The 8 theories of altruism: why do we help others in exchange for nothing?

Giving to others, helping others without expecting anything in return. While today it is not so common since we are immersed in an increasingly individualistic cultureIt is still possible to observe from time to time the existence of a large number of acts of spontaneous generosity and selfless help to others. And not just humans: Selfless acts have been observed in a large number of animals of species as different as chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins or bats.

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

    Altruism: basic definition

    We understand altruism as that pattern of behavior or behavior characterized by the pursuit of the well-being of others without waiting for it to bring us any benefit, Although this action may even harm us. The well-being of others is therefore the element that motivates and guides the behavior of the subject, whether it is a specific act or something stable over time.

    Altruistic acts are generally well regarded socially and help generate well-being in others, which has a positive impact on the bond between individuals. However, at the biological level, altruism is an action which in principle it is not directly beneficial for survival and even that it can endanger it or lead to death, which has led various researchers to reflect on the reason for the appearance of this type of behavior.

      Theories on altruism: two major points of view

      The reason why a living being may be willing to sacrifice life, cause harm, or simply use its own resources and efforts in one or more actions that they mean no gain to him it has been the subject of extensive research in different disciplines, generating a large number of theories. Among them we can highlight two large groups in which theories about altruism can be inserted

      Pseudo-altruistic theories

      This type of theories on altruism is one of the most important and has had the greatest consideration throughout history. They are called pseudo-altruistic because what they suggest is that ultimately altruistic acts pursue some kind of self-interest, even if it is at an unconscious level.

      This research would not be of direct and tangible benefit to the performance, but the motivation behind the altruistic act would be to obtain internal rewards such as self-approval, the feeling of doing something well regarded by others or of doing something well. follow their own morals. coded. too much expectation of future favors would be included by the beings to whom we help.

      Purely altruistic theories

      This second group of theories considers that altruistic behavior is not due to the intention (conscious or not) to obtain benefits, but that part of the direct intention to generate welfare to the other. It would be things like empathy or the pursuit of justice that would motivate action. Such theories often take into account how relatively utopian it is to find total altruism, but they value the existence of personality traits that strain them.

      Some of the main explanatory proposals

      The above two are the two main existing approaches to how altruism works, but in both a large number of theories are included. Among them, some of the most notable are as follows.

      1. Reciprocal altruism

      The theory that the pseudoaltruism approach advocates is that what really drives altruistic behavior is the expectation that the help given will later generate behavior equivalent to that helped, in such a way that in the long term, the chances of survival are improved in situations where the resources themselves may not be sufficient.

      Likewise, the beneficiary of the aid benefits at the same time as he tends to feel indebted to the other. It also enhances and promotes the possibility of interaction between the two individuals, which promotes socialization between unrelated subjects. he feels he is in debt.

      2. Normative theory

      This theory is very similar to the previous one, except that it considers that what moves whom it helps is the moral / ethical code or values, its structuring and the feeling of obligation towards others that derives from it. A theory of the approach of pseudoaltruism is also considered, because what seeks the help of the other is to obey the social norm and the expectations of a world close to that acquired during the socio-cultural, in avoiding the guilt of not helping and gaining the satisfaction of doing what we think is right (thus increasing our self-esteem).

      3. Theory of voltage reduction

      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 engendered by observing another person’s suffering. . The lack of action would generate guilt and increase the subject’s discomfort helping will reduce the discomfort felt by the altruistic subject himself by reducing that of the other.

      4. Hamilton’s kinship selection

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

      The act of altruism would allow our genes to survive and reproduce, even though our own survival may be affected. it has been observed that a large part of altruistic behavior is generated in different animal species.

      5. Cost-benefit calculation model

      This model considers the existence of a calculation between the costs and the benefits at the same time to act and not to act during the realization of an altruistic act, by specifying the existence of risks less than the possible benefits to be obtained. The observation of the suffering of others will generate a tension in the observer, which will cause the activation of the process of calculation. The final decision will also be influenced by other factors, such as the degree of connection that exists with the subject who needs help.

      6. Autonomous altruism

      A more typical model of the purely altruistic approach, this proposition assumes that it is the emotions that generate the altruistic act: the emotion towards the subject in difficulty or towards the situation generates that the principles are no longer taken into account. Punishment. This model, worked on by Karylowski among others, takes into account the fact that for altruism to really be such it is necessary this attention is focused on the other (If it were centered on oneself and the sensations it causes, one would be confronted with the product of normative theory: altruism to feel good about yourself).

      7. Empathy-altruism hypothesis

      This hypothesis, from Bateson, also sees altruism as something pure and not biased by the intention of obtaining any reward. It is assumed that there are several factors to consider, the first step being to be able to perceive the need for help from others, the differentiation between their current situation and that which would imply their well-being, the salience of this need and the focus. the other. This will generate an appearance of empathy, putting us in the other’s shoes and feeling emotions towards them.

      It will motivate us to seek their well-being, to find the best way to help the other person (which could include leaving help to others). While help can generate some sort of social or interpersonal reward, this is not the purpose of the aid in self.

      8. Empathy and identification with others

      Another hypothesis which considers altruism as a pure thing proposes the fact that what generates altruistic behavior is identification with the other, in a context where the other is perceived as a need for help and through the identification with him we forget the boundaries between ourselves and the person in need. This will ultimately lead us to seek their welfare, just as we would seek our own.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Batson, CD. (1991). The question of altruism: towards a socio-psychological answer. Hillsdale, New Jersey, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc .; England.
      • Feigin, S .; Owens, G. and Goodyear-Smith, F. (2014). Theories of human altruism: a systematic review. Annals of Neuroscience and Psychology, 1 (1). Available at:
      • Herbert, M. (1992). Psychology in social work. Madrid: Pyramid.
      • Karylowski, J. (1982). Two types of altruistic behavior: doing good to feel good or doing good to someone else. A: Derlega VJ, Grzelak J, editors. Cooperation and Useful Behavior: Theories and Research. New York: Academic Press, 397-413.
      • Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development. The psychology of moral development. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 2.
      • Trivers, RL (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Journal of Biology 46: 35-57.

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