Increase Altruism and Different Measures to Help Others

How can we increase altruism? Describe different measures to help others.

Altruism or selflessness is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of “others” toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism or selflessness is the opposite of selfishness.

Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of duty and loyalty. Altruism is a motivation to provide something of value to a party who must be anyone but one’s self, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (e.g., a god, a king), or collective (e.g., a government). Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self (e.g. sacrificing time, energy or possessions) with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).

Much debate exists as to whether “true” altruism is possible. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as “benefits.”

The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it’s usually contrasted to egoism, which is defined as acting to the benefit of one’s self.

The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought. The term was originally coined in the 19th century by the founding sociologist and philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, and has become a major topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. Whilst ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields always lead to different perspectives on altruism. In simple terms, altruism is caring about the welfare of other people and acting to help them.

There has been some debate on whether or not humans are truly capable of psychological altruism. Some definitions specify a self-sacrificial nature to altruism and a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors.However, because altruism ultimately benefits the self in many cases, the selflessness of altruistic acts is brought to question. The social exchange theory postulates that altruism only exists when benefits outweigh costs. Daniel Batson is a psychologist who examined this question and argues against the social exchange theory. He identified four major motives for altruism: altruism to ultimately benefit the self (egoism), to ultimately benefit the other person (altruism), to benefit a group (collectivism), or to uphold a moral principle (principlism). Altruism that ultimately serves selfish gains is thus differentiated from selfless altruism, but the general conclusion has been that empathy-induced altruism can be genuinely selfless. The empathy-altruism hypothesis basically states that psychological altruism does exist and is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering. Feelings of empathic concern are contrasted with feelings of personal distress, which compel people to reduce their own unpleasant emotions. People with empathic concern help others in distress even when exposure to the situation could be easily avoided, whereas those lacking in empathic concern avoid helping unless it is difficult or impossible to avoid exposure to another’s suffering. Helping behavior is seen in humans at about two years old, when a toddler is capable of understanding subtle emotional cues.


In psychological research on altruism, studies often observe altruism as demonstrated through prosocial behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, cooperation, philanthropy, and community service. Research has found that people are most likely to help if they recognize that a person is in need and feel personal responsibility for reducing the person’s distress. Research also suggests that the number of bystanders witnessing distress or suffering affects the likelihood of helping (the Bystander effect). Greater numbers of bystanders decrease individual feelings of responsibility.However, a witness with a high level of empathic concern is likely to assume personal responsibility entirely regardless of the number of bystanders.

Many studies have observed the effects of volunteerism (as a form of altruism) on happiness and health and have consistently found a strong connection between volunteerism and current and future health and well-being.In a study of older adults, those who volunteered were significantly higher on life satisfaction and will to live, and significantly lower in depression, anxiety, and somatization.Volunteerism and helping behavior have not only been shown to improve mental health, but physical health and longevity as well.One study examined the physical health of mothers who volunteered over a 30-year period and found that 52% of those who did not belong to a volunteer organization experienced a major illness while only 36% of those who did volunteer experienced one. A study on adults ages 55+ found that during the four-year study period, people who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying. After controlling for prior health status, it was determined that volunteerism accounted for a 44% reduction in mortality. Merely being aware of kindness in oneself and others is also associated with greater well-being. A study that asked participants to count each act of kindness they performed for one week significantly enhanced their subjective happiness. It is important to note that, while research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring about happiness, it has also been found to work in the opposite direction—that happier people are also kinder. The relationship between altruistic behavior and happiness is bidirectional. Studies have found that generosity increases linearly from sad to happy affective states. Studies have also been careful to note that feeling over-taxed by the needs of others has conversely negative effects on health and happiness. For example, one study on volunteerism found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health than helping had a positive one (although positive effects were still significant). Additionally, while generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for people to appreciate the kindness they receive from others. Studies suggest that gratitude goes hand-in-hand with kindness and is also very important for our well-being. A study on the relationship happiness to various character strengths showed that “a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being.”

Increase Altruism:

As social scientists, our goal is to understand human behavior, thus also suggesting ways to improve it. We therefore wonder how we might apply insights from research on altruism to increase altruism.



One way to promote altruism is to reverse those factors that inhibit it. Given that hurried, preoccupied people are less likely to help, can we think of ways to encourage them to slow down and turn their attention outward? If the presence of others diminishes each bystander’s sense of responsibility, how can we enhance responsibility?




Reduce Ambiguity, Increase Responsibility

If Latane and Darley’s decision tree (Figure 14-2) describes the dilemmas bystanders face, then assisting people to interpret an incident correctly and to assume responsibility should increase their involvement. Leonard Bickman and his colleagues (1975, 1977, 1979) tested this presumption in a series of experiments on crime reporting. In each, supermarket or bookstore shoppers witnessed a shoplifting. Some witnesses had seen signs that attempted both to sensitize them to shoplifting and to inform th6m how to report it. But the signs” had little effect. Other witnesses heard a bystander interpret the incident: “Say, look at her. She’s shoplifting. She put that into her purse.” (The bystander then left to look for a lost child.) Still others heard this person add, “We saw it. We should report it. It’s our responsibility.” Both face-to-face comments substantially boosted reporting of the crime.

The potency of personal influence is no longer in doubt. Robert Foss (1978) surveyed several hundred blood donors and found that neophyte donors, unlike veterans, were usually there at someone’s personal invitation. Leonard Jason and his collaborators (1984) confirmed that personal appeals for .blood donation are much more effective than posters and media announcements—if the personal appeals come from friends. Nonverbal appeals can also be effective when they are personalized. Mark Snyder and his co-workers (1974) found that hitchhikers doubled the number of ride offers by looking drivers straight in the eye. A personal approach makes one feel less anonymous, more responsible.

Henry Solomon and Linda Solomon (1978; Solomon & others, 1981) confirmed the benefits of reducing anonymity. They found that bystanders who had identified themselves to one another—by name, age, and so forth—were more likely to offer aid to a sick person than were anonymous bystanders. Similarly, when a female experimenter caught the eye of another shopper and gave her a warm smile prior to stepping on an elevator, that shopper was far more likely than other shoppers to offer help when the experimenter later said, “Damn. I’ve left my glasses. Can anyone tell me what floor the umbrellas are on?” Even a trivial momentary conversation with someone—”Excuse me, aren’t you Suzie Spear’s sister?” “No, I’m not”—dramatically increased the person’s later helpfulness.

Helpfulness also increases when one expects later to meet the victim and other witnesses again. Using a laboratory intercom system, Jody Gottlieb and Charles Carver (1980) led University of Miami students to believe they were discussing problems of college living with other students. (Actually, the other discussants were tape-recorded.) When one of the supposed fellow discussants had a choking fit and cried out for help, she was helped most quickly by subjects who believed they would soon be meeting the discussants face-to-face In short, anything that personalizes bystanders—a personal request, eye contact, stating one’s name, anticipation of interaction—increases willingness to help.

Personal treatment probably makes bystanders more self-aware and therefore more attuned to their own altruistic ideals. That people made self-aware by acting in front of a mirror or TV camera exhibit increased consistency between attitudes and actions. By contrast, “deindividoated” people are less responsible. Thus, circumstances promoting self-awareness—name tags, being watched and evaluated., undistracted quiet-should also increase helping. Shelley Duval, Virginia Duval, and Robert Net. (1979) confirmed this. They showed University of Southern California womer their own image on a TV screen or had them complete a biographical questionnaire just before giving them a chance to contribute time and money to people in need. Those made self-aware contributed more. Similarly, pedestrians who have just had their picture taken by someone became more likely to help as-other pedestrian pick up dropped envelopes (Hoover & others, 1983). To be  self-aware, yet not self-preoccupied, makes people more likely to put their ideals into practice.

Guilt and Concern for Self-Image

Earlier we noted that people who feel guilty will act to reduce guilt and restore their self-worth. Can heightening people’s awareness of their transgressions therefore increase desire to help? A Reed College research team led by Richard Katzev (1978) wondered. So when visitors to the Portland Art Museum obeyed a “Please do not touch” sign, experimenters reprimanded some of them: “Please don’t touch the objects. If everyone touches them, they will deteriorate.” Likewise, when visitors to the Portland Zoo fed unauthorized food • the bears, some of them were admonished with, “Hey, don’t feed unauthorized food to the animals. Don’t you know it could hurt them?” In both cases, 58 percent of the now guilt-laden subjects shortly thereafter offered help to another experimenter who had “accidentally” dropped something. Of those not reprimanded, only one-third helped.


People also care about their public image. When Robert Cialdini and his colleagues (1975) asked some of their Arizona State University students to chaperon delinquent children on a zoo trip, only 32 percent agreed to do so. With other students the questioner first made a very large request—that the students commit two years as volunteer counselors to delinquent children. After getting the door-in-the-face in response to this request (all Tefused), the questioner then counteroffered with the chaperoning request, saying, in effect, “OK, if you won’t do that, would you do just this much?” With this technique, nearly twice as many—56 percent—agreed to help.


Cialdini and David Schroeder (1976) offer another practical way to trigger concern for self-image: Ask for a contribution so small that it’s hard to say no without feeling like a Scrooge. When they had a solicitor approach suburbanites and say, “I’m collecting money for the American Cancer Society,” 29 percent contributed an average of $1.44 each. When the solicitor added, “Even a penny will help,” 50 percent contributed, averaging $1.54 each. When James Weyant (1984) repeated this experiment, he found similar results: The “even a penny will help” boosted the number contributing from 39 to 57 percent. And when 6000 people were solicited by mail for the American Cancer Society, those asked for small amounts were more likely to give—and gave no less on average—than those asked for larger amounts (Weyant & Smith, 1987). When approaching previous donors, bigger requests (within reason) do elicit bigger donations (Doob & McLaughlin, 1989). But with door-to-door solicitation, there is more success with requests for small contributions, which are difficult to turn down and still allow an altruistic self-image.


Labeling people as helpful can also strengthen a helpful self-image. After they had made a charitable contribution, Robert Kraut (1973) told some Connecticut women, “You are a generous person.” Two weeks later, these women were more willing than those not so labeled to contribute to a different charity. Likewise, Angelo Strenta and William Dejong (1981) told some students a personality test revealed that “you are a kind, thoughtful person.” These students were later more likely than others to be kind and thoughtful toward a confederate who dropped a stack of computer cards.

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