What Is Altruistic Behavior?

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines altruism as the "unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others."

The concept of altruistic behavior often refers to acting in a way that benefits another person, even if it does not benefit you or could even harm you. Researchers often speak of different types of altruism, such as true altruism and reciprocal altruism. True altruism may occur when you act in a way that helps others but does not benefit you at all. Meanwhile, reciprocal altruism can happen when you act to help others with the belief that they will help you in return. 

Below, we’ll discuss these types of altruism as well as theories about altruism in the context of our evolution as a species.

Rawpixel
Embrace altruistic behavior with online therapy

Altruism and motives

Being generous or charitable—in other words, altruistic—can come with a cost, and some altruistic behaviors may be harmful to the person performing them.

Many animals can employ altruism in their interactions with one another, and this concept has been widely documented in both humans and non-human primates.

Some actions can have mixed motives and be viewed as self-interested, yet they may still greatly benefit others. For example, if a person is running late and must drive through a school zone, they may choose not to speed through the school zone, even though speeding may help them get to their destination on time.

There may be some drawbacks to this scenario (being late to the destination), but the benefits (not injuring anyone or getting a speeding ticket) may far outweigh them. Because the driver probably does not want to hit anyone with their car or face any repercussions, there may still be a degree of self-interest involved.

On the other hand, people can engage in pure altruism, which generally does not rely on any additional motives aside from helping others, but it does not necessarily need to be self-sacrificing behavior.

An example of pure altruism might be if someone couldn’t see a concert because a more urgent engagement came up, and they called to notify the box office that they wouldn’t be able to attend, potentially opening the spot for someone else to go. 

Caring for others, even at our own expense, is a trait that can be highly desirable and beneficial. 

Altruistic behavior and evolution

For altruism to be present in many species, it generally must have been beneficial for allowing earlier generations to continue to persist. In evolution, altruism is often heavily connected to reproductive fitness and kin selection theory. Reproductive fitness generally refers to how many offspring are produced and survive, but in Darwinian theory, altruistic behavior may not improve a species’s reproductive fitness.

Darwin's theory of natural selection typically implies that species that ensure their own chances of reproducing and surviving will have their genes passed on. Therefore, one may expect that selfishness would be the dominant behavior trait because altruism may put an organism at a disadvantage. In Darwinian theory, when one of our ancestors behaved altruistically, they were thought to be reducing their reproductive fitness and increasing that of someone else.

Getty/AnnaStills

In biology, altruistic behavior is generally not concerned with the intentions of animals but with the outcome. Animals are thought to behave altruistically when they do something that increases another animal’s reproductive fitness, regardless of their intentions.

Altruism and relatives

One explanation for why altruism persists may be related to kin selection theory. Despite altruistic animals potentially reducing their own reproductive fitness, they may be improving the likelihood of others having offspring, especially if they are relatives.

One aspect of kin-selection theory is that animals that are related may be more likely to display altruistic behaviors toward one another, instead of with those unrelated to them.

Based on this notion, if an animal divides food with only its kin, there may be a higher probability that those relatives will survive to pass on the family's genes.

Additionally, according to kin selection theory, the degree of altruism may increase with the degree of closeness between two relatives. This may influence how frequent and how helpful these behaviors may be.

Altruism and non-relatives

While displaying altruism toward relatives may play a role in allowing genes to survive, acts of altruism do not necessarily need to involve those related to you. One theory outside of kin selection that may explain this is reciprocal altruism.

Reciprocal altruism typically revolves around the same fundamental principles of helping others, but any disadvantages may be temporary. If one animal helps another, they may expect the favor to be returned at a later point in time.

In reciprocal altruism, animals may not have to be relatives and may not need to be from the same group or species. All that is usually required is for the organisms to interact more than once and be able to recognize each other. Because of this, reciprocal altruism may work best with small groups that can see each other often.

If these animals can encounter and help one another frequently, this may allow them to identify selfish ones within the group and refuse to help those individuals. If a favor is given but not returned, they may learn not to support that recipient in the future. Even though they may not incur any costs, those who do not help may effectively sabotage their chances of reproducing or even surviving because others may not be likely to help them.

Since the altruism involved in these situations can involve the possibility of a reciprocal benefit and may not be entirely one-sided (as in pure altruism), it may be easier for helpful behaviors to persist through natural selection.

Examples of altruistic behavior

Altruistic actions can take many different forms, including pure altruism, altruism with self-interested motives, and reciprocal altruism. The following are some examples of altruism in the animal kingdom.

  • Sterile ant workers often dedicate their lives to catering to the queen ant. They cannot reproduce, but their actions may improve the queen's reproductive fitness. Similar behaviors can also be seen in other insect species, such as termites, bees, and wasps.
  • Although their actions might attract attention and put them at risk, vervet monkeys often make loud alarm sounds to alert their group of nearby predators, allowing them to find a safer spot.
  • Vampire bats often regurgitate blood to others in their group who did not get a chance to feed that night. This ensures that others do not starve.
Getty/AnnaStills
Embrace altruistic behavior with online therapy

As you can see, even some of life's tiniest creatures can participate in altruism. However, the reasoning and motives can become more complex as species' brains increase in size. Nonetheless, humans, who have some of the largest brains, may still perform altruistic behaviors and desire nothing in return.

Learn more about altruism in online therapy

Embracing altruism at the right moments may improve your relationships and bring you greater happiness. One way to become more altruistic may be through therapy, particularly cognitive-behavior therapy or CBT. In CBT, a therapist may be able to help you identify and replace unhelpful thought patterns, and thus your emotions and behaviors, which may support more altruistic tendencies.

If in-person therapy isn’t convenient or accessible for you, online therapy may be another valid option. An online therapy service can make it possible to connect with a licensed therapist from home anywhere with an internet connection. You can even specifically seek out a mental health professional who practices CBT.

Online therapy, including CBT, has been shown by numerous peer-viewed studies to be effective. This type of therapy is often used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, but it may also help you to achieve other mental health goals, such as becoming more altruistic.

Takeaway

When you do something to help another person and don’t expect anything in return, it might be said that you’re acting altruistically. This type of behavior might be referred to as true altruism. Meanwhile, reciprocal altruism may occur if you do something for someone else because you’d like them to do something for you. Altruism is often viewed as a positive trait, and if you’d like to become more altruistic, it may be helpful to speak with a licensed therapist. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has knowledge of altruistic behavior and strategies to increase your own altruism. Take the first step toward learning more about altruism and reach out to BetterHelp today.

Target disruptive behavior in therapy

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started