Altruism is the unselfish concern for other people—doing things simply out of a desire to help, not because you feel obligated to out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons. It involves acting out of concern for the well-being of other people.1
Altruistic people help others without expectations of rewards or personal benefits. On the contrary, some altruistic acts may even come at some personal risk or costs. For example, when you see a homeless person sharing food with a pet, that is altruism and love in the form of sharing in the face of scarcity. Another example of altruism that can come at a cost is when a person takes off a coat in freezing weather and puts it on someone else to give them warmth and bears the cold instead.
There several types of altruistic behavior:
- Genetic altruism involves acts that benefit close family members. For example, in many cultures, the tastiest delicacies are reserved for the eldest family member—a matriarch or patriarch—who then may turn around and give it to the youngest of the family. These are acts of affection but stem from genetic altruism.
- Reciprocal altruism is based on a give-and-take relationship. One person may help the other but there is an understanding that in the future, the kind act will be reciprocated. For example, a worker who takes someone else’s shift as a favor, will likely expect the same in return at a later date.
- Group-selected altruism involves a group affiliation. Altruistic acts are directed toward people who are part of their social group or supporting social causes that benefit them. If you are a member of PETA or Greenpeace or even the YWCA, you are part of group-selected altruism.
- Pure altruism is also known as moral altruism. This form involves helping someone else, even when it is risky, without any reward. It is motivated by a person’s values and morals. For example, if an error is made on the job, but one person on the team stands up and takes the blame for everyone, that is pure altruism.
Altruism can be straightforward or it can be a bit more complicated. It is one aspect of what is known as prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior refers to any action that benefits other people, no matter what the motive or how the giver benefits from the action.2
While all altruistic acts are prosocial, not all prosocial behaviors are completely altruistic—because altruism might be the result of feelings of guilt, obligation, debt, atonement or for rewards. For instance, if a student tutors a fellow classmate in order to receive extra credit points for doing so, that is prosocial behavior, but it may not be wholly altruistic.
Why are some people so altruistic?
• Psychologists have studied whether some people are innately more altruistic than others. In other words, are some of us born with a genetic tendency to help others? Known as kin selection, this evolutionary theory posits that people are more likely to help blood relatives because it will ensure the longevity of the line and the continuation of shared genes.3
• Neurobiologists have found that altruistic behaviors activate the pleasure centers of the brain. Simply put, doing good makes us feel good! The better we feel, the more likely we are to repeat the behaviors that produce pleasure.
• The environment also factors into whether someone behaves altruistically. In one study, children who observed simple reciprocal acts of altruism were far more likely to exhibit altruistic actions. On the other hand, friendly but non-altruistic actions did not inspire the same results.4
• Society’s rules, norms, and expectations can also influence whether or not people engage in altruistic behavior. For example, we may feel pressured to help others if they have already done something for us and we feel indebted.
• Sometimes doing something kind helps relieve our feelings of distress. When “donors” hand out money to panhandlers with handwritten signs that say, “Out of work, family needs food,” it may not be pure altruism. There may be feelings of guilt for one’s own unearned good fortune or a sense of obligation, but it is definitely an act of compassion to help alleviate someone else’s despair.
Regardless of why any of us may choose to behave in an altruistic manner, the kindness comes back to us one way or another. Altruism may benefit our health, state of mind and even our relationships with others. Performing kind deeds helps create a positive state of well-being, especially giving us good feelings about ourselves.
Some people come by altruistic tendencies naturally, but there are things you can do to help foster helpful behaviors in yourself and others. You can practice empathy by building connections and finding meaning in what you do in relation to others. Perform random acts of kindness—small things every day—such as holding doors open for others, assisting the elderly, letting someone go before you in a queue, volunteering in your community, etc.
Gift-giving is generally not considered altruism, but think about it. When you give someone a gift of Active Wellness without an expectation of something in return, aren’t you practicing a form of altruism? This season, Nikken is happy to share the 2022 Something for Everyone Gift Guide. Items in the Gift Guide are available through 2022. Check it out here: https://issuu.com/nikkeninternationalinc/docs/holiday_gift_guide_2022.