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Monday, December 28, 2009

Selfish or Altruistic

Views: 934
Comments: 18
This blog is mainly in response to a question from CaptainCrunk about the Psychology of Altruism and its implications for economics. I will only attempt to detail the current opinion in Psychology about Altruism, I have no idea what it means for economics, that's for economists to decide :p:
This is adapted from some notes I had and some new stuff. References refer to books as I haven't got the time to find each individual journal article.

Throughout history we are presented with examples of astonishing feats of helping behaviour. During the Vietnam War Medals of Honour were awarded to sixty three veterans who used their own bodies to shield their comrades from grenades (Myres, 2005, p. 492). During World War Two Meip Gies shielded the family of Anne Frank from discovery, risking his life in doing so (Batson, 1991, p. 1). In everyday life also we see examples of altruism all around us, from volunteer fire departments to televised appeals for overseas aid to simply comforting a friend going through a tough time.
However there are also examples of times when people fail to help, from the countless people who step over the homeless on our streets to the thousands of crimes that go on without any bystander intervention each day. The most famous example of this is probably the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964, an event apparently witnessed by 38 people, none of whom intervened to prevent it until it was too late (Hogg, 1998, p. 485). This murder shocked many and provoked a great deal of research into altruistic and helping behaviour.
In order to discuss whether people are ultimately altruistic or selfish we must first define exactly what we mean by the term altruistic. Altruistic behaviour falls under the broader category of pro-social behaviour, which can be defined as any voluntary behaviour which is intended to be beneficial to another person (Hogg, 1998, p. 484). Altruism however is a very specific form of pro-social behaviour. Altruism is a form of helping behaviour which does not take into regard one’s own interests (Myers, 2005, p.476). Although an altruistic act is not motivated by self interest there may still be rewards for acting altruistically, but an act is still altruistic provided the motivation was not to obtain these rewards (Hogg, 1998, 484). For example donating money to charity in order to gain recognition for doing so would not be an altruistic behaviour as it is motivated by self interest. We call these acts egoistic. Edward Wilson has contested that Altruistic behaviour must also come at a cost to the altruist (Wispé, 1978, p. 11). However Psychologists such as C. Daniel Batson have rejected this assertion on the basis that it takes focus away from the question of motivation and puts it onto consequences and that it ignores the possibility of increased benefit (such as Hero status) with increased cost (Batson, 1991, p. 6).
This leads us to the question: Are any helping behaviours actually motivated by altruism or are they all egoistic to some degree? Western philosophy would be inclined to agree that all these acts are ultimately selfish (Post, 2002, p. 89) and there is significant psychological evidence to suggest that a great amount of what we commonly refer to as altruistic behaviour is in fact egoistically motivated. One such explanation is that of mood enhancement or maintenance. Here it is proposed that a reason for helping can be a person’s desire to enhance their mood or maintain a good mood. Studies of the behaviour of guilt ridden people offer an example of this. In an experiment conducted by McMillen and Austin, students at Mississippi State University, participants were induced to lie to the experimenter about their experience with a test they were about to take. Participants were then asked to help with grading questionnaires and it was found that those who had lied volunteered an average of sixty three minutes of their time, over an hour longer than those who did not lie (Myers, 2005, p. 480). In doing this they redeemed their self image. Further evidence is provided by the fact that in an experiment conducted by Baumann, Cialdini and Manucia in which participants who believed that their negative mood had been fixed using drugs and could not be improved for thirty minutes did not help more than students who had not had a negative mood induced (Tesser, 1995, p. 349).
Social norms also play a role in influencing helping behaviour. These explanations are also egoistic rather than altruistic. The first social norm is the “reciprocity norm”. This is the idea that if someone helps us we should in turn help them, and vice versa. Alvin Gouldner believed this to be a universal norm, which is supported by its presence in many different cultures (Tesser, 1995, p. 350). We see evidence of this norm in an experiment conducted by Whatley in which he found that more university students made a pledge to a charity that had given them candy (Myers, 2005, p. 484). It has also been shown in experiments by Wilke and Lanzetta that people reciprocate more depending on how much help they feel they have received (Tesser, 1995, p. 350).
However the reciprocity norm does not explain altruism towards those who cannot reciprocate: children or the severely impoverished for example. The “social-responsibility norm” is used to explain this. This is the belief that people should always help those who need help regardless of their ability to reciprocate. This norm however does appear to be conditional based on how deserving we feel the person in need of help to be. We are less likely to help for example if we perceive the problem to be self inflicted (Myers, 2005, p. 485). It is felt by some psychologists, such as Berkowitz, that the effect of the social responsibility norm is “greatly exaggerated” (Tesser, 1995, p. 351). B.F. Skinner also points out that we often fail to help those who cannot reciprocate, including the elderly, the disabled and those with mental illnesses, who are even mistreated (Wispé, 1978, p. 250).
Another explanation of altruistic behaviour is that it provides an evolutionary benefit. This sociobiological explanation also supports the idea that humans are ultimately selfish. The idea that it is possible for altruism to be naturally selected for in evolution is put forward by sociobiologists such as Richard Dawkins, who point out that although our genes are selfish in their desire to be passed on that does not mean that they will always cause us to behave selfishly. Dawkins believes that there are a number of limited situations in which acting altruistically may increase the likelihood of our genes being passed on (Dawkins, 1989, p. 10). The first aspect of this is known as Kin Selection. This is the idea that by helping family one can increase the likelihood of one’s own genes being passed on because of shared genes. For example because on average brother’s share half their genes an act that does over twice as much good to a brother as it does harm to the helper will increase the likelihood of the helper’s genes being passed on. This relationship can be expressed mathematically in the form K > 1/R where K is the fitness gained by the recipient of the help and R is that given up by the helper (Boorman, 1980, p. 14). This idea is supported in experiments with twins in which it has been shown that identical twins are 50% more likely to co-operate for mutual gain when playing for money (Myers, 2005, p. 487). From a sociobiological perspective the reciprocity norm provides a basis for helping behaviour between unrelated people.
Can we take from this then that altruistic behaviour is inbuilt into humans? Not necessarily. Just because it can be shown mathematically that selection for an altruism gene is possible does not mean that such a gene exists, as pointed out by Batson (Tesser, 1995, p. 345). Dawkins also points out that even if a gene does exist that does not mean that it would have a greater effect on our behaviour than social learning, it may just make it easier to learn altruistic behaviour (Dawkins, 1989, p. 10).
All of the examples of altruism so far discussed have been egoistically motivated, i.e. inherently selfish. However a case can be made for genuine altruism. This altruism is empathy based and referred to as the empathy-altruism hypothesis. The ability to empathise seems to be inbuilt an is exhibited before children will act prosocially, for example children under the age of 20 months will align themselves to another’s distress and exhibit signs of this such as crying (Smith, 2007, p. 247). Batson is one of the leading proponents of the empathy-altruism hypothesis and has conducted numerous experiments concerning it. First, in order to separate it from egoistic helping they conducted an experiment where a woman was supposedly being electrocuted. The observer was then offered the opportunity to switch places with her. Those who had been led to believe that the subject was a kindred spirit (thereby having their altruism aroused) were almost all willing to exchange places (Myres, 2005, p. 491). Cialdini and others have pointed out that this may be a simple mood-boosting exercise. However the fact that even when participants believe their mood has been set by mood fixing drugs they continue to help supports the idea of altruistically motivated helping (Myres, 2005, p. 492).
Cialdini has pointed out that no experiment rules out all egoistic explanations, but this can be accused explanation-by naming and has thus fallen into disrepute (Myers, 2005, 479). Batson claims that in more than 25 experiments results have consistently shown patterns predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis and failed to support any egoistic alternatives (Post, 2002, p. 98). It would seem that empathy can indeed provoke genuine altruism in people, where any benefit is simply a by-product of an unselfish desire to act in someone else’s benefit.
So to conclude I would like to say that while it seems apparent that much of what we call altruism is actually cleverly disguised egoism. Whether the motive be to fix one’s mood, gain external rewards, avoid punishment, propagate our genes or gain social currency it seems that indeed much of what we consider selfless helping is in fact motivated by self interest. However, while this is true that does not mean that human’s are inherently selfish. Batson makes a compelling case for the existence of a genuine form of altruism, and evidence, while not being entirely conclusive, would seem to be on his side. It could be said therefore that while humans are greatly motivated by egoistic concerns we do also appear to have the capacity to act selflessly under certain circumstances, particularly when our empathy is aroused.

Batson, C.D. (1991). The Altruism Question, Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Boorman, S.A. (1980). The Genetics of Altruism. London: Academic Press
Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hogg, M.A., & Vaughan, G.M. (1998). Social Psychology. London: Prentice Hall Europe.
Myers, D.G. (2005). Social Psychology. London: McGraw-Hill.
Post, S.G., Underwood, L.G., Schloss, J.P., & Hurlbut, W.B. (2002). Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, P.K., Cowie, H., Blades, M. (2007). Understanding Children’s Development. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Tesser, A. (1995). Advanced Social Psychology. London: McGraw-Hill.
Wispé, L. (Ed.). (1978). Altruism, Sympathy, and Helping. London: Academic Press.



2:10 pm - 18 comments - 19 Kudos - Report!
Comments
LordBishek wrote on Dec 28th, 2009 3:05pm

Excellent writing, dude

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leeb rocks wrote on Dec 28th, 2009 3:58pm

Easily one of the best blogs I've read on this site. The brilliant writing is no doubt helped by the fact that it is an extremely fascinating subject.

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captaincrunk wrote on Dec 28th, 2009 5:25pm

:cheers:

Thank you! And thank you even more for the sources!

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SOADrox429 wrote on Dec 28th, 2009 7:42pm

Awesome blog.

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dust989 wrote on Jan 11th, 2010 7:54pm

very interesting article

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SlackerBabbath wrote on Jan 18th, 2010 12:13am

Great blog mate.

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Excalaber wrote on Jan 28th, 2010 6:01am

Interesting! Cool blog.

Ex.

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Sirwinston89 wrote on Feb 1st, 2010 1:30am

Great article man. Not to nitpick, but volunteer firefighters aren't actually volunteers. Its actually a paid-per-call sort of position, but they're called volunteers as they arent full time employees and don't live in the fire hall.

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johnny butt wrote on Feb 2nd, 2010 1:34am

I recommend you read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead if you haven't already. The philosophy she proposes in the novel implies that egoism is of more merit than altruism. I found the contradiction of our society's more values in the book to be quite interesting.

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Ur all $h1ta wrote on Feb 3rd, 2010 12:56am

johnny butt wrote on Feb 2nd, 2010 at 12:34pm :
I recommend you read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead if you haven't already. The philosophy she proposes in the novel implies that egoism is of more merit than altruism. I found the contradiction of our society's more values in the book to be quite interesting.

I've read enough of Rand to know that her ideas have little merit. She amounts to little more than a sophist, and there are good reasons why her work isn't taught in most philosophy courses.
Self interest isn't something to be celebrated, nor does it work very well as a long term philosophy for society or for individuals.

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outlet wrote on Feb 17th, 2010 9:20pm

But that seems an untruth given that cross-cultural psych finds that peoples of industrialized nations develop a tendency for individualistic cultures whereas the less developed countries lean toward collectivistic cultures. I would conjecture that the emergence of the working class as a result of rapid industrialization spurs the crisis of self identity. That Rand was part of the Soviet machine that created the paradox of promoting rapid industrialization while rigidly stifling individualism would allow that her concepts deal more with the fallacies of the left extrema of the social prism rather than proposing an applicable social model. Although I wouldn't argue that many author types are avid promoters of the self instead of the collective good - undoubtedly the sublimation of introverted people that are quick with a pen. Still, I would suggest that although the concept of self interest is not amiable to the idealist, that it is regardless a very real and practical driving social force in modern society.

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LedDaveZeppelin wrote on Mar 24th, 2010 5:32pm

Now I know I am dumb.

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EnemyWolf wrote on Apr 20th, 2010 1:54am

Ur all $h1t wrote on Feb 2nd, 2010 at 6:56pm :
johnny butt wrote on Feb 2nd, 2010 at 12:34pm :

I've read enough of Rand to know that her ideas have little merit. She amounts to little more than a sophist, and there are good reasons why her work isn't taught in most philosophy courses.
Self interest isn't something to be celebrated, nor does it work very well as a long term philosophy for society or for individuals.


I was inspired by Anthem and the Fountainhead when I read them, but ultimately I came to this conclusion as well. Her "philosophies," are more of just personal creeds, and while I admit she is a genius novelist, for having successfully executed the plots of the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, riddled with complexity, she is no philosopher.

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dann_blood wrote on Jun 7th, 2010 1:59am

Excellent. From an economic standpoint, depending on what ideas you subscribe to about social relevence, this would vary between useless and incredibly helpful. Also, on this:
We are less likely to help for example if we perceive the problem to be self inflicted

This is very interesting considering views on the poor and whether the government should provide aid for them.

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Col. W.E.Kurtz wrote on Nov 16th, 2010 12:46am

Ur all $h1t wrote on Feb 2nd, 2010 at 7:56pm :

Self interest isn't something to be celebrated, nor does it work very well as a long term philosophy for society or for individuals.

In blog you argue that altruism probably doesnt exist and if it does lot of what we perceive as altruistic behavior is actually selfish behavior in disguise. This means that in history and current times selfish actions greatly outnumber altruistic ones. Yet you argue that selfish behavior dosnt work in long term so you are than proposing that social and scientific development of last 10 000 years is example of how things doesnt work ?

Also self interest does not work for individuals ?? Isnt that an oxymoron??

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Ur all $h1ta wrote on Nov 17th, 2010 11:49am

Col. W.E.Kurtz wrote on Nov 16th, 2010 at 12:46am :
Ur all $h1t wrote on Feb 2nd, 2010 at 7:56pm :
Self interest isn't something to be celebrated, nor does it work very well as a long term philosophy for society or for individuals.
In blog you argue that altruism probably doesnt exist and if it does lot of what we perceive as altruistic behavior is actually selfish behavior in disguise. This means that in history and current times selfish actions greatly outnumber altruistic ones. Yet you argue that selfish behavior dosnt work in long term so you are than proposing that social and scientific development of last 10 000 years is example of how things doesnt work ?

Also self interest does not work for individuals ?? Isnt that an oxymoron??


I suggest you read the blog closer. It's self interest in disguise, this is not what Rand advocates at all.
Furthermore I said much, not all, there is a very important capacity for true altruistic behaviour.

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Ur all $h1ta wrote on Nov 17th, 2010 11:50am

Finally, when we look at the kind of "greed is good" individualistic philosophy promoted by Rand and the kind of society that it produces and compare it to more collective and "altruistic" modes of social organisation we consistently see the latter win out. That applies to individuals within that society also.
Rand's ideals are not disguised egoism or reciprocal altruism, they're pure egoism.

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WhiskeyFace wrote on Feb 12th, 2011 5:26pm

I think a lot of people misunderstand Rand's take on altruism. She hated that people feel that it's their duty to sacrifice their own lives and happiness for the good of others. And I don't think she promoted "greed" but more self-confidence, and that you deserve everything you earn.

As for empathy, I don't see how it is any less egotistical than the other examples. Empathy is entering into another persons feelings. So when you see someone in pain, you feel their pain, and helping them is essentially helping yourself.

Also, great blog :cheers:

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