The concept of altruism is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Often, an altruistic act puts the needs and desires of others before the needs and desires of the self. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not this exists. The debate centers around the fact that when we do things for others it frequently has positive benefits for ourselves as well.
Big and small acts of charity or volunteerism can usually pad our resumes, help us make new connections, or, at the very least, make us feel good about doing something nice.
Today, there is the added curve-ball of social media – do people attend protests and charity events because they truly believe in the cause, or because they want to be seen doing something “good”? So how do we perform an act that is truly altruistic? Is it even possible?
The Case for An Altruistic Act
An article in The Atlantic details an experiment to determine the motivations behind altruistic acts. The experiment showed babies two videos – one where snacks were distributed evenly and another where they were distributed unevenly.
The babies’ reactions to the videos were measured by how long they looked at the screen, as surprise in nonverbal children can be measured by length of observation. The babies were then brought to a room where they chose to play with one of two toys, and then were asked to share with one of the people conducting the experiment.
The babies split into even thirds: one third were “selfish sharers” and would only let the other person play with the toy they did not choose. Another third were “altruistic sharers” and let the other person join in playing with the preferred toy. The final third did not share at all.
The conclusion of the experiment was drawn largely from the correlation between babies who were surprised by unfair treatment, and babies who were willing to share their preferred toys. According to the article, babies who understood “fair” behavior were more likely to share altruistically, and since babies do not have a concept of reciprocity, they were sharing simply because it was the right thing to do in their minds.
The Selfish Act of Caring for Others
Conversely, the existence of altruism in adults has been debated since the time of Aristotle. Neel Burton talks about this debate in his article for Psychology Today, “Does Altruism Exist.”
Burton explains that “Altruistic acts are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honor or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if neither of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.” By this perspective, even Mother Theresa was acting selfishly as she had dedicated her life to a higher power and acted in His name.
Burton goes on to explain that if the self-interest is “accidental,” then perhaps the act could be considered altruistic in its conscious nature. However, the self-satisfaction is instinctive, meaning that we only consider the act at all because we unconsciously know it has benefit to ourselves.
A celebrity may make an anonymous donation to a charity, but they do so because they know they have money to spare, and they know that remaining anonymous helps them avoid having their motivations questioned. Therefore, their act is not truly altruistic at all.
The debate on altruism continues, but it certainly should not stop us from acting kindly towards others. Whether we act in our own self-interest or out of the goodness of our hearts, the result is the same: we have contributed to a better tomorrow.