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Altruism Psychology

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Altruism Psychology

"If you're happy, I'm happy." Helping people makes us happy. Studies have found that the very act of helping people activates our brain's reward system (Klimecki, 2014). The positive feelings we feel then reinforce these behaviors. Finding ways to selflessly help and support others can be one of the greatest rewards of life.

  • What is altruism?
  • Why do people act in altruistic ways?
  • What are theories of altruism?
  • What are examples of altruism?

Definition of Altruism

Why do people help others? And when they do, is it for personal gain, or with no expectation for a reward? When people display prosocial behavior (behavior that benefits others), they may do so as an act of altruism.

Altruism is voluntary and intentional behavior that is meant to benefit another with no expectation of return.

However, prosocial behavior is not always the result of altruism. Sometimes, this behavior is the result of some egoistic goal.

Egoistic goals involve people helping others as a means of improving their own welfare such as increasing self-esteem, easing feelings of guilt, receiving praise, or alleviating distress.

Altruism can add several benefits to a person's life including increased social connectedness as well as better mental and physical health.

Altruism in Psychology

Some philosophers and social psychologists do not believe that humans are capable of true altruism. They suggest that at our core, humans recognize some level of personal benefit to exhibiting prosocial behaviors and no act is truly selfless. However, others believe that altruism is possible and is primarily motivated by empathy.

Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

Empathy is in many ways a uniquely human emotion. It is our ability to not just feel sorry for someone, but to attempt to take on their feelings as if they were our own. Empathy is sympathy, compassion, tenderness, concern, and sorrow all wrapped up in one emotion. The empathy-altruism hypothesis recognizes a relationship between empathy and altruistic behavior.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that empathic emotion produces altruistic motivation.

According to Eisenberg (2000), developing apathetic feelings and connectedness with others may increase one's likelihood to help.

Altruism and Social Expectations

Sometimes, prosocial behavior is the result of social expectations. For example, it may be socially acceptable to give to a Facebook charity on one's birthday. Or, perhaps it is a social expectation to "pay it forward" when someone buys your coffee, you're expected to buy the person behind you their coffee. These perceived social expectations can be strong motivators for altruism as it is motivated to optimize outcomes of social benefits. In this case, actions are more cognitive processes than empathetic experiences.

Altruism Man Praying in the Church StudySmarterSomeone may feel both social and self-expectations to be altruistic by going to church. Freepik.com

Altruism and Self-Expectations

Other times, the moral obligations we feel motivate prosocial behavior. We all have values we live by and when those values are broken it may cause extreme distress. To avoid this and to boost self-worth, one may engage in prosocial behavior. Similar to the activation of social expectations, this theory is also more of a cognitive process than an empathic one. One may also question if prosocial behavior motivated by self-expectations is true altruism, as one may gain the personal benefit of reducing self-concept distress.

Altruism and Genetics

Some theories of altruism allude to Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. According to Schwartz (1977), some believe altruistic behavior is motivated by some genetic advantage as well as one's need to survive. However, altruism is only genetically advantageous if it is offered to those who are genetically related (kin selection). Altruism puzzles evolutionary researchers when prosocial behaviors are directed toward those who are not genetically related, therefore creating no genetic advantage for an improved chance for survival.

Kin selection is an evolutionary principle that states we are more likely to help people who share the most genes. This is most commonly family and offspring. Protecting one's kin increases the odds of genetic survival in later generations.

When Do People Exhibit Altruism Behavior?

Helping others involves a five-step process.

  1. Notice an event

  2. Interpret as an emergency

  3. Assume responsibility for helping

  4. Know how to help

  5. Decision to help

If any one of these steps is interrupted, it is unlikely for a person to help. For example, if someone does not assume responsibility to help because others are around, it decreases the likelihood that they will help. This concept is referred to as the bystander effect.

The bystander effect refers to a situation in which a person is less likely to offer help when others are present.

The bystander effect usually occurs as a consequence of a diffusion of responsibility which refers to a situation in which people share the responsibility to help.

Altruism Homeless and Altruism Behavior StudySmarterPeople may be less likely to help the houseless due to a diffusion of responsibility. Freepik.com

Take the well-known case of Kitty Genovese who was brutally murdered in her apartment. Several witnesses and neighbours reported that they could hear her screams and cries for help, yet no one called the police until it was far too late. This is a devastating case in which the bystander effect kept Genovese from getting the help she desperately needed. Darley and Latané (1968b) suggested that the neighbours' inactivity was due to the simple fact that others were around.

Factors Increasing Altruism Behavior

Many factors may influence the likelihood of someone offering help. In addition to an increased sense of responsibility, we may be more likely to help if

  • The person appears to need help and deserves it

  • The person has similarities to us

  • The person is a woman

  • We have time and are not in a hurry

  • We feel guilty

  • We are in a good mood

  • We are not preoccupied

Another possible factor that may increase one's likelihood of helping is simply the awareness of the bystander effect phenomenon. For example, Beaman et al. (1978) performed a study in which some college students are informed of the bystander effect and the control group is not. After two weeks, more than half of the participants who were aware of the bystander effect provided aid to someone in need (situations were staged by researchers) compared to only one-fourth of the control group participants rendering aid.

Altruism Theory

Several altruism theories exist that attempt to explain cases in which a person will exhibit prosocial behavior. These include the social exchange theory, reciprocity norm, and the social-responsibility norm.

Social Exchange Theory

Social psychologists have identified several situations in which one may exhibit altruistic behaviors with the goal of maximizing reward and minimizing costs. Consequentially, many would not consider this true altruism due to the presence of an exchange.

The social exchange theory suggests that prosocial behavior is the result of some exchange that maximizes reward and minimizes costs.

Altruism Theory: Reciprocity Norm

If someone does something to help us, we usually feel compelled to return help, not harm, to them. This is referred to as the reciprocity norm.

The reciprocity norm is the expectation that people want to offer help, rather than harm, to those who have helped them.

This theory explains why we are more likely to "pay it forward" if someone buys us a coffee because we become more generous when we a treated generously.

Altruism Theory: Social-Responsibility Norm

Finally, in acts of true altruism, we may offer help even if the cost outweighs the reward when it relates to people who are in desperate need or who cannot help themselves. For example, many of us feel especially responsible to help young children and would likely help even if it may put us at risk or offer no reward at all. This is the social-responsibility norm.

The social-responsibility norm refers to the expectation that people will help those who need help.

For example, if someone falls into a pool and they do not know how to swim, people are likely to help, even if it means getting their clothes wet and there is no real reward waiting for them.

Examples for Altruism

Altruism can come in many different forms and can vary greatly depending on the situation. Here are some real-world examples of altruism.

  • Giving to your church outreach or donating to a local charity

  • Helping a neighbor with their grocery bags

  • Donating blood

  • Sharing your meal with someone

  • Showing up to a protest as an ally

  • Taking a friend to the airport

Altruism Blood Donation StudySmarterDonating blood is an act of altruism where one does not expect anything in return. Pixabay.com

Altruism - Key takeaways

  • Altruismis voluntary and intentional behavior that is meant to benefit another with no expectation of return
    • Altruism can add several benefits to a person's life including increased social connectedness as well as better mental and physical health.
  • The empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that empathic emotion produces altruistic motivation.
  • Helping others involves a five-step process.
    1. Notice an event

    2. Interpret as an emergency

    3. Assume responsibility for helping

    4. Know how to help

    5. Decision to help

  • The bystander effect refers to a situation in which a person is less likely to offer help when others are present.

  • The social exchange theory suggests that prosocial behavior is the result of some exchange that maximizes reward and minimizes costs.

  • The reciprocity norm is the expectation that people want to offer help, rather than harm, to those who have helped them.

    • The social-responsibility norm refers to the expectation that people will help those who need help

Frequently Asked Questions about Altruism Psychology

Altruism is voluntary and intentional behavior that is meant to benefit another with no expectation of return.

Altruistic behavior in psychology requires a level of empathy. The empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that empathic emotion produces altruistic motivation.

Donating blood is an example of altruistic behavior.

Altruism is caused by a five-step process: 

Helping others involves a five-step process. 


  1. Notice an event

  2. Interpret as an emergency

  3. Assume responsibility for helping 

  4. Know how to help

  5. Decision to help 

The four types of altruism are reciprocal altruism, genetic altruism, pure altruism, and group-selected altruism.

Final Altruism Psychology Quiz

Question

What is altruism? 

Show answer

Answer

Altruism is voluntary and intentional behavior that is meant to benefit another with no expectation of return.

Show question

Question

_____________ goals involve people helping others as a means of improving their own welfare such as increasing self-esteem, easing feelings of guilt, receiving praise, or alleviating distress.

Show answer

Answer

Egoistic

Show question

Question

What are the five steps that occur when someone decides to help another?


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Answer

  1. Notice an event

  2. Interpret as an emergency

  3. Assume responsibility for helping 

  4. Know how to help

  5. Decision to help 

Show question

Question

____________ refers to a situation in which a person is less likely to offer help when others are present. 

Show answer

Answer

Bystander effect

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Question

What is the reciprocity norm?


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Answer

The reciprocity norm is the expectation that people want to offer help, rather than harm, to those who have helped them.

Show question

Question

______________ suggests that prosocial behavior is the result of some exchange that maximizes reward and minimizes costs.


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Answer

Social exchange theory

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Question

Which of the following is not an example of altruism?

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Answer

Completing your homework.

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Question

True or False? Altruistic behavior may be motivated by a genetic advantage or by one's need to survive.


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is kin selection?


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Answer

Kin selection is an evolutionary principle that states we are more likely to help people who share the most genes.

Show question

Question

What was so significant about the Kitty Genovese case?

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Answer

When Kitty Genovese was murdered, several witnesses and neighbors reported that they could hear her screams and cries for help, yet no one called the police until it was far too late. This was a devastating example of the bystander effect.

Show question

Question

Which of the following factors may increase a person's likelihood to offer help?


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Answer

All of these

Show question

Question

What was the significance of Beaman et al. (1978)?

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Answer

Beaman et al. (1978) performed a study in which some college students are informed of the bystander effect and the control group is not. After two weeks, more than half of the participants who were aware of the bystander effect provided aid to someone in need (situations were staged by researchers) compared to only one-fourth of the control group participants rendering aid.

Show question

Question

True or false? Social expectations donot influence a person's decision to be altruistic.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

______________ refers to the expectation that people will help those who need help.

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Answer

Social-responsibility norm

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Question

What is a major consequence of a diffusion of responsibility.

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Answer

People are less likely to help others when they feel less personal responsibility to do so. This commonly explains why the bystander effect occurs.

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