

Preston, S. D. (2013). The origins of altruism in offspring care. Psychological Bulletin, 139(6), 1305-1341. doi:10.1037/a0031755

Rand, D. G., & Epstein, Z. G. (2014). Risking your life without a second thought: Intuitive decision-making and extreme altruism. PloS One, 9(10), e109687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109687

Visser, M. S., & Roelofs, M. R. (2011). Heterogeneous preferences for altruism: Gender and personality, social status, giving and taking. Experimental Economics, 14, 490-506. doi:10.1007/s10683-011-9278-4

West, S. A., & Gardner, A. (2010). Altruism, spite, and greenbeards. Science, 327, 1341-1344. doi:10.1126/science.1178332

West, S. A., Gardner, A., & Griffin, A. S. (2006). altruism. Current Biology, 16, 482-483. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.06.014

Zwick, M., & Fletcher, J. A. (2014). Levels of altruism. Biological Theory, 9(1), 100-107. doi:10.1007/s13752-013-0145-8

External links[edit | edit source]

Here are links to TEDx talks about the evolution and the science of altruism:

Youtube podcast:

Articles of extreme altruism: