10 Things to Know About the Psychology of Altruism

From a quarter placed into the styrofoam cup of a homeless person, to an individual’s donation of millions to a worthy charity, altruism is the lifeblood of all that’s good in society.

Altruism is defined as “good deeds done out of nothing more than unselfish concern for others.” We likely perform our own altruistic deeds daily. At the very least, we witness altruism frequently, whether in daily life, on the news, or as part of a film plot. But what drives altruism? What motivates people to perform unselfish deeds in a world that is oftentimes so very selfish?

We scoured psychology websites and research studies in an attempt to answer just that question. These are the 10 things to know about the psychology of altruism.

Not all good deeds are true examples of altruism.

According to social psychologists, true altruism requires true selflessness. Because there exist myriad reasons we might do something nice for another person — including guilt, a sense of duty, or to obtain a reward — not every good deed and kind gesture can be described as altruistic.

We get pleasure out of being altruistic.

Neurobiologists have found that altruism makes us feel good. Specifically, the brain’s reward and pleasure centers light up when one actively participates in an act of altruism. This suggests that altruism isn’t simply part of a social norm. Rather, it embodies something psychological.

That psychological reason for altruism may actually be biological.

If you’ve ever been inclined to give money to a family member but hesitate to do so to a stranger, there may be a biological explanation. One common theory surrounding the topic of altruism is kin selection. Kin selection suggests that we are more likely to help those related to us by blood because of a biological need to ensure the continuation of shared genes. According to studies, the closer two people are related, the more likely they are to provide each other help.

Altruism is an attractive quality.

According to various studies, women find altruistic men to be attractive. Researchers refer to this biological phenomenon as the “handicap principle.” In short, altruism often reveals what types of skills and resources one has. It exhibits the good things that a potential mate might find desirable.

Altruism is directly linked to our sense of empathy.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that people are most likely to behave altruistically towards someone if they empathize with that person’s predicament. For example, a woman might lend a hand to a mother struggling to carry both her toddler and the grocery bags if she has had children herself. This hypothesis is supported by various research studies. One study found that children begin to develop altruistic habits at the same time they begin to develop their sense of empathy.

Altruism is found within the animal kingdom as well.

In zoology altruism refers to “the behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.

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Consider the bee. When a human or an animal attacks a bee hive, a bee takes it upon itself to sting the attacker. Though the act of stinging soon brings about death, the bee willingly sacrifices itself in order to protect the hive.

We are more likely to perform an altruistic deed when in a bad mood.

Seems surprising, doesn’t 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.

Altruistic habits lead to longer, healthier lives.

Many studies have linked volunteerism (a popular form of altruism) 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.

There’s such a thing as too much altruism.

Unselfishly doing nice things for others sounds like a great thing, right? But too much altruism can actually be a bad thing. Pathological altruism is when people take altruism to the extreme and hit a point when their actions cause more harm than good. Some common examples of pathological altruism include animal hoarding and the depression often seen in healthcare professionals.

Whether or not true altruism exists is hotly debated.

Doctors, scientists, and philosophers have spent centuries debating whether or not true altruism can exist. Many cite the social exchange theory as evidence that true altruism is impossible. Whether they’re after a good reputation, the advancement of one’s genes, a reward, or a better mood, the social exchange theory asserts that people always do things for selfish reasons.

On the other hand, there are many who reject the social exchange theory. They argue that kind acts serving selfish gains fall into another category altogether. Such a category could be egoism (benefitting the self), collectivism (benefitting a group), or principlism (to uphold a moral principle). These same people argue that altruism based on empathy is always truly altruistic.


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