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Living Positively

Dr Edward Hoffman
The Psychology of Altruism
By Dr Edward Hoffman

On a globe that daily witnesses countless acts of conflict both large and small, our human capacity for altruism seems more important than ever. Not surprisingly, psychologists today are increasingly interested in understanding this vital caregiving phenomenon, certainly with the hope that such knowledge will lead to a more harmonious humanity. The rapid growth of positive psychology has amplified interest in humane behavior. But such an interest is hardly new. More than sixty years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow criticized the emphasis on sickness and pathology regarding human nature and declared that “kindness, generosity, benevolence, and charity have too little place in the social psychology textbooks.” Asserting that psychology was fixated on the negative aspects of social life, he rhetorically asked, “Where are the researches on unselfishness?”  

Maslow’s challenge remains highly relevant. Little empirical knowledge yet exists about socially benevolent behavior, especially from the standpoint of its recipients. For this reason, I’ve been leading a team of international researchers guided by Maslow’s bold vision. Before discussing our recent findings, let’s examine how the field has progressed since its inception.  

Altruism: A brief history of scientific study 

The term “altruism” derives from the Latin word “alter” (“other”), which literally translated means “other-ism.” The concept was brought into the social sciences by the French philosopher-sociologist August Comte in the mid-19th century as the antonym of selfishness; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded date for its usage is 1853. Since then, the concept has remained part of international social and natural science terminology. In Comte’s highly influential view, people have two distinct motives in life: egoism and altruism. Although Comte viewed most human behavior as self-serving, he regarded the unselfish desire to help others as a motivator, too. Similar ideas were later advanced by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in The Division of Labor in Society. In this 1893 work, he argued that altruism as well as egoism have always existed in human history, for community requires that individuals live together with some degree of mutual understanding and cooperation. Though Durkheim’s notion carried considerable philosophical weight, he never defined altruism in measurable terms or sought to elucidate it empirically. 

Several decades later, altruism was catapulted into social scientific and popular interest by the scholarly activities of Pitirim Sorokin. A Russian émigré who helped to build American sociology in the 1920s and 1930s, he became devoted to the study of altruism after the horrific death and destruction of World War II. Establishing the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism in the late 1940s, Sorokin hoped to ignite scientific study of altruism in the United States and abroad. In 1950, his book Altruistic Love highlighted the lives and practices of eminent altruists—including both Christian saints and American good neighbors.

Among those Sorokin influenced was Maslow, who, in 1955, became a co-founder of Sorokin’s new Research Society for Creative Altruism. Maslow, who had studied directly with physician Alfred Adler in the 1930s, shared Adler’s opinion that compassion, friendship, and cooperation are basic aspects of the healthy human personality—and was quite interested in launching scientific research to support that view. Unfortunately, as Maslow soon discovered, Sorokin’s organization was poorly run and able to accomplish little. By 1970, both Sorokin and Maslow were dead, and psychological research on altruism languished for more than twenty years.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the empirical study of altruism revived as a result of two separate streams: the first involved “hero” research, focusing, for example, on the brave persons who saved European Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War, and on famous exceptional altruists like Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa. Such studies were essentially anecdotal and had meager scientific grounding. Only one consistent finding was rooted in objective measurement, and that was that individuals with an “altruistic personality” tend to score higher than others on empathy and personal sense of responsibility.       

The second stream came from the growing sub-field of evolutionary psychology, as adherents argued that cooperative and benevolent behaviors among individuals carry a significant advantage in natural selection for human group survival. For example, according to such scientists, the mother who sacrifices her life to save her children may actually be engaging in genetically adaptive behavior—as the copies of her genes that reside in them will in the long run lead to greater genetic fitness than if she alone had survived.

Although altruism has regained increased psychological attention, most related empirical investigations have focused experimentally on helping behaviors in the laboratory. Typically, such studies have examined helping between complete strangers in a brief, one-time interaction. Other studies have administered self-report surveys to various categories of individuals, such as ministers, nurses, and college students in diverse fields. While undeniably shedding some useful empirical light, the generalizability of these studies to situations of “real-life” altruism seems limited.

The benefits of experiencing altruism  

During the past two years, I’ve led an international team that has studied the psychological benefits of experiencing unexpected altruism. For though psychologists have amassed a solid body of research on the “helper’s high”—that is, the emotional uplift in performing an act of compassion or generosity—almost nothing is scientifically known about how altruism affects the recipients of such behavior. My colleagues and I chose to study such experiences in Venezuela, a country today with a devastated economy and one of the world’s highest murder rates—coupled with a widespread collapse of civil institutions. About 150 people (all but eight were native Venezuelans) responded to our online questionnaire, which asked if they had ever received unexpected altruism—and if so, to rate its impact on their subsequent view of life. They were also asked to rate its effect on ten psychological aspects: optimism about human nature, trust in social relationships, appreciation for life, sense of gratitude, self-esteem, sense of being valued by others, empathy for others, motivation to help others, energy and enthusiasm in general, and religious faith.

It is striking that of the almost two-thirds of participants who had such an experience, the vast majority reported that it had a big impact. Indeed, nearly 30% reported that the experience very strongly affected their view of life. Many specifically expressed the powerful emotion of gratitude. For example, a woman in her thirties recounted that, “Some years ago, I got sick and my younger sister took care of my children and me. For a month, she lived with us and took charge of everything including cooking and cleaning. I am very thankful for her actions.” More dramatically, a man in his twenties related that, “Last year, I was coming back home at night and I was shot by thugs. My neighbor’s son was studying medicine and he managed to remove a bullet using kitchen tools and stitch me up. The next morning, he drove me to the university hospital where he worked, where they completed the treatment. Thanks to his courage, I am alive.” And a woman in her fifties recalled that “Six years ago, my daughter was running in an open space and fell. She injured her head and was bleeding. The first person who passed by was a woman my age. She helped and calmed me, called a taxi for me, and even paid the driver. She solved everything for me without receiving any compensation except for my gratitude.”

The more intense peoples’ experience, the greater its effect on all ten of the above aspects—except for gratitude (a result which may have been due to a statistical artifact). In other words, the experience of receiving unexpected altruism brought significant emotional benefits, strengthening a variety of personality traits and attitudes linked to wellbeing. In light of growing research on the health consequences of possessing a benevolent rather than a cynical view of humanity, I can think of very few interpersonal experiences that yield such potent pay-offs emotionally, attitudinally, and even physically.

More than seventy years ago, Maslow pioneered in explicating the importance of one’s worldview in determining his or her behavior. Against the backdrop of World War II, he sharply differentiated persons with an authoritarian worldview, and who therefore identify “kindness with weakness” and seek power over others, from those with a democratic worldview and who focus instead on “social problems, intellectual problems [and] problems of the real world.” For concerned men and women living in a vastly different global era, among our greatest tasks today is still to help people view each other more benevolently. The scientific study of altruism is eminently relevant to this goal.

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org