Studies into Human Altruism

There is some debate within the area of social psychology referring to the existence of altruism. The original use and concept of altruism can be traced back to the first half of the 1800’s by French philosopher, Auguste Comte. Comte referred to it as being the moral obligation of individuals to serve other people and to place their interests above one's own (Kreag, retrieved 15/01/09). Some good examples of altruistic people could be Martin Luther King Jr., who recognized the need of basic civil rights for all people and was willing to place himself in great danger to support his beliefs. He was ultimately killed for trying to improve the lives of other people. Another example could be Mother Teresa who was a well-known figure for the help and work she did in under-developed countries, and whose activity seemed to always be at the altruistic end of a spectrum of motivations. More recent examples of altruistic people could be Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, for their work with the live aid concerts that raise money for poverty in Africa, or Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela for the many things he has done throughout his life, most recently, his support in the fight against AIDS or his opposition to the Iraq war.

Modern definitions of altruism state that it can be a form of pro-social behaviour in which a person will voluntarily help another at some cost to themselves (Cardwell, Clark and Meldrum, 2002). Some other definitions suggest that altruism is the unselfish concern of an individual for the welfare of another (Carlson, Martin & Buzkist, 2004).

The main drive for altruistic behaviour can be seen as a desire to improve the welfare of another person and not having any expectation of getting a reward or have any other reason that may indicate some level of self interest (Cardwell, 1996). For example, consider a child who has been asked to cut his/her uncle’s grass, and then offered money in return as a reward. It would be very difficult for a person testing for altruistic behaviour to determine whether the child was acting in an altruistic or egoistic way.

Social psychology related explanations of altruistic behaviour suggest that people’s actions at an early age are primarily based on material rewards and punishments which suggests that it is more likely that the older an individual is, the more likely it would be for them to show altruistic behaviour. Further studies into altruism and children found that older children’s actions are based on social approval, and then adolescent behaviour is due to the fact that it makes them feel good about themselves.

Studies have shown that altruism can be broken down into two main types, ‘Biological altruism’ and ‘Reciprocal altruism’. Biological altruism is the idea that people may help others regardless of who they are but are more likely to help a relative as opposed to a stranger. Anderson & Ricci (1997) theorised that the reason for this was due to the fact that genetic relatives, in differing degrees, share a proportion of our genes, so their survival is a way of ensuring that some of the individual’s genes will be passed on. They claimed that altruistic behaviour between an individual and a non-relation will have no evolutionary advantage so it would be highly unlikely for a person to show altruistic behaviour towards a non-relation.

Reciprocal Altruism is the idea that if you behave kindly to a person or help them in the past, that individual will be inclined to help you in the future (Trivers, 1971). Unlike Biological altruism, Reciprocal altruism does not require individuals to be related to each other, it is only necessary that the individuals should interact with each more than once. The reason for this is because if individuals interact only once in their lifetimes and never meet again, there is no possibility of some form of return benefit, so there is nothing to be gained by helping the other individual. Trivers (1985) described a very good example of reciprocal altruism. Although it is not exactly related to humans, it gives a very good account of the meaning of reciprocal altruism. Trivers gives the example of fish living in a tropical coral reef. Within these coral reefs there are various species of small fish act as ‘cleaners’ for large fish, removing parasites from their body. The fact that the larger fish gets cleaned while the cleaner fish gets fed can be directly explained as being reciprocal altruism. However, Trivers also notes that the large fish may sometimes appear to behave altruistically towards the cleaner fish. For example, “if a large fish is attacked by a predator while it has a cleaner in its mouth, then it waits for the cleaner to leave before fleeing the predator, rather than swallowing the cleaner and fleeing immediately”. Due to the fact that the large fish will often return to the same cleaner many times over, it will often protect the cleaner regardless of the fact that it increases the chance of being wounded by a predator. Again relating this example to reciprocal altruism, the larger fish allows the cleaner to escape because there is an expectation of return benefit, which in this case is getting cleaned again in the future.

Research into altruism done by Crook (1980) has suggested that altruism may be linked to consciousness. Crook explained that consciousness helps us to distinguish between other people and ourselves and to imagine ourselves if we were put into the situation that a certain individual is in. In turn, we may feel, sadness, joy, etc, for an individual just from perceiving the person behaving in a particular way. This may cause someone to help the individual and try help resolving the issue that caused the individual to behave in that particular way in the first place. Several years after Crook suggested that feelings of, sadness, joy, etc, motivated people into performing altruistic behaviour by allowing the individual ‘step into the shoes’ of the sufferer, the term ‘Universal Egoism’ was devised.

Universal egoism was termed as a helping behaviour that is undertaken in order to lessen the helper's own distress at the suffering of the person who needs to be helped (Baston & Shaw, 1991). This term better suited Crook’s and various other researcher’s ideas and theories of what they thought and considered to be altruism. As a result of this new definition, some of the studies done that tests or explains the causes or outcomes of altruism or altruistic behaviour, before the term universal egoism was adopted, may in fact be actually referring to universal egoism, not altruism.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson ran a series of experiments to try to establish the altruistic motivation of why people help others. Baston began his search for empirical evidence in the 1970’s in the hope to show that altruism does not exist and that all motives were ultimately based on self-interest (Baston, 1991). For example, if a person’s relation was having financial difficulties, the person may lend a sum of money to his/her relative, with the belief that the relation would lend the person money should the situation be reversed. Therefore, the person has an ulterior motive for giving his/her relation money, thus rendering the act as being egoistic, not altruistic. Baston, in 1991, put forward his empathy- altruism hypothesis, which explains altruistic behaviour as a consequence of empathy.

Empathy is an emotional response that usually is linked to another’s emotional state or condition. Therefore, witnessing an individual who is undergoing some level of distress will create some form of empathic concern and will cause the person to be more motivated to help alleviate the other person’s concern. However, Baston, in 2002, discovered through his findings that people may in fact be motivated to inhibit or even avoid empathic feelings purely to stay clear of altruistic behaviour. Some examples that Baston suggested of empathy-avoidance occurring was the gradual reducing number of people seeking a career in the helping profession, for example caring for the terminally ill, etc. He also discovered that people showing positive empathetic behaviour towards individuals of a stigmatized group (people with aids, the homeless) has been found to improve attitudes towards the group.

Latane and Darley (1970) conducted a laboratory experiment to determine whether altruistic behaviour was affected by peer influence. Male participants were selected, some were tested in groups and others were tested individually. The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire based on some form of market research. A woman was then instructed to fall off her chair in the next room and call for help. The results of this experiment found that all participants that were tested individually helped the woman but only 62% of the participants undergoing the group tests went to the woman’s aid. The outcome of this experiment suggested that participants took longer to respond and help when in the presence of a large group.

There are several factors that may affect the way in which a person behaves altruistically. A study by Isen, Daubman and Nowicki (1987) found that if a person is in a good (positive) mood, they are more likely to help others. However, people are less likely to help when in a good mood if they think that by helping they may spoil that good mood. This would suggest that altruism if considered to be like a scale could be manipulated by both internal and external factors. In addition to several factors that may contribute to altruistic behaviours, a study by Rushton (1984) suggested that parental models and other forms of social support are essential factors in the development of altruistic behaviour.

It has also been discovered that if we believe that a victim is responsible for his/her own problems, we are less likely to help than if we believed they hadn’t contributed to their problems. This fits into the idea of the ‘Just-World’ hypothesis, this is the idea that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. (Bordens & Horowitz, 2001) Although these situational factors can play an important role in helping people, it may not give us a true reflection of the helper and how he/she could behave across various other helping situations. Personality characteristics may become more obvious when the person is involved in some forms of long term helping. Some people in this case may have an altruistic personality or several traits that may influence that person to help.

This idea that an individuals’ altruistic behaviour can be influenced by various factors is by no means new. A study by Rushton (1984) found that some people show a consistent pattern of pro-social tendencies across various situations. Rushton (1984) suggested that these patterns and some of the differences between individuals and their motivation to help others are due to differences in their personality traits.

Rushton, Fulker, Neale, Blizard and Eysenck (1983), improving on a similar study by Mathews, Baston, Horn and Rosenman (1981), tried to evaluate the possibility of genetically based individual differences in human altruism. The study was conducted on 1400 sets of American Monozygotic and Dizygotic twins, it was found that only a small proportion of altruistic tendencies are due to individuals living in a particular environment. It was found that there was 50% variance between the Monozygotic and Dizygotic twins (Rushton et al, 1983) improving on the 74% variance of the previous study (Mathews et al, 1981). Both of these studies show that there is a genetic influence on altruism scores.

Rushton, Chrisjohn and Fekken (1981) conducted several studies on a total of 464 student participants by issuing a Self-Report Altrusim Scale (SRA) (Rushton et al, 1981). The results of the SRA in addition to a substantial review of the literature identified that there is in fact a broad-based trait of altruism.

A study by Okun, Pugliese & Rook (2007), of 888 adults between the ages of 65-90, sought to discover whether there was a correlation between extraversion and volunteering of older adults by examining the various resources derived from the relationships with other people and organisations. This study was conducted to improve on a 1993 study by Herzog and Morgan, to examine the direct and indirect effects on later life volunteering and 3 sets of exogenous variables Personality traits (e.g., extraversion), social-structural characteristics and environmental factors, and 3 mediating variables; Roles, Social participation and Health. Both Okun et al. (2007), and Herzog et al. (1993), found that extraversion significantly correlated with volunteering. Extraversion influenced a significant total effect and also had indirect effects on volunteering through means of particular social participation, for example, contact with friends, church attendance or various clubs and organisations. Those results suggested that social participation provides a valid explanation for the ties between extraversion and volunteering.

Several studies confirm Okun et al’s findings for example, Bekkers (2005) or Carlo, Okun, Knight and de Guzman (2005). However, a study of 124 students by Trudeau & Devlin (1996) discovered that there were no differences between ‘Introverts’ or ‘Extraverts’ in relation to Altruism. It was thought by Trudeau & Devlin that extraverts would appear more altruistic as it is logical that extraverts seek out additional human involvement and view volunteering with various organisations as a “direct way to channel such outward focused energy” (Trudeau & Devlin, 1996). Surprisingly, it was found by Trudeau and Devlin that introverts are also likely to seek out volunteer involvement in order to make up for a lack of social interaction in their lives as volunteering offers a safe “structured way in which to gather social stimulation and affiliation” (Trudeau & Devlin, 1996).

The results of Trudeau and Devlin’s study found that introverts and extraverts may both be highly altruistic and be actively engaged in many types of volunteer work, but, the motivation of the individuals may be different. Krueger, Hicks and McGue (2001) measured 673 participants using a structural model of personality trait inventory developed by Tellegen (1985) which measures positive emotionality, negative emotionality, and constraints. Krueger et al (2001) found that altruism was linked to shared familial environments, unique environments and personality traits which reflect positive emotionality. Basically, individuals that live within positive family environments with constant support tended to be more altruistic than individuals who live in negative family environments. This finding supports the study by Parke et al (1992) who discovered that positive social supports has a direct link to the increase of the development of emotional regulation and pro-social behaviour.

The study by Rushton et al. (1981), shows that there is more reliability to altruistic behaviour than is suggested by previous studies; that there is a personality trait of altruism. This idea was later supported by Oliner and Oliner ­In the 1990’s, studies within the field of altruism were reviewed and it was stated that it was “futile to search for the altruistic personality” and that there were “inconsistent relationships between personality characteristics and pro-social behaviour” (Piliavin & Charng, 1990, p. 31). However, towards the end of the 1990’s this view of altruism had again changed. Baston (1998) stated that “theoretical models of altruism that had existed up to then that did not take dispositional factors (internal characteristics) into account are likely to be incomplete”. In addition to this new light surrounding the altruistic personality, research is beginning to show systematic and meaningful links between personality and consistent behaviour (Krueger, Schmutte, Caspi, Moffitt, Campbell & Silva, 1994). If this is the case, on the other end of the spectrum, personality should have links to pro-social behaviour and in turn, altruism.

To summarize, people’s actions may, in fact, be altruistically motivated, or egoistically motivated and can even sometimes be both. To discover that an act was of some benefit to another and was intentional, does not actually say anything about the original cause of the motivation for the act. It is important to determine whether the act of the person is an ultimate goal and that any form of ‘self-benefits’ are unintentional, or to determine that the act of the person is just a medium to gain some form of self benefit. The main issue that puzzles researchers is that many acts can actually benefit the person intended and the helper. In these cases, it is impossible to determine what the ultimate goal of an act is. This altruism/egoism paradox has led many researchers to simply give up the question of the existence of altruism (Batson, 2006). This paradox may never be fully understood, the altruism debate may never be won in favour of or against. Could it be possible that Comte intended the term of altruism to be a form of social riddle, whereby, there is no direct right or wrong answer, but in order to fully understand it or to make a judgement on it, one must perform as many altruistic acts as possible and make his/her own decision?


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raisingme 6 years ago from Fraser Valley, British Columbia

This was very well written and very thought provoking. Personally I have experienced actions from others and created actions towards others both from an ego based place and from a true desire to help or improve the lot of another in some way without considering that it would benefit me in some way. There is also a great difference between me acting from myself and me acting out of some identity I may be wearing!

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