What Drives Altruism?

Updated: Apr 13


Being one of the main pillars of prosocial behaviour, altruism is a motivation to help others at one’s own discomfort. The extent to which altruism is genuine and selfless has created a lot of debate among philosophers and social scientists; and the existence of pure/true altruism is questionable. Where some believe it’s the ultimate benevolence, philosophers like Ayn Rand view altruism to be the source of pure evil. Regardless of such evaluations of altruism, in this blog I will focus on when and why people behave in altruistic ways. Why might one risk their own life for a stranger’s; and why are such altruistic qualities more common in some people compared to others?

First here is a quick recap of the three main theories:

The oldest evolutionary theory of altruism is Hamilton’s Kin Selection Theory.

It suggests that due to properties of natural selection, the most advantageous behaviours are the ones that benefit one’s self, those who share their genes and those who are closely related to one’s self.

Why good? It fits within the premises of evolution,

Why not so good? It does not explain altruism extensively. For example, it does not explain how behaviours such as helping a complete stranger, or being an animal rights activist is motivated.

The second theory is the Reciprocal Altruism Theory (Trivers, 1971)

Building up on Hamilton’s theory it argues that the motivation behind altruism is due to an expectation of reciprocation of the helping behaviour in the future.

Why good? It additionally explains helping behaviour towards strangers

Why not so good? It seems an unlikely explanation for when one risks death along the way as it would deem reciprocation impossible.

The third theory is Competitive Altruism (Hardy and Van Vugt, 2004).

They suggest that in the modern society, being altruistic is a desirable trait as people are looking for ‘giving’ partners, friends and leaders. Thus, having this trait becomes a social advantage. Due to the heightened status and desirability towards such traits, people try to outcompete each other in terms of altruism, as well as their observers competing to obtain such partners.

Why good?Most comprehensive of the three as it incorporates social factors.

Why not so good?Some questions remain unanswered. In this case, why are some people more altruistic than others? And how can costly altruism (helping behaviour to one’s own detriment) be explained?

In an attempt to understand the whyand the howsome researchers have studied the when. So when do we act more altruistically?

In a set of six experiments concerning the role of self and central values on behaviour, Verplanken and Holland found that enhancing one’s self-focus activated their central values, and that this was followed by value-consistent behaviour. The experiment concerning altruistic behaviour required participants to circle words related to self in a simple paragraph (I, me, mine, etc.), rather than neutral words (the, it, a, etc.). Participants were then asked to donate money to the non-profit organisation, Amnesty Int. The researchers found a significant positive correlation between the self-focus condition and donating behaviour; they argue that this is due to self-focus leading to behaviour that is congruent with altruistic values.

The experiment certainly suggests a link between self and value activation. However, it may not necessarily be a drive for value congruent behaviour that lies behind the altruistic outcome. It could instead be a mechanism like that of Festinger’s ‘Cognitive Dissonance’, so when a person has high self-awareness, they feel discomfort in performing behaviours that go against their activated central values. This would oppose the given definition of ‘helping others at one’s discomfort’, as it would be ‘helping others to eliminate one’s own discomfort’. In fact, many findings show that discomforting negative feelings play a big role in regulating prosocial behaviour. One such emotion that’s been long-researched is guilt.

We all know what guilt is, we all felt it at one point or the other. But one important thing to know about guilt is that unlike other negative feelings that result in ‘avoidance behaviour’ (such as shame), guilt can act as a motivator for ‘approach behaviour’ as it’s about what one does rather than what one is. In a study concerning ego depletion, participants watching clips on animal cruelty were told either to show or not to show their emotions. Then they were given the choice of donating to a charity. Findings showed that ego depletion (not showing emotions) decreased their charitable behaviour by reducing guilty feelings. Meaning, guilt can be a causal mechanism in driving us to perform altruistic behaviour.

So, if not for guilt, or cognitive dissonance, or competitive reasons, can we never be altruists? And again, why are some more giving then others?

Searching answers for similar questions, Abigail Marsh and her colleagues studied the brains of extreme altruists (i.e. people who donated a kidney to or risked their lives for a stranger). Theorising one’s ‘compassion’ to be the main component for their helping behaviour, they compared a group of altruists to a group of psychopaths and found that altruistic people recognised faces better, and their amygdala were hyperactive and larger than average (by 8%). These striking findings can explain the differences in altruistic behaviours between people. It seems most likely that these differences are not necessarily genetic but due to individual differences in brain plasticity.

Finally, as an explanation for costly altruism towards strangers, Marsh puts forward the lack of ego and self-centeredness. Most people view their family and close friends as a circle surrounding them; surrounding that circle may be acquaintances, and surrounding that one, strangers. Marsh argues, that unlike most people, altruistic people do not differentiate between an ‘inner circle’ of friends and relatives, and an ‘outer circle’ of strangers, as their circles do not have themselves as the centre. Hence, for altruists, helping a stranger is no different to helping a close friend, or even themselves.

So, all in all, it may simply be the ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes and empathise that makes us altruists.

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