Psychological Perspectives on Altruism
Altruism, often referred to as selflessness, is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of "others" toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Psychological altruism is contrasted with psychological egoism, which refers to the motivation to increase one’s own welfare. There has been some debate on whether or not humans are truly capable of psychological altruism. Some definitions specify a self-sacrificial nature to altruism and a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors. However, because altruism ultimately benefits the self in many cases, the selflessness of altruistic acts is brought into question.
There are a number of theories to explain motivations for altruism, which we will explore below.
Social exchange theory
The social exchange theory postulates that altruism only exists when the benefits outweigh costs. Daniel Batson is a psychologist who examined this question, and he argues against the social exchange theory. He identified four major motives for altruism: altruism to ultimately benefit the self (egoism), altruism to ultimately benefit the other person (altruism), altruism to benefit a group (collectivism), or altruism to uphold a moral principle (principilism). Altruism that ultimately serves selfish gains is thus differentiated from selfless altruism, but the general conclusion has been that empathy-induced altruism can be genuinely selfless.
The empathy-altruism hypothesis
The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that psychological altruism does exist and is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering. People with empathic concern help others in distress even when exposure to the situation could be easily avoided, whereas those lacking in empathic concern avoid helping unless it is difficult or impossible to avoid.
Social responsibility theory
In psychological research on altruism, studies often observe altruism as demonstrated through prosocial behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, cooperation, philanthropy, and community service. Research has found that people are most likely to help if they recognize that a person is in need and feel personal responsibility for reducing the person's distress. This is basis for the social responsibility theory of altruism. Research suggests that the number of bystanders witnessing an individual's distress adversely affects the likelihood of someone helping the person in need. Commonly referred to as the bystander effect, this phenomenon is attributed to the fact that greater numbers of bystanders decrease individual feelings of responsibility. However, a witness with a high level of empathic concern is still likely to assume personal responsibility entirely, regardless of the number of bystanders.
A feeling of personal responsibility, or the moral norm, has also been associated with pro-social behaviors such as charitable giving. Many studies have found an association between volunteerism (as a form of altruism) and future health and well-being of the volunteer. In a study of older adults, those who volunteered rated significantly higher on life satisfaction and the will to live, and significantly lower in depression, anxiety, and somatization (or the generation of physical symptoms). Merely being aware of kindness in oneself and others is also associated with greater well-being. A study that asked participants to count each act of kindness they performed for one week significantly enhanced their subjective happiness. It is important to note that, while research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring about personal happiness, it has also been found to work in the opposite direction—that is, happier people are also kinder. The relationship between altruistic behavior and happiness is bidirectional.
Research shows that it can be beneficial to help others if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate the help. The reciprocity norm suggests that people will be most likely to cooperate if and only if others are likely to reciprocate. People tend to be less cooperative if they perceive that the frequency of helpers in the population is lower. The tendency to reciprocate can even generalize so that upon receiving help, people become more helpful toward others. On the other hand, people will avoid or even retaliate against those perceived to be uncooperative. People are sometimes unable to actually help even when they intended to, or their helpful efforts may go unnoticed, which may cause unintended conflicts.