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One fundamental question about human nature is whether people are ever capable of genuinely altruistic acts. The term altruism is typically used to reflect one of two concepts. The first is evolutionary altruism, which refers to helping behavior that benefits another at some cost to oneself. Evolutionary altruism reflects behavior caused by many different habits and motives assumed to have evolved in a species because they promote the longterm reproduction of species members’ genes. The term altruism is also used to reflect psychological altruism, which refers to a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare. Psychological altruism is typically contrasted with psychological egoism, which refers to a motivational state with the goal of increasing one’s own welfare.
There has been much debate about whether humans possess the capacity for psychological altruism. One claim that assumes psychological altruism exists is the empathyaltruism hypothesis, which states that feelings of empathic concern for a person in need evoke an altruistic motive. Feelings of empathic concern have been contrasted with feelings of personal distress. Feelings of personal distress are assumed to evoke motivation to reduce these unpleasant emotions by either escaping continued exposure to the person’s suffering or by helping, whichever happens to be the least costly option in the situation. Consistent with these claims, research suggests that people feeling empathic concern tend to help even if they can easily escape exposure to the victim’s suffering, whereas people feeling personal distress tend to help only when escape from continued exposure to the person’s suffering is difficult or impossible.
The tendency for an observer to help a needy other as a result of evolutionary altruistic or psychological altruistic processes is also influenced by factors that affect helping behavior more generally. For example, research demonstrates that observers are more likely to help a person if they (1) notice the person and (2) recognize that the person is in need. Even then, help is likely only if observers (3) assume personal responsibility for reducing the person’s need. Research also suggests that the number of observers witnessing the need situation can actually reduce the likelihood that any one observer will offer help (i.e., the bystander effect). However, observers who experience psychological altruism may be immune to this diffusion of responsibility because empathy may promote feelings of responsibility for the victim regardless of the number of additional bystanders present in the situation.
In development, helping behavior appears to emerge as early as two years of age in humans. However, the cause of these behaviors (e.g., evolutionary altruistic versus psychological altruistic processes, or neither) has been debated. There is also debate about the extent to which evolutionary altruistic or psychological altruistic processes influence, or are influenced by, an individual’s personality characteristics. Some research shows that people scoring high on personality measures that assess altruism-relevant characteristics (e.g., perspective-taking, emotionality, and responsibility for others’ welfare) are more likely to help than people scoring low on these measures. Again, it is unclear whether such behavior reflects evolutionary altruistic processes, psychological altruistic processes, or neither. Future research will almost certainly address, and hopefully answer, these and other questions about the existence of altruism in humans.
- Batson, C. Daniel, and Laura L. Shaw. 1991. Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives. Psychological Inquiry 2 (2): 107–122.
- Sober, Elliot, and David Sloan Wilson. 1998. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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