Altruistic Behaviors: Do they exist or are they just a myth?
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
Altruistic Behaviors: What is Altruism?
Altruism by definition is the unselfish acts to better the well-being of others disregarding the well-being of self. These include behaviors that are beneficial to others that show generous tendencies, kindness to others, and helpfulness. Altruism is derived from autrui, French for ‘other people’ which further developed from the Old French word autre meaning ‘other.’
What is Altruistic Behavior?
Altruistic behaviors are selfless acts that put the wellbeing of others before yourself and not expecting anything in return. This could be anything from helping someone reach something in the grocery store to giving someone in need an organ. More recently people have thought as altruistic behaviors as something that can be beneficial for both parties. An example someone volunteering at a hospital and can also put the experience on their college application.
What is the difference between empathy and altruistic behaviors?
Empathy is the understanding of someone else’s perspective or rather putting you into someone else’s shoes. Empathy focuses more so on emotions. This is because the origin of empathy comes from the Greek word empathes which can be broken down into em– and pathos meaning feelings and emotion. As discussed earlier in this article, the origin of altruism is not attached to any sort of emotion. On a neurological level, the emotion center of the brain such as the amygdala, insula, and striatum are activated when someone displays an act of empathy. There is even a special type of neuron that fires: mirror neurons. Mirror neurons help reproduce emotions that you are seeing being expressed by others.
What do altruistic behaviors look like?
For example, let’s say it’s a rainy day out and you are driving on the highway and all of a sudden you see a car skid off the road and flips over and is now laying belly side up. Automatically, you pull over to the side of the highway and run over to help the driver. This would be an altruistic behavior, some might even say an unselfish act of kindness. This is an extreme example but altruistic behaviors happen all the time. For example, being involved charity work by giving time or money are considered altruistic behaviors. Another example would be someone giving another person an organ such as a kidney. These are just a few examples of the broad range of altruistic behaviors.
How society perpetuates altruistic behavior?
Society has a way of perpetuating many types of behaviors and altruistic behavior is no different for better or for worse. In this case, altruistic behaviors are perpetuated through things such as college applications. Many universities want to and need to see volunteer work that applicants have been involved in. Does this cheapen their work? There are also tax breaks for many organization and companies that also partake in altruistic behaviors such as donating to charities. Going back to the car accident scenario, this would most likely be televised and written about on many different platforms. The person’s altruistic actions could even be considered heroic. Society is constantly promoting altruistic behavior in everyday life helping others help themselves.
Why do we exhibit altruistic behaviors from an evolutionary standpoint?
Humans are not the only animals that exhibit altruistic behaviors. Vampire bats, for example, help each other out by regurgitating blood and donating it to others to who were not able to feed that night. Another example is Vervet monkeys. When there is a predator nearby, they will sound an alarm warning others as well as put themselves in danger. Even at a smaller level such as insect colonies, individuals put the needs of the Queen before themselves. They devote their lives to serving the Queen by foraging for food, protecting the nest and taking care of the larvae. But, why would animals do this? Why would you put themselves at a disadvantage to help others?
Charles Darwin coined the term natural selection which is survival of the fittest where animals behave in ways that benefit themselves to ensure their survival. This has been proven time and time again across all species, so why would animals behave in an altruistic manner considering it is far from the ideal of natural selection? At the evolutionary standpoint, what do animals have to gain by partaking in altruistic behavior?
Do they have anything to gain?
People and animals have been in engaging in cooperative behavior for centuries beginning with all of our ancestors. This type of behavior supported the species to survive. At the individual level, it does not make sense. If individuals exhibit altruistic behavior they would not survive. So how did altruistic behavior trickle down to generations today? When multiple people behave altruistically, then it becomes beneficial for the entire group. This type of unselfish behavior becomes advantageous for the survival of the group. This is considered group selection which helps to evolve more altruistic behaviors.
Group selection was first considered to be weak and biologists were unsure about its importance for evolutionary purposes. A common occurrence that can happen within-group selection is the idea of ‘subversion from within’ where individuals are liable to be possibly exploited by others members of the group who do not partake in altruistic behaviors. The selfish individual can benefit from the altruistic behaviors of others without enduring in any of the costs. This can cause the entire group to suffer anxiety symptoms and stress due to this one individual. Self-sacrificial and altruistic behavior does not help the individual, but it can and does help on larger scales such as the community level and looks out for the best of the group.
Explanation of altruistic behaviors through biological reasoning.
It turns out that empathy does have something to do with altruistic behaviors. Empathy is a strong determinate for altruistic behaviors that motivate individuals to behave altruistically. This basis of sympathetic and moral concerns for others drives people to act altruistically. When you engage in altruistic behaviors, you feel more fulfilled and energized. These feelings also occur when you watch someone engage in altruistic behaviors due to the mirror neurons. Even though empathy and altruistic behaviors are not they same, they are intertwined.
Kin selection or ‘inclusive fitness’ was introduced in 1964 by William Hamilton which moved away from group selection, but rather how altruistic behavior could evolve within the kin or family. Individuals are more likely to exhibit altruistic behaviors towards others within their kin than others who are not. The degree of altruistic behaviors depends on the strength of the relationship. Therefore, because the individuals are in the same kin, the altruistic behavior genes can be passed down from generations. This theory makes sense from the ‘gene’s-eye view of evolution’ because the goal for “genes” is to maximize themselves in hopes of being reproduced for the next generation. Foster et al. established that even in the insect community kin selection remains the key explanation for the evolution of altruism.
Are there true altruistic behaviors?
In the Friends episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” one of the characters, Joey challenges Phoebe that there is no selfless act. Watch how she tries to prove him wrong in the following clip.
After all of this information, are you convinced that there are true acts of altruistic behaviors? It has been proven that there is some evolutionary and biological basis of altruistic behaviors but are they truly selfless good deeds? Some believe that there is no such thing; that everyone, whether they know it or not do things to help themselves in some way, shape or form. Whether is it the wanting of recognition from others, feeling good about themselves, or the idea that if they help someone the person will then be indebted to them. All of these are possible motivations for engaging in altruistic behaviors. On the other hand, this raises the question if there is real selfishness? Someone can do something that seems selfish but if it helps them and others, in the long run, is that truly selfish? Maybe rather than focusing on if there are true acts of altruistic behaviors, focusing on engaging other in altruistic behaviors and making it a norm in society.
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Rebekah is an undergraduate senior at New York University majoring in Applied Psychology and minoring in Global Public Health as well as Genetics. She is currently interning at PSB, a research consulting firm in Manhattan. She particular interest is in abnormal psychology and hopes to acquire a doctorate degree in the future.