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What Is Altruism?

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Definition:

What causes people to jeopardize their own health and well-being to help other people? What is it that inspires individuals to give their time, energy, and money to aid in the betterment of others, even when they receive nothing tangible in return? Altruism involves the unselfish concern for other people. It involves doing things simply out of a desire to help, not because you feel obligated to out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons.

Everyday life is filled with small acts of altruism, from the guy at the grocery store who kindly holds the door open as you rush in from the parking lot to the woman who gives twenty dollars to a homeless man. News stories often focus on grander cases of altruism, such as a man who dives into an icy river to rescue a drowning stranger to a generous donor who gives thousands of dollars to a local charity. While we may be all too familiar with altruism, social psychologists are interested in understanding why it occurs. What inspires these acts of kindness? What motivates people to risk their own lives to save a complete stranger?

Altruism is one aspect of what social psychologists refer to as prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior refers to any action that benefits other people, no matter what the motive or how the giver benefits from the action. Remember, however, that altruism involves true selflessness. While all altruisms acts are prosocial, not all prosocial behaviors are altruistic. For example, we might help others for a variety of reasons such as guilt, obligation, duty or even for rewards.

Psychologists have suggested a number of different explanations for why altruism exists, including:

  • Biological Reasons: Kin selection - We may be more altruistic towards those we are related to because it increases the odds that our blood relations will survives and transmit their genes to future generations.

  • Neurological Reasons: Altruism activates reward centers in the brain. Neurobiologists have found that when engaged in an altruistic act, the pleasure centers of the brain become active.

  • Cognitive Reasons: While the definition of altruism involves doing for others without reward, there may still be cognitive incentives that are not obvious. For example, we might help others to relieve out own distress or because being kind to others upholds our view of ourselves as kind, empathetic people.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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References:

Vedantam, S. (2007). If it feels good to be good, it might only be natural. The Washington Post. Found online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/27/AR2007052701056.html

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