5 MIN READ | Positive Psychology

The Psychology of Altruism – An Illogical Beauty

Jake Lizarraga

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Jake Lizarraga, (2020, August 7). The Psychology of Altruism – An Illogical Beauty. Psychreg on Positive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/psychology-of-altruism/
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Giving is a concept so contradictory that some argue it shouldn’t exist to begin with. From an evolutionary standpoint, it would seem as though selfishness should have prevailed long ago. Those who prioritise themselves over others should have fared better in prehistoric times. Yet, somehow, it prevailed.

To be clear, we’re not talking about collaboration. The idea of working together to get through harsh winters holds water as even cavemen needed numbers to endure. However, selflessly sacrificing a personal advantage to help someone in a poorer situation isn’t as pragmatic.

Survival of the fittest has always been the name of the game – with reproduction being the ultimate goal for a species and its biology dictating it as such. In theory, organisms will only do what maximises their reproductive potential. But we find a totally different story in practice.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ‘An organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce.’

That begs the question, why do we still accept these costs to ourselves in the pursuit of helping others? Let’s dive deeper into the very question that Charles Darwin himself pondered in The Descent of Man (1871) to find out.

Everyday altruism

When we hear the word altruism we often think of someone diving in front of a car to save a child or donating billions of dollars that Bill Gates cough for the benefit of others. That being said, there are subtler examples that are far more common.

Even something as simple as holding the door open for a stranger is an act of altruism. You save them from expending effort to open the door or sustaining an injury if it swings closed on them.

In exchange for that, you’ve sacrificed time out of your day. Only a few seconds, sure, but over years that time could’ve accumulated to get you a fatter savings account (if you had put it towards work) or better health (if you spent your days exercising instead of helping others.)


We’ve covered altruism in the light of mundane but helpful acts. The logical progression is to move on to an area of discussion that seems to make its way into almost every topic: finance. Specifically, fundraisers.

Popular websites like GoFundme or even nonprofits like charity: they all rely on fundraising to function. They are literally platforms that help you lower your net worth so that people you’ve never met can enjoy the fruits of your labour.

From a purely pragmatic set of eyes, it seems nonsensical.

But humans aren’t purely pragmatic, and that’s a very good thing. Imagine what kind of world we’d live in if everyone only had it out for themselves if people walked by those unfortunate enough to slowly die of famine while they enjoyed their luxurious smartphones guilt-free. Don’t get me wrong, that does happen, but at least it isn’t universal.


A powerful word, and the root of many altruistic actions. Someone giving money to a homeless person on the street isn’t pragmatic, but their ability to empathise with how much that human being must be struggling drives them to help.

This is also why people are more likely to donate to those who need medical interventions than someone fundraising for their first iPhone. Easing suffering is more compelling than causing joy. Why not look at a real, ongoing fundraiser to better grasp this point?

Stroke Patient Denied Treatment Due to Lack of Moneyreads the headline. We’re looking at someone whose life is at greater risk simply because they don’t have enough money to get immediate treatment. As humans, our humanity instantly reacts to scenarios like this.

Feelings of injustice, sorrow, and an urge to help immediately surface.

That’s why, even during times of financial uncertainty, people continue to share their hard-earned resources with people they don’t know – both through online means and in-person encounters.

What goes around comes around

On an individual level, from a purely biological perspective, altruism makes no sense; it never will. But society is about more than looking at the small picture or optimising your reproductive success, it’s about growth as a united front.

Helping others may seem like a silly way to hinder your own success, but it’s a net positive on both ends as it makes you feel fulfilled. Fulfilled because your efforts have enabled you to help someone in need. Just the thought of making a difference is empowering.

In a universe as vast as ours, it can be easy to seem insignificant, but there’s no moment better at helping you realise that you can make a difference than capitalising on an opportunity to help someone else.

Again, this benefit is mutual. You’re reminded that your life has a purpose and lasting positive impacts while the person you helped gets a moment of relief from their otherwise unrelenting trials – something they probably haven’t felt in years.

This could drive them to pay it forward by helping others once they can. That ripple effect is a beauty that everyone can appreciate – whether you’re a psychologist, philosopher, author, or billionaire philanthropist who stumbled upon this article.

Evolutionary justification

For a more scientific answer to the original question of why helping others wasn’t prohibited by biological constraints, we need to look at the concept of reciprocal altruism. The idea is that by helping others now they can help us in the future should we need it.

By helping someone else, we have boosted their odds of survival while simultaneously increasing our own chances of surviving unforeseen obstacles and keeping our reproductive success at its peak.

While reciprocal altruism is no longer the driving force behind most acts of selfless kindness, it’s likely a big factor in what made the behaviour prominent in many species even beyond humans. Those who partake in reciprocal altruism have higher odds (theoretically) of reproducing.

Their offspring then continues the trend. The concept makes altruism and evolution compatible since, at least in this form of it, there’s a tangible benefit to those who don’t live a selfish life. It’s like evolution filters out undiluted selfishness, albeit not for moral reasons.

You might be wondering how assisting strangers fits into the reciprocal altruism theory, but a spot for it exists. By helping someone despite not knowing them, they assume that this action may lead others to help them in the future whenever needed because they are seen as good.

Before leaving the evolutionary discussion, let’s look at a few animals with altruistic tendencies.

  • Birds. When a predator is spotted, birds will alarm their nearby peers even if this could attract attention to themselves and threaten their own safety. It’s clear that humans aren’t the only ones willing to lay down on the wire for others.
  • Baboons. Male baboons will threaten any predators that come across their troop, protecting other members until the danger passes. While these males would be safer if they cut and run, they choose to stick it out for the good of others.
  • Bats. Altruism amidst famine is just as common in bats as it is in humans. When an individual bat has a successful night of feeding, it will regurgitate food for a companion that was less fortunate in the hours prior – donating the nutrition it worked hard to obtain.
  • Dolphins. When dolphins see an injured or sick animal, they swim under them and push them to the surface to help them breathe. Not only does this use up some of their energy reserves but lingering in an area increases the risk of coming across a predator
  • Slime moulds. One could argue that primates and dolphins are intelligent creatures and thus more likely to engage in such behaviour. However, slime moulds (a low-level organism) exhibit the same properties. When a lack of food arises, some cells sacrifice themselves to save others.

You can make altruism ubiquitous

No good deed goes unpunished? No. No sacrifice goes unrewarded – however long it may take or whatever form it may come in. Now that you know all about the importance of altruism, consider taking the next opportunity to help someone you come across.

In fact, the fundraiser we mentioned earlier is still ongoing so if saving the life of a stroke patient is something you’d feel good about then feel free to donate whatever you can. Even a dollar makes a difference because every act of kindness adds up.

Remember, helping is a privilege, not a burden.

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