Philosophers throughout the ages have debated whether humans actually intend to perform altruistic actions, actions that are beneficial to others and costly to the actor, without any clear resolution. In recent decades, psychologists have addressed the long-standing philosophical debate over the existence of altruism, usually defined as unselfish concern for the welfare of others, with empirical studies. Categorizing an action as altruistic often implies that the decision to perform the action was not influenced by consideration for the self or the possible benefits to the self that may accrue from performing the action.
Psychological Research On Helping
Psychologists have studied helping behavior from a variety of perspectives. For example, Latane and Darley have developed a five-step cognitive model of bystander intervention. These steps consist of: (a) noticing the event, (b) interpreting the event as requiring help, (c) assuming personal responsibility, (d) choosing a way to help, and (e) implementing the decision. This model has been shown to be applicable to both emergencies and nonemergency situations. Behaviorists have demonstrated that helping behaviors can be increased by direct reinforcement and modeling, and social psychologists have shown that helping is more likely to occur when the rewards of helping outweigh the costs. Psychologists have also uncovered characteristics of the target that increase the chances of helping, such as attraction based on attractive physical appearance, friendly behavior or personal qualities, and similar racial characteristics.
Recent Psychological Research On Altruism
Batson and colleagues’ empathy-altruism hypothesis proposes that a truly altruistic motivation can be evoked by empathic concern toward another person for whom the benefit is directed. Actions based solely on the motivation to benefit another are proposed to result from a series of cognitive events. In the enabling stage, the observer takes the perspective of the needy target, which may be stimulated by perceived similarity between oneself and the other, by instructions to take the other’s perspective, or by an attachment such as kinship, friendship, or prior contact. This leads to an emotional response of empathic concern, including feelings of sympathy, warmth, tenderness, and compassion, resulting in a desire to improve the other’s welfare, rather than one’s own welfare.
Although altruist advocates admit that human motivation is frequently for self-benefit, they see the need for a pluralistic explanation of helping behaviors that includes both altruism and egoism. Studies supporting the empathy-altruism hypothesis have systematically varied on whether individuals can only obtain egoistic goals by helping, or whether they can escape from the situation and obtain the egoistic goals without helping. These studies purportedly demonstrate that at least some people have helping intentions that are not explained by egoistic motivations, such as the relief of personal distress (as proposed by Aquinas and Hobbes), escaping public shame for not helping, the relief of sadness, and the desire to make oneself happy.
Other researchers assume psychological egoism, the thesis that people always try to act in ways that benefit themselves. Cialdini and associates have proposed that it is the sense of self–other overlap, or “oneness,” between the helper and the individual in need that motivates helping, rather than empathy. Helping others with whom one feels commonality would not be selfless because it leads to a more favorable mental state. Egoist advocates suggest that empathic concern is an emotional signal of oneness and that empathy per se at best leads to superficial helping.
Studies examining whether the effect of empathic concern can be eliminated when the sense of oneness with the target, or self–other overlap, is accounted for have produced contradictory results. One philosophical objection to the egoist argument is that seeing the other as part of the self is in itself altruistic. The perceived overlap implies that the self and other share a common fate, so that resources and other assistance may be shared to maximize outcomes for more than just the individual.
Understanding Altruism In An Evolutionary Framework
Integrating concepts from evolutionary theory enhances the psychological framework for understanding altruistic helping intentions. An evolutionary approach promotes the understanding of affect, cognition, motivation, and behavior as expressions of functional, adaptive processes that evolved through natural and sexual selection to solve problems in our ancestral environments. The altruism debate may be clarified by disentangling proximate motivations and ultimate selection pressures. An evolutionary framework acknowledges the possibility of both altruistic and egoistic motivations from the perspective of the individual. From an evolutionary perspective, subjective experiences underlying an adaptation can vary, as long as they reliably lead to adaptive behaviors. The underlying motive or subjective experience of the individual is less important than the consequences of their actions. This allows for the possibility of behaviors that are altruistic in terms of costs and benefits to the donor, although egoistic in terms of the benefit to the genes shared by the individuals.
William Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory explained that by assisting in a time of need, one could help his or her relative become an ancestor of offspring with similar genes. Kin selection, a genetically influenced tendency to differentially help relatives, is likely to spread across a population when the cost in reproductive fitness to the donor is less than the product of the fitness benefit to the recipient and the proportion of genes that the donor and recipient share. Nepotistic acts encouraged by kin selection include the altruism advocates’ example of a mother rushing to help her injured child.
Consistent with evolutionary theory, the experience of oneness or empathy could arise as a consequence of attachment-related cues (kinship, friendship, familiarity) that signaled the potential for relatively high genetic commonality in our ancestral environment. The psychological states provoked by these cues could increase the chances of the needy individuals receiving assistance, enhancing the survival and replication of genes influencing the psychological capacities for oneness and empathy. A number of studies have found support for predictions derived from kin selection in psychological mechanisms influencing helping, behavioral intentions to help, and actual helping behaviors.
Kin selection is not the only recognized evolutionary pathway for altruistic actions. Trivers’ theory of reciprocal altruism predicts that altruistic behaviors will also be a function of beliefs about the recipient’s likelihood of reciprocating. The exchange of resources and support in times of need is adaptive owing to benefits conferred to the viability of the group as a whole. Solitary altruistic actions will occur because the donors may someday find themselves in need and could expect to benefit from help. As long as this occurs, altruistic actions benefiting nonrelatives will occur. The social environment in the ancestral environment encouraged the development of reciprocal altruism because the relative social isolation increased the chances that other altruists would benefit from others’ altruistic behavior. One recent study found that cognitive mechanisms facilitating reciprocal altruism accounted for the greatest portion of the variance helping intentions, more than all other effects combined.
The mental events facilitating reciprocity are usually depicted as cognitive mechanisms evaluating the likelihood that the target would provide help if conditions in the situation were reversed. In recent years, this cognitive perspective has been supplemented by the recognition of emotional pathways that are consistent with the adaptive framework of evolutionary psychology. Emotional bonding with others promotes commitment to helpful actions that are performed for the benefit of the other individual, rather than for an expected favor in return. Over time, individuals may benefit from having maintained these relationships, rather than severing ties if helping actions are not immediately reciprocated. Those individuals who eventually find themselves in need will gain from the more elastic form of reciprocal altruism facilitated by emotional commitments. Of course, repeated violations of the norm of reciprocity may attenuate emotional commitment with another.
Altruistic actions performed for “the good of the species” are usually rejected because natural selection operates more effectively within breeding populations than between them. Since the 1960s, arguments for group-selecting altruistic arguments have been discounted by most evolutionary biologists. Assuming that the tendency to sacrifice oneself for the sake of one’s group varies among individuals within groups, those with more selfish tendencies will survive better than their more altruistic neighbors. This would lead the group to eventually become more selfish in nature. In recent years, more sophisticated arguments for group selection have revived this debate. However, the newer group selection models mirror those of individual level selection; therefore, they can be mathematically transformed into each other. It is also possible that genuine group-selecting altruistic actions have been generated from cultural influences and that groups benefiting from these actions are more successful than other groups, although this has not resulted in novel genetic adaptations for helping behaviors.
In conclusion, actions that are altruistic from the perspective of the proximate mental motivation of individuals are consistent with evolutionary adaptation. Proximally altruistic mechanisms may operate within a genetically selfish system. Actions that are genetically altruistic, those that reduce one’s inclusive genetic fitness, will be extremely rare. Studies have indicated that psychologically altruistic and egoistic pathways for helping behaviors may operate simultaneously.
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