Altruism and Our Human Nature

Our "altruistic" behavior, ironically, turns out to be a great example of how evolution shaped the human mind. A lot of research has been done on altruism; that is, doing something helpful for someone else at a cost to the self.

Most of us would like to claim that we are altruistic – we help others from time to time and we do it because it is the “right thing to do.” Or sometimes we help others “out of the goodness of our hearts.”

Research, however, shows that altruism is a lot more complicated than simply helping others. Generosity is often driven by self-interest (see Axelrod & Hamilton; Buss; Cosmides & Tooby; Trivers; Cole & Teboul; Rand).

All living things tend to be selfish – we avoid helping others (which is considered a cost in life) unless there is the possibility that such behavior might lead to some benefits for the self. In short, we tend to cooperate when it is most likely in our own interest.

So, what about the sacrifices parents make for their children? Well, such acts of kindness tend not to be selfless, in the least bit, when viewed from an evolutionary framework. Parents making sacrifices for their children is just a gene’s very clever way of transferring resources to the closest living copy of itself; a very smart move, but by no means a selfless move (see Hamilton).

What about helping a romantic partner? Given the many benefits that we get from having a close relationship it makes a lot of sense to provide assistance to a long-term mate. Not helping a romantic partner when they need it, in general, is a big mistake because in the long run you are just as likely to suffer when your partner suffers. When two people are highly dependent on each other, it is in each party’s interest to help the other person out.

And the same goes for friends. It generally pays to help a friend because friends tend to return such favors. In fact, swapping favors is a great way to get ahead in life. Ever help a friend move? Well, what happens when it is your turn to move? Who are you going to call? And, if we are really acting so selflessly when helping a friend, why do we get so angry and upset when friends repeatedly fail to return our kind deeds? Many friendships have ended when friends take, but don’t give. How altruistic is that?

What about people who donate their time, energy, and resources to people they don’t know through charities or religious organizations? It is unlikely someone is going to directly benefit by helping others in such a manner. When you look more closely at these situations, however, there are numerous indirect benefits that such “generous” individuals receive, such as tax breaks, recognition, increased social status, and the respect of their peers.

These indirect benefits are extremely valuable and people work very hard to earn them. In fact, earning status and respect governs a lot of the things that we do. Both status and respect are useful to obtain. Status and respect open a lot of doors, they help us influence others, and they often lead to special treatment. One way we get respect and status is to help others AND make sure that the people around us know about our good deeds. Have you ever noticed how people often backhandedly mention or let their good deeds "slip out" during a conversation?

So, what might a truly altruistic act look like? Perhaps anonymously providing help to someone without any expectation of getting something in return (no possibility of direct payback) or doing it without any acknowledgment from others (no possibility of indirect rewards).

How often does something like that happen?

Well, when it does happen it typically makes the news. And it is not too hard to imagine such an anonymous donor running around trying to make sure that all the right people know about his or her “anonymous” gift. So, when you take into account all of the benefits that people receive from helping others, acts of altruism are often governed by the "possibility of returns." When you take away the "possibility of returns" – giving tends to fall by the wayside.

As mentioned, when most people think about being altruistic they do so "out of context." Few people admit the truth when it comes to altruism: “I give to others when it is likely to benefit me or make me look good.” Rather most people say that they “help their children because they love them, that they are kind and compassionate with their friends and loved ones, and that they give to others because it feels like the right thing to do.”

And it is wrong to discount this type of emotional sentiment because this is truly what people feel. But underneath such emotions lurks our self-interest. Our emotions are designed to get us to do things that might benefit us rather than make us aware of how selfish we are. Again, the mind keeps many important decisions hidden from our awareness – like the true motivation underlying many of our actions.

Perhaps right now, you may be thinking that “yes, that’s how most people behave, but not me. I’m different.” Again, most people think they are the exception to the rule, but thinking you are the exception to the rule does not make you the exception to the rule.

In fact, most people think they are the exception to the rule but when placed in a real situation they tend to act just like everyone else.

For example, how many people would claim the following: “Sure, I’d take another person’s life, for no reason, other than someone in a position of authority egging me on.” While difficult to imagine, Stanley Milgram, a famous psychologist, demonstrated that people are capable of acting this way (for a good, but brief description of this research see, Milgram Study). And if you are thinking, “Well, not me, I’m different,” that may be the case, but again the odds aren’t in your favor. And it may just be another example of how we tend to think about our behavior "out of context."