Giving to others, helping others without expecting anything in return. Although today it is not so common, given that we are immersed in an increasingly individualistic culture , we can still observe from time to time the existence of a large number of acts of spontaneous generosity and disinterested help to others. And not only human beings: altruistic acts have been observed in a great number of animals of such different species as chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins or bats.

The reason for this type of attitude has been the subject of debate and research from sciences such as psychology, ethology or biology, generating a large number of theories about altruism . It is about them that we will talk throughout this article, highlighting some of the best known.

Altruism: basic definition

We understand altruism as that pattern of conduct or behaviour characterised by the search for the well-being of others without expecting that this will generate any type of benefit for us , even though this action may even be harmful to us. The well-being of others is therefore the element that motivates and guides the behaviour of the subject, whether we are talking about a specific act or something stable in time.

Altruistic acts are generally well seen socially and allow to generate welfare in others, something that affects the bond between individuals in a positive way. However, on a biological level, altruism implies an action that in principle is not directly beneficial for survival and can even put it at risk or cause death, something that has made different researchers wonder why this type of behaviour arises.

Theories of Altruism: Two Great Viewpoints

Why a living being may be willing to sacrifice his life, cause him some damage or simply use his own resources and efforts in one or several actions that do not suppose him any gain has been the object of great research from different disciplines, generating a great number of theories. Among all of them, we can highlight two large groups in which theories about altruism can be inserted

Pseudo-altruistic theories

This type of theories about altruism is one of the most important and most considered throughout history. They are called pseudo-altruists because what they propose is that at heart altruistic acts do pursue some kind of self-interest, even if it is at an unconscious level .

Such a quest would not be for direct, tangible benefit from the performance, but the motivation behind the altruistic act would be to obtain internal rewards such as self-approval, the feeling of doing something considered good by another, or following one’s own moral code. Also would include the expectation of future favors by the beings we provide help to.

Purely altruistic theories

This second group of theories considers that altruistic behaviour is not due to the intention (conscious or not) of obtaining benefits, but rather is based on the direct intention of generating well-being for the other . It would be elements such as empathy or the search for justice that would motivate the action. This type of theories usually take into account how relatively utopian it is to find total altruism, but they value the existence of personality traits tending towards them.

Some of the main explanatory proposals

The two previous ones are the two main existing approaches to the functioning of altruism, but within both of them there are a lot of theories. Among them, some of the most remarkable ones are the following.

1. Reciprocal Altruism

The theory that, from the pseudo-altruistic approach, advocates that what really moves altruistic behaviour is the expectation that the help provided subsequently generates an equivalent behaviour in the helped, in such a way that in the long run the possibilities of survival are enhanced in situations where the own resources might not be sufficient.

Likewise, the recipient benefits from the aid at the same time that tends to feel indebted to the other . The possibility of interaction between both individuals is also encouraged and promoted, something that favours socialisation between unrelated subjects.

2. Normative theory

This theory is very similar to the previous one, with the exception that it contemplates that what moves the one who helps is the moral/ethical code or the values, their structure and the feeling of obligation towards others derived from them. It is also considered a theory of the pseudo-altruistic approach, given that what is sought with the help of the other is to obey the social norm and the expectations of a world together that have been acquired during socio-cultural times, avoiding the guilt of not helping and obtaining the gratification of having done what we consider correct (thus increasing our self-consideration).

3. Stress reduction theory

Also part of the pseudo-altruistic approach, this theory considers that the reason for helping the other is to reduce the state of discomfort and agitation generated by the observation of another person’s suffering. The absence of action would generate guilt and increase the subject’s discomfort, while helping will reduce the discomfort felt by the altruistic subject himself by reducing that of the other.

4. Hamilton’s kinship selection

Another of the existing theories is that of Hamilton, who considers that altruism is generated by the search for the perpetuation of genes. This theory of eminently biological charge values that in nature many of the altruistic behaviors are directed towards members of our own family or with whom we have some kind of blood relationship .

The act of altruism would allow our genes to survive and reproduce, even though our own survival might be harmed. It has been observed that a great deal of altruistic behavior is generated in different animal species.

5. Cost-benefit calculation model

This model considers the existence of a calculation between costs and benefits both of acting and not acting when performing an altruistic act, specifying the existence of lower risks than possible benefits to be obtained. The observation of the suffering of others will generate tension in the observer, something that will cause the calculation process to be activated. The final decision will also be influenced by other factors, such as the degree of bonding with the subject who needs help.

6. Autonomous Altruism

A model more appropriate to the purely altruistic approach, this proposal assumes that it is the emotions that generate the altruistic act: the emotion towards the subject in distress or towards the situation generates that the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment are no longer taken into account. This model, worked on by Karylowski, among others, takes into account that for altruism to be truly so, it is necessary that attention be focused on the other (if it were focused on oneself and the sensations it causes, we would be facing the product of normative theory: an altruism for the fact of feeling good about oneself).

7. Hypothesis of empathy-altruism

This hypothesis, by Bateson, also considers altruism as something pure and unbiased by the intention of obtaining any kind of reward. It assumes the existence of several factors to be taken into account, being the first step to be able to perceive the need for help from others, the differentiation between their present situation and the one that would imply their welfare, the salience of such need and the focus on the other. This will generate the appearance of empathy, putting ourselves in the other’s place and experiencing emotions towards them.

This will motivate us to seek their well-being, calculating the best way to help the other person (which could include leaving the help to others). Although the help may generate some kind of social or interpersonal reward but that is not the aim of the help itself .

8. Empathy and identification with the other

Another hypothesis that considers altruism as something pure proposes the fact that what generates altruistic behavior is the identification with the other, in a context in which the other is perceived as needing help and through identification with him we forget the limits between the self and the person in need . This will end up generating that we look for their well-being, in the same way that we would look for our own.

Bibliographic references:

  • Batson, CD. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a socio-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc; England.
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  • Herbert, M. (1992). Psychology in Social Work. Madrid: Pirámide.
  • Karylowski, J. (1982). Two types of altruistic behavior: Doing good to feel good or to make the other feel good. In: Derlega VJ, Grzelak J, editors. Cooperation and helping behavior: theories and research. New York: Academic Press, 397-413.
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  • Trivers, R.L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35-57.