The Psychology of Altruism

On why altruism is not completely altruistic and yet ultimately good for humanity…

In my discussion on ambition, I left out altruism and in a way that exclusion was intentional. Personal ambition would be directly arising from a personal need whereas altruism by definition is going beyond self and going beyond personal needs. Altruism as coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century literally means ‘to others’. Altruism is thus placing the needs of others before one’s own needs and so characterized by selfless behavior, altruism would in principle not be a cause of ambition. If altruism is placed with personal ambition, that would be a kind of oxymoron. Yet how much of this is true? This requires a psychological scrutiny as well.

The needs of others can definitely drive us to do something and that would be more of a cause or mission rather than ambition. A mission is stronger than personal ambition and a person with mission is usually driven by a conviction that he or she is chosen to do something and no one else can undertake the task. Usually a mission is about a higher purpose like helping a particular group of individuals or spreading a message or simply imparting knowledge or eradicating suffering. A mission in life is very similar to a psychological delusion and a person fired with a mission just like a deluded individual feels that he has been chosen or simply unique and has to complete his real purpose in life. However missions are real and cannot be explained completely with existing psychological theories. Mission is definitely the strongest of psychological traits and a person with a mission cannot be changed in any way and that is why all leaders are very strong in their approach towards what they simply have to do. Although evolutionary psychology like evolutionary biology has delved into the deeper secrets of altruistic behavior in humans, the development of mission has not been explained by psychology adequately.

So, altruism can be of two types – the general altruistic behavior as manifested through simple philanthropy or helping others in daily life and the specific altruistic behavior as manifested through having a specific cause or purpose or definite mission in life.

The first type of altruism is seen in nearly all of us, we all believe in the philosophy of giving, in helping people who are in need and this is reflected in all spheres of life from donating a small amount online or giving a substantial part of your salary to charity or simply helping an old frail woman cross the street when you are in a hurry.

The second type of altruism would be the mission or purpose that I’ve been talking about. It is specific and the individual is driven to fulfill the ultimate purpose of his or her life. The first type of altruism is found in all of us, the second type is found in only a few of us. It is possible to draw out a psychology for both these type of altruistic manifestations.

Biologically altruism is the sacrifice of the reproductive capacity or genetic transmission of a species to help the growth of another. This would be completely against Darwinian evolution as instead of helping one’s own species biological altruism is about helping the growth and survival of other species. So this sort of behavior places animals at reproductive disadvantage and reduces chances of producing a higher number of offspring. There are numerous examples of altruistic behavior among animals like vervet monkeys give out alarm calls whenever they sense the appearance of predators although this way they risk their own lives, among birds there are numerous helper birds that protect young ones of a different species and in the insect colonies like bees, worker bees remain sterile to help the reproductive process of the queen bee. One way the altruistic motives can be dismissed by suggesting that the vervet monkeys are simply reflexive and show spontaneous behavior of fear by giving out alarm calls or that the birds and bees simply maintain their self interest by showing an external altruistic behavior. This sort of explanation would be controversial at least when we try to extrapolate and suggest that humans are also philanthropic and altruistic in general because internally they want something in return and that they are finally or ultimately attending to their own self interest. Is there anything as absolutely selfless behavior? Do parents attend and take care of their young ones hoping that one day when they are too old their children will also take care of them? Do people give away their money to charity hoping that they will be honored? Of course many individuals these days donate anonymously and many would follow a cause without ever revealing their identities, do they have a reason that would be akin to self interest or is there something like absolutely selfless behavior? An anonymous donor would some day want people to know that he was the real donor. But then selfless behavior for the good of others can be explained and we all have in us a part that is selfless and wants to move beyond the confines of our own existence. Why?

Selflessness thus is just that, we want to be greater than what we are, we want to be philanthropic because we want to move beyond the traps of material possessions. The same feeling of selflessness which is found in all of us to a certain degree is also found in missionaries, spiritual leaders or even political leaders to a greater extent because selflessness is a defense against our own insignificance and our own mortality defined by material existence. Of course, I will not move into philosophy here, and sticking to psychology altruism is about a desire to be loved by others and a stage in which there is empathy. In strictly psychoanalytic terms ‘transference’ and ‘counter-transference’ are terms that define the relationship between the patient and the psychotherapist when one understands the feelings of the other. Although psychoanalyst Jung focused on a possible altruistic behavior in spirituality, he still suggested that self seeking may be present, yet according to Jung we seek a balance in energy systems. Considering this a little further, altruism, philanthropy or benevolence may be our unconscious desire to seek balance in ourselves and in the world.

Psychoanalysis in general would consider altruism as self fulfilling behavior although motivational psychology as discussed in the Psychology of Ambition, would suggest that altruism would be more compatible with the self-actualization stage of Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchy of Needs. To repeat briefly, Abraham Maslow developed his theory of hierarchy of needs in which he suggested that the highest needs of humans would be the self actualization needs that is present in all of us and suitably explains altruism.

Yet whether it is the need of a leader fired by a mission to help society or the need of a young man to participate in volunteering, altruism may still have roots in our unconscious needs to live in a better world, to find and develop a balanced society, to extend and expand ourselves to something greater than our own tiny existence. Altruism is still defined by our own needs for a greater or higher purpose in life. Then all this finally suggest that we help others for our own evolutionary advantage so even if altruism apparently looks altruistic, there may be deeper and unconscious egoistic truths that we cannot ignore. When we help and protect others, we ultimately feel protected. There may be nothing like absolute selflessness and even if such a thing exists, it wouldn’t be ultimately good for anyone.