Altruism and Prosocial Behavior

Altruism is often perceived as random acts of kindness in which the giver is willing to make a selfless and sometimes life-threatening act on the behalf of someone else, even someone unknown to the giver. The founder of sociobiology, Edward Wilson (1929– ), holds the belief that altruism in human beings is similar to that seen in other animals in which mothers will risk their own lives in order to save the lives of their offspring and ultimately their genes. Humans are loyal to their kin and many heroic acts can be found in soldiers who risk their lives every day in numerous ways to protect the survival of their country's communities. On the other hand, critics of this type of heroism believe they defend their cultural and religious beliefs, as well as their honor.

Critics argue that there are no selfless acts and therefore altruism in its purest form does not exist. They state that the giver derives pleasure in one form or another from the “selfless act,” and thus the giver is rewarded and the act is no longer selfless.

So how is altruism defined? There are two working definitions. Biological altruism is making a selfless act on the behalf of another in order to attempt to save that person's life, even though your own life may be at risk — for instance, jumping into a rushing river to try to save someone caught in a current. Psychological altruism is making a selfless act to the benefit of another though it does not reward you in any way — for instance, giving up your seat on the subway for someone else to sit down though you know you will be uncomfortable standing in the crowded train. Regardless of how you choose to define altruism, it is a phenomenon that is as of yet inexplicable to social psychologists.

There are a number of different factors that influence how likely you are to either help or not help another person. Some variables that increase the chance of helping behavior include the desire to feel good about being of assistance, having some type of personalized relationship with the other person, and actually knowing how to provide assistance. For example, if you see the woman who usually makes you your coffee each morning get struck by a car as she is going to lunch, you will be more likely to rush to her aid because you have a desire to help her, you know who she is, and you know how to provide basic first aid. Factors that decrease the likelihood of helping another person include being in a large group of people and not being sure if the person really needs assistance. For example, if you are in a crowded subway station and you see a man doubled over grabbing his throat, you might think that he is choking However, you might be less likely to help because you assume that someone else will do something and you might not be sure if the man is actually choking or if he just coughing because of a bad cold.

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