Altruism among humans

This paper presents an examination of the phenomenon of ‘altruism’ among humans. Altruism is defined as a behaviour that may be to one’s advantage but is also to the advantage of others. The questions of why we behave this way or what motivates us to behave in this manner and the relevance to society today are the focus of this paper. Various research and theories has explained why altruistic behaviour is undertaken intentionally in the human world.

Introduction We often read or hear about acts of generosity and courage, such as, fund raisers or concerts to help homeless people, the fostering of a child and sponsoring his or her education, or of volunteers risking their lives to help victims in incidents like September 11 terrorist attack in the United States. We could have donated some money to orphanages or cared for a wounded dog. Such humane acts are defined by Psychologists as ‘altruism’ (Moghaddam, 1998). Altruistic acts could be unselfish or done for personal gain or egoistic reasons. Indeed in a psychological paradigm, psychologists believe that true altruistic behaviour does not exist (Moghaddam, 1998).

But how do we account for the behaviour of Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi and many other unselfish acts of human endeavours? In order to explore this we have to understand the ‘person variable’ and ‘situational variable’ motivating the altruistic act (Simons, Kalichman & Santrock, 1994). As we are aware behaviour is determined by personal and situational variables. A person’s ability to empathise with the needy or to feel responsible for another’s welfare has great impact on altruistic behaviour. Situations influence the strength of the altruistic motivation.

Reciprocity and exchange are important aspects of altruism (Simons, Kalichman & Santrock, 1994). Humans give and receive from others everywhere. Reciprocity is the basic principle of every religion in the world for example, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam (Brosnahan, 2003). To act altruistically, requires consciousness and caring, and similarly, pet owners can often cite altruistic behaviour or at least conscious acts of kindness on the part of cats and dogs (Simons, Kalichman & Santrock, 1994).

Another good example would be the nursing, profession founded on the notion of helping people, sometimes even at a cost to nurses themselves. There are many ways people show altruism. To explain why we do altruistic acts like volunteering, donating or raising funds, we need to distinguish between four different forms of altruism which are observed in humans – that shown towards kin, a partner, a friend, and individual who does not fit into these categories (http://www. theunityofknowledge. org/the_evolution_of_altruism/introduction. htm, 2003) Of the several types of altruism a main focus has been on ‘heroic altruism’ (Moghaddam, 1998).

It is a short term intervention requiring physical action and tends to fit more the masculine gender. On the other hand ‘Nurturant altruism’ requires more patience, listening and a caring attitude with long term involvement. This more closely fits the image of the traditional feminine gender (Moghaddam, 1998). The ‘Bystander’ effect greatly influences helping behaviour, because of common ignorance of bystanders and assumptions about other bystanders’ actions. Each person’s scope of responsibilities can decrease in the presence of others ( Moghaddam, 1998).

In order for Bystander to help he or she has to posses social skills to interpret the situation and take appropriate actions (Moghaddam, 1998). Initially from a theoretical perspective if a person knows how to overcome obstacles to he or she giving help, subsequently other people start questioning whether the helping behaviour was true altruism (Moghaddam, 1998). A later there was a theory of Daniel Batson – ’empathy-altruism’, believes that people help out of a genuine desire(Moghaddam, 1998).

Other theories propose that altruistic behaviour is egoistic and put the hypothesis that helping behaviour is a way to repair a helper’s image (Moghaddam, 1998). Methodology An interview was conducted with a woman who volunteers her services with meals on wheels and has done nearly sixteen years. She is a retired school teacher living alone. I assumed that her altruistic behaviour had a self fulfilling motive. Therefore I chose her and I wanted to clarify or confirm my assumption. In order to facilitate my focus interviewee was given ten questions asking about her volunteering profile, and her motivating factors. This interview created awareness of other influencing factors motivating her altruistic behaviour.

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