Does True Altruism Exist?


Would you help someone in need, and for what reasons?

What is altruism? Altruism is the exact opposite of egoism. It is the selfless, spontaneous, and costly act of giving or helping another individual who shows distress from being in pain or in need, without the expectation of getting something in return.

3 types of altruism

  1. The altruistic impulse (true altruism) involves spontaneous help
  2. Learned altruism involves a behavior that has been reinforced by positive outcomes
  3. Intentional altruism involves an expectation of reciprocity, and it is basically a selfish act

Let’s consider the altruistic impulse as it is the most true kind of altruism. The altruistic impulse is thought to originate from empathy. Empathy gives us the ability to put ourselves in others’ perspectives. We may feel other people’s pain, so to speak.

Mice who observe other mice scream, may start to scream, too. This is because observing and experiencing emotions activate some of the same regions of the brain via so-called mirror neurons. 

Here are a few examples/anecdotes of altruistic behaviors in animals: 

  • Whales and elephants are known to take care of distressed companions
  • Dolphins are said to free companions from fishermen’s nets
  • A monkey has once tried to rescue a small infant from drowning by sacrificing its own life

It can be difficult to distinguish between the three types of altruistim. We often think that there are egoistic motives behind true altruistic impulses, and vice versa. I like to believe that empathy motivates us to show altruistic behaviors.

Why would some people show altruism? Altruism, including empathy, may have evolved to help us cooperate in groups. That would be an evolutionary advantage. We are specialized for social interaction, and the human brain is wired to connect with others:

“… Genuine altruism, a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interest to help others, including those who are not family members, and not simply in return for anticipated reciprocation in the future, provides the proximate explanation of much of human cooperation.” (Bowles & Gintis, 2013, p. 203).

Photo: Nhoj Leunamme – Resources: de Waal (2008).