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Altruism: Finding It’s True Nature

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Asmita Saini, Intern Psychologist at SELBIC

“We have so far to go to realize our human potential for compassion, altruism, and love.” Jane Goodall

In the past few posts on Work Life Balance, Finding Meaning in Work, Leadership Styles and Charting Growth and Development, we have tried to explore a variety of interesting concepts and ideas in the area of Psychology. In this particular blog post we are on a mission to look into the nature of Altruism, an important concept applicable to almost all aspects of our lives.

What is Altruism?

As per the Oxford dictionary of Psychology, Altruism has been defined as, “ In social psychology and sociobiology, behavior that benefits another individual or other individuals in terms of direct advantages or chances of survival and reproduction at some cost to the benefactor.” Within the conceptual framework of Big Five or the Five Factor Model, the trait altruistic is a part of the personality factor Agreeableness which refers to traits that reflect individual differences in the propensity to be altruistic, trusting, modest, and warm.

A very simple and intuitive psychometric test wanting to tap whether you are Altruistic or not might ask you a question like:

1. Will you help a child in bringing back his kite from a tree?

Type in your subjective response ______________________________________________.

This is just an example.

Is Altruism Innate Or Learnt- What do we learn from children?

Psychologists studying altruism have raised a valid point regarding whether or not people are born into the world preprogrammed to be nice to others.

As per some studies carried out in the area of Developmental Psychology, even toddlers are willing to lend a helping hand to others! This points to altruism being innate.

As per Carol Dweck, one of the arguments for innate altruism was that it was an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation – instinctively caring for others would result in reciprocal care, improving one's own chances of survival. And there might still be evolutionary pressures toward altruism. We have evolved automatic forms of empathy and special brain cells called mirror neurons that allow us to gauge others' emotions.

On the other hand there have been studies which have pointed out in the direction that Altruism might also be a learnt trait and is not merely innate.

This is because humans are flexible and possess the capability to adapt to new situations. So if the need arises, humans also engage in altruistic behavior depending on the social cues present in the environment.

For example, Carol Dweck and others (2006), carried out a study on 34 one and two year old children where they found that altruistic behavior may be governed more by relationships, even brief ones, than instincts.

Whatever might be the case- innate or learnt altruism, young children sure do inspire us to show the world our altruistic sides and simply help others. Inspiring indeed! ;)

Altruism: Self Serving Vs Selfless

Altruism is essentially about selflessly helping others. But are actions that appear to be altruistic always “selfless”? Consider examples where people choose to help others mainly out of self interest- people return a lost wallet because they are hoping for a reward or we pitch in on a project at work because we think we’ll get recognized and promoted by our bosses! ;) Here we see some kind of cost benefit analysis is at work instead of the behavior being intrinsically motivated to be simply a selfless act of helping someone.

But on the other hand even helping others purely selflessly or altruistically can have many motivations- for instance the people we help will go on to help others - like we help a colleague expecting that maybe in the future they might help others similarly, creating a chain of altruistic behavior. Sometimes this is called the norm of reciprocity, sometimes it is called paying it forward. We are also motivated to help selflessly as we want to alleviate the pain of others since we are empathic enough to feel it while at other times we simply do so to derive joy and happiness out of selfless service. So the reasons for altruistic behavior can be many.

Altruism Around Us- On why it’s important…

At a societal and individual level, we question? Why Altruism? To answer this, we can link altruism to a variety of other concepts. For example, leadership. Altruism may foster effective leadership. For an altruistic leader, the joy of his or her employees might be paramount and consequently he or she might benefit the organization in genuine and well balanced ways. At the end, at the individual level, altruism gives joy and happiness to the individual in authentic ways. Altruistic employees at work might be effortlessly networking better and finding considerably more meaning in work. Somewhere altruism enhances growth and development at individual as well as societal level. The utility and goodness of altruism is immense. Think and you’ll discover!

At SELBIC, our prime objective is to help you solve problems in an easy and effective way. Do avail our services in the areas of counseling/coaching, business development, training and development and services for schools/colleges/universities. Book your appointment now and benefit from our services.

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