What Is Altruism Psychology, And What Can I Learn from It?

Updated October 20, 2018

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Do people help each other without the possibility of gaining something themselves? Many people believe they never do. Yet, altruism psychology research tells a different story. What is altruism, anyway, and is it even possible?

What Is Altruism In Psychology?

An altruism psychology definition starts with the idea that altruism is a behavior you do to contribute to someone else's well-being without any direct benefit for yourself. You go out of your way to help someone in need, even though what you do doesn't help you and may be harmful to you.

Altruism vs. Helping

Altruism and helping are similar concepts, but they are a bit different. While altruism isn't the behavior you do to help yourself in any direct way, it is a helping behavior. However, not all helping is altruism. Helping someone else may or may not be directly beneficial to you.

Consider the following scenarios:

  1. You travel to another state to help people rebuild after a tornado.
  2. You help someone fix their car that was stranded in your driveway.

Both helping situations are beneficial to the person you're helping. However, leaving home to help someone recover from a storm that didn't affect you where you live is less selfish than helping someone get their broken-down car running so they can get it out of your driveway. Getting their car off your property also benefits you, so it isn't altruism.

Examples Of Altruism In Psychology

Altruism isn't rare. If you look around you and within you, you'll likely find many examples of altruism. Here are some ways people help each other, often without thought of reward. Each is a general example of altruism in psychology.

  • Generosity - being willing to donate money, time, or possessions to others
  • Kindness - being benevolent, friendly, generous, courteous, gentle, or sympathetic
  • Volunteering - offering services to others of your own free will, without receiving pay
  • Compassion - awareness of the suffering of others and the wish to relieve it
  • Philanthropy - donating to a cause

Specific examples of altruism are easy to find, as well. Here are a few you might notice in your community:

  • Buying a meal for a homeless person because you care about world hunger
  • Volunteering in a relief effort because you see the need
  • Rescuing someone in an emergency regardless of a threat to your safety
  • Donating to an organization that helps people who are suffering from a disease
  • Stopping to help someone whose car has broken down on the highway just to be helpful
  • Babysitting for a parent because they need a break
  • Donating blood to save lives

There are many ways to help others. What makes it altruism is that you do it for the other person and not for your benefit

Altruism In The Brain

Certain parts of the brain contribute to your ability to help others. Regions of the brain that may be involved in altruistic behavior include:

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  • The medial prefrontal cortex
  • The temporoparietal junction
  • The ventral tegmental area
  • The striatum
  • The nucleus accubens
  • The anterior cingulate cortex
  • The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
  • The insula
  • The amygdala

These parts of the brain figure into altruism in several ways. Some of the brain functions involve reward processing, pleasure, reputation processing, learning from altruistic behavior, anticipating potential rewards, empathy, emotions, determining boundaries, emotion processing, perspective-taking.

Biological Altruism vs. Psychological Altruism

Biological altruism refers to helping behavior that promotes the survival of the species at a cost to the individual. Psychological altruism includes both biological altruism and helping behaviors that benefit someone else but may not have anything to do with the survival of the species.

Evolutionary Psychology View Of Altruism

In evolutionary psychology, altruism is considered a way of ensuring the survival of the species, or biological altruism. In this sense, practicing altruism helps keep the genetic information of the species safe and able to be passed on. It also includes helping to protect and nurture infants and children so that they can grow up to continue passing on the genes.

Some examples of altruism that fit the evolutionary psychology perspective come from both humans and other forms of life.

  • Slime molds live as individuals until their colony is threatened, at which point some give up their lives so that the rest of the cells can unite to form a multicellular organism
  • Birds cry out in alarm to warn others of danger
  • A person donates a kidney

Another feature of the evolutionary view is that people are more likely to help others survive if the person they're helping is closely related to them. This makes sense biologically because close relatives have more shared DNA with the person who is doing the helping. In this case, they're not only promoting the survival of the species at large, but they're also making sure some of their genetic material is protected.

Reciprocal Altruism

Reciprocal altruism is a special kind of altruistic helping that comes from evolutionary psychology. It happens when you do something for another person because it will or might increase the likelihood that they or others will help you in the future. Reciprocal altruism comes at a cost to the person who helps. It may make them less fit or healthy in some way, at least temporarily. The person still does it because it may help them survive and thrive in the future.

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Reciprocal Altruism Psychology And Game Theory

Game theory is often used to describe different types of reciprocal altruism. Game theory is a branch of math that focuses on analyzing strategies for dealing with competitive situations. The Prisoner's Dilemma is one example of a "game" that can result in reciprocal altruism.

In the Prisoner's Dilemma, two players each have two options. Each option's outcome depends on the simultaneous choice made by the other player. The classic example of the Prisoner's Dilemma is two criminals that are trying to decide which of them should confess to a crime. When both people act selfishly, it seems the best choice for each person. Yet, the outcome could be better if they cooperate with each other.

Helping In Emergency Situations

People who are bystanders at a crime or accident scene may help without regard for their safety. Whether they help or not depends on several factors:

  • If a great many bystanders are present, each person is less likely to help
  • If the need is ambiguous, people are less likely to help
  • If an expert is present, other bystanders are likely to stand back and let them handle it
  • If other bystanders are showing no emotion, each of them is less likely to act altruistically
  • If other people are present, each person feels less responsible for helping

Altruism To Comply With Social Norms

Sometimes, a person acts altruistically because they feel compassion for and empathy with them. However, sometimes people engage in altruistic behavior to comply with social norms. Say for example that you see someone fall in front of you. Maybe you don't want to help them get up. It's a bother, or you don't like them, anyway. You worry that others will think you're unkind or callous if you don't help. So, you reach down and give them a hand up because you see it as the socially right thing to do.

How Can I Choose Altruism?

Altruism often happens spontaneously. You decide at the moment whether to help or not. However, you can prepare for altruistic behavior in two ways. First, you can develop a mindset that you will help others. Second, you can seek out situations, such as volunteering at an organization, in which you'll likely be able to help someone.

Some Facts About Altruistic Behavior

Research has revealed several facts about altruistic behavior. Some of these facts are surprising, while others seem obvious.

  • In one study, people helped others more often if their contributions were public.
  • People who were altruistic gained higher status and were more often preferred for cooperative projects.
  • The higher the cost of altruism, the more status it brings.
  • Women, older people, recent immigrants, and the working poor tended to be more generous than others.

Is True Altruism Possible?

Some people believe that there can never be such a thing as true altruism. After all, whether helping benefits you directly or indirectly, your motives may never be completely unselfish. That may be true in a large, theoretical sense.

But, on a personal, realistic basis, you can choose to help someone when the obvious and immediate effect contains a cost for you. When you make that choice, there may be many other options that help you more if you wanted to be selfish.

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The truth is that everyone in the society is affected by others in the society. Whether pure altruism is possible or not doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters is that people can and do help each other in circumstances where they have the option of doing something more selfish.

Takeaways From Altruism Psychology

Knowing what is altruism in psychology is a good first step to living a more meaningful life. It may also have benefits for you and society at large. Here are some key takeaways to remember about altruism:

  • Altruism is the helping behavior that is done without direct benefit for the person helping.
  • Altruism comes with costs, but also with benefits.
  • If you're a bystander in an emergency situation and no one is offering help, you can make a conscious decision to ignore social cues and help anyway.
  • Even if you benefit in some indirect or theoretical way, the fact that you're willing to put aside your immediate personal benefit is a valuable thing.

What To Do If You Feel You're Too Selfish

Many people fear to help others at their own expense. The idea that they may be harmed either physically or psychologically keeps them from engaging with others in social situations. There are a few things to remember if you feel too afraid to help others.

First, you need to understand that altruism is a moment-by-moment choice. The fact that you didn't help today doesn't mean you won't help tomorrow. Second, it's very difficult to think about and truly empathize with others when you're struggling with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Third, to feel competent to help others, you need to have adequate self-esteem. Finally, there may be situations in which helping yourself helps others at the same time.

If you have anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues or other mental health problems, you can become a more altruistic person by dealing with them appropriately. You can overcome or minimize these problems through mental health counseling.

A therapist can help you find out why you feel inadequate to help others. They can teach you how to increase your mental health so that you don't require as much help from others. They can also help you build your self-esteem and gain a positive outlook on yourself and others. You can learn strategies for coping with stress and coping skills so that you can manage your behavior the way you choose.

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You can talk to a licensed mental health counselor at BetterHelp.com to discuss your concerns about selfish and inappropriate thoughts and behaviors. Online therapy is convenient and suited to your situation. When you achieve good mental health, you'll be equipped to take care of yourself better and help others when you can.


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