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Understanding Altruism: Self and Other Concerns

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the differences between altruism and helping, and explain how social psychologists try to differentiate the two.
  2. Review the roles of reciprocity and social exchange in helping.
  3. Describe the evolutionary factors that influence helping.
  4. Summarize how the perceptions of rewards and costs influence helping.
  5. Outline the social norms that influence helping.

Altruism refers to any behavior that is designed to increase another person’s welfare, and particularly those actions that do not seem to provide a direct reward to the person who performs them (Batson, Ahmad, & Stocks, 2011; Dovidio, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner, 2006; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005). Rather than being the exception to the rule, recent research seems to indicate that these kinds of behaviors are intuitive, reflexive, and even automatic (Zaki & Mitchell, 2013). Altruism occurs when we donate blood, when we stop to help a stranger who has been stranded on the highway, when we volunteer at a homeless shelter or donate to a charity, or when we get involved to prevent a crime from occurring. Every day there are numerous acts of helping that occur all around us. As we will see, some of these represent true altruism, whereas others represent helping that is motivated more by self-concern. And, of course, there are also times when we do not help at all, seeming to not care about the needs of others.

Helping is strongly influenced by affective variables. Indeed, the parts of the brain that are most involved in empathy, altruism, and helping are the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, areas that are responsible for emotion and emotion regulation (Figure 8.2).

Figure 8.2 Empathy and Helping in the Human Brain 
This figure shows the areas of the human brain that are known to be important in empathy and helping. They include the amygdala (area 1) and sections of the prefrontal cortex (areas 2 and 3). From Lieberman (2010).