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We all have deeply ingrained tendencies to act, ranging from altruism to egoism. The challenge is learning how to lean toward altruism without sacrificing our own self-interest.
In other words, we’re naturally torn between helping others and helping ourselves. So how can we find a healthy balance between the two?
First, we need to know what altruism is and what drives humans to be altruistic.
In essence, altruistic behavior prioritizes the welfare of others. But what lies behind our good intentions? Is altruism always positive, or does it have its drawbacks? And is it really necessary for work?
Let’s take a deep dive into the pros and cons of altruism and the psychology behind it, plus how to cultivate it in yourself and how to promote it in others.
What does altruism mean?
Altruism is unselfish behavior intended to benefit others. It involves some kind of goal-directed action that helps improve someone else’s welfare.
If you’re altruistic, you’re doing things out of kindness and a sincere desire to help — not because you feel obligated. Your motivation stems from a genuine concern for others’ well-being, even if that means putting your own aside.
There are different types of altruism, spanning from genetic altruism to group-selected altruism and a few in between. Each type of altruism has a different motivation behind it. In the next section, we’ll cover each type, along with some examples of altruism.
What are the 4 types of altruism?
Altruism has different flavors, each driven by different psychological motives.
The four main types of altruism are:
Reciprocal altruism: This type of altruism involves reciprocity, meaning you help someone because one day they may be able to help you, too. Perhaps you do a favor for someone in the communications department in the hope that when a position opens up there, they recommend you for it. The problem with this type of altruism is that it can lead to disappointment if they don’t reciprocate.Genetic altruism: Also called nepotistic altruism, this is behavior that benefits family members. This type of altruism is common in parent-child relationships. Parents sacrifice their time, money, and energy for their children’s well-being. Genetic altruism is therefore intrinsically linked to the human survival instinct.
Pure altruism: Also called moral altruism, pure altruism is the most unselfish kind of altruism. It involves helping people without the expectation of reciprocity or rewards, even if there’s great risk involved.
Group-selected altruism: This kind of altruism is based on group affiliations. For example, maybe you’d rather help your close friends rather than strangers through a charity. Or, maybe you support a cause that’s specifically important to you, like raising money for a suicide prevention program.
Why are human beings altruistic?
Altruistic action can stem from having a deep sense of morality and generosity, but there are other explanations as well, such as:
Although compassion and empathy are different, compassionate empathy draws people to help others they’ve connected to socially. This connection creates emotional and cognitive empathy.
Empathy means you understand someone’s situation, see their perspective, and feel what it’s like to be in their shoes. This understanding naturally draws you to help them.
Altruism can activate pleasure centers in the brain. This means performing an altruistic act can induce feelings of happiness. Scientists have also concluded that altruistic behaviors can relieve physical pain.
Research shows that parents who model altruism can influence children to also become altruistic. Another example is reciprocating help. When someone models altruism by helping you, you may feel pressured to help them in return.
For example, if a neighbor agrees to watch your children when you have to stay late at work, you may feel obligated to do the same for them when they need it.
In the 1960s, W. D. Hamilton explained that people are more likely to help others they’re genetically related to. This evolutionary theory is called kin selection. It explains that altruism can increase the chances of gene transmission. This shows that altruism is instinctual — especially with those you’re closely related to.
Scientists believe this theory holds true for both humans and animals, like meerkats. Since meerkat groups are closely related, they babysit and feed one another’s offspring. They also take turns guarding the group and dig shared burrows.
It can be difficult to truly understand their motives. However, scientists believe that meerkats are instinctively altruistic. This is because they are related to everyone in their social circle.
Is altruism innate?
So is it human nature to help people? Hamilton’s kin selection theory suggests that, yes, altruism is innate for both human beings and animals.
It’s natural for some altruistic acts to be reactive. When we see others who need help, we’re naturally inclined to lend a hand. But, we also learn altruism from our environment, upbringing, and cultural norms.
Altruism: selfish vs. selfless
Selfishness focuses purely on personal benefit, and ‘true altruism’ is the epitome of selflessness. This is because it's done without expectation of reciprocity and, in some cases, can create great risk for the giver — for example, if you’re a volunteer firefighter.
On the other hand, ‘reciprocal altruism’ can be considered selfish since the giver expects the favor to be returned one day.
However, according to the warm glow effect theory, any type of altruism is selfish because it feels good and thus rewards us to give.
What is the warm glow effect?
The warm glow effect of giving is a behavioral economic theory. It questions people’s reasons for philanthropic giving. It also posits that altruism is often motivated by the desire to experience the “warm glow” of doing something for others.
It boils down to the age-old question: is there really such a thing as “true” altruism? Or is altruism always self-serving in some way?
According to economists, warm glow giving is motivated by selfishness. That may come as a surprise if you’re someone who loves giving unexpected gifts or performing random acts of kindness.
You may think you’re doing these things because helping others is the right thing to do. But in fact, the real pleasure in the act of giving comes from the satisfaction of seeing the other person’s reaction.
Giving actually stimulates the pleasure centers in your own brain. Therefore, when you are altruistic toward others, it’s because you want to feel the contentment of having done something good — i.e., the warm glow effect.
However, for the warm glow effect to work, your brain has to trick itself into believing your motives are purely altruistic.
What is healthy selfishness?
Selfishness generally gets a bad rap. But is it really all that bad?
Healthy selfishness refers to the idea of prioritizing your needs and emotional well-being before tending to the welfare of others.
A classic example of this can be found during the in-flight safety instructions on a plane. Securing your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs is a form of healthy selfishness.
When it comes to altruism, many of us tend to fall into one of two categories. Either we have a people-pleasing tendency and go out of our way to put others first, even if it means self-sacrifice, or we can be too self-absorbed and wrapped up in our own problems to think about the needs of others.
Healthy selfishness can help us strike that balance between the two.
When you think about it, everything you do each day to survive and thrive is an act of healthy selfishness. Whether it’s eating breakfast or taking a nap when you’re tired.
And the irony of it is that it’s not selfish at all.
In fact, taking care of your needs is an act of generosity to both yourself and others. The reason for this is that when you show up for yourself, you can show up for those who count on you, whether that’s your children or your most important client.
Why is altruism important?
Altruism brings more meaning to our lives. When we see people helping each other, it inspires us to do the same. It reminds us that we’re not alone. Here are some other reasons altruism is important:
Creates a harmonious society
Bryant P.H. Hui, Ph.D. and the lead author of a study on altruism by the American Psychological Association, said, "Prosocial behavior — altruism, cooperation, trust, and compassion — are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society."
Fosters better physical and mental health
Hui and his team found that spontaneous acts of kindness contributed more to overall well-being than formal or scheduled acts. For example, leaving a generous tip or paying for a stranger’s coffee.
Supports eudaimonic well-being
The study also reported higher levels of eudaimonic well-being in younger givers and female givers. Eudaimonic well-being is a state of emotional well-being that comes from:
How can altruism be beneficial at work?
Now you know why altruism is important at both the individual and social levels. But you might be wondering how altruism can benefit your organization.
Let’s take a look at four ways altruism can be beneficial at work for both the employees and the company.
1. It contributes to employee well-being
Since giving back is rewarding in itself, helping others can lead to a greater sense of purpose at work and higher levels of job satisfaction.
Not only that, but the so-called “helper’s high” produced by performing altruistic acts can even help reduce stress.
2. It helps motivate employees
Altruism can be a motivating factor at work. When employees feel that their work matters and they are helping others in some way, it boosts their motivation levels.
People need intrinsic motivation just as much as external rewards, such as money or recognition.
The human drive to help others is innate to all of us. Finding ways to incorporate it into our daily work helps us stay motivated by connecting to something greater than ourselves.
3. It creates an altruistic company culture
If you’re a leader who wants to create an altruistic company culture, it’s best to start with yourself.
People who benefit from the altruistic behavior of others are more likely to model that behavior and pay it forward by helping others.
Let's say you let a team member leave early due to a family emergency. They are then more likely to be flexible the next time a colleague or customer has a request for them. Had you denied their request, they would have been less willing to help others.
4. It increases productivity
Employees who are happy and motivated and feel well cared for by their organization are naturally more productive.
They are less prone to absenteeism and more likely to stay late to get work done, resulting in lower costs and productivity gains for the company.
Happy, healthy employees are also more likely to stay where they are. On the other hand, a company that fails to act altruistically toward its employees is likely to experience high employee turnover.
8 signs of altruism:
Below, we’ve listed our top eight signs of altruistic behavior, along with an example of each.
- Putting others first: defending a colleague who’s being bullied at work.
- Sacrificing time and money to help others: bringing a week’s worth of freezer meals to a coworker who’s just welcomed a new baby.
- Anticipating needs: letting a team member leave early because their child is sick.
- Offering support: helping a new work colleague with an important project they’re struggling with.
- Forgiving others: forgiving a colleague after a heated discussion.
- Worrying about how your actions may affect others: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes before doing something. This helps you make sure you won’t hurt anyone.
- Not expecting reciprocity: Helping a colleague meet a deadline without expecting anything in return.
- Being considerate of others’ well-being: offering to bring gluten-free and vegan options to a company picnic. This takes into consideration colleagues with dietary sensitivities and restrictions.
How to cultivate altruism — 4 tips to get started
Although cultivating altruism may look different for each individual, these tips can apply to anyone looking to do a good deed.
1. Practice gratitude
When you’re grateful, you tend to be more generous. This ties to the concept of ‘paying it forward.’ When you appreciate what you receive and have, it encourages you to help others.
2. Cultivate compassionate empathy
Focusing on understanding other people’s perspectives and feelings can help you feel naturally drawn to helping them.
3. Fight injustice
Stand up for marginalized communities, confront hateful speech, and pay attention to what you say. By being a strong ally, you can foster altruism and help end exclusion simultaneously.
4. Discover needs
Make an effort to learn about where your giving can make the most impact. Where do you see the greatest need?
Does your community’s recreation center need to be fixed? Can you teach a new coworker something they need to know? Is there a high unemployment rate in your area? Can you host free seminars to teach people how to land jobs?
Cultivating altruism isn’t as difficult as it may sound. Even focusing on small gestures, like opening the door for someone or letting someone go ahead of you in line, can help you cultivate altruism.
5 ways to promote altruism in others
When you’ve nurtured your altruistic abilities, you can encourage others to do the same.
Here are five ways to encourage altruism.
1. Be a role model
Be a role model by helping others at work, in day-to-day life, and online.
Help a coworker carry equipment, bake cookies for a new neighbor, and leave uplifting comments on social media.
Consistently modeling altruism is one of the most influential ways to encourage it in others — especially kids.
2. Share real stories
Get donations and volunteers for important causes by putting a face to a name and sharing real stories.
Raising money for women in business? Share a touching story about how financial aid helped a single mom create a successful business.
3. Create a supportive community
One of the best ways to promote altruism is by creating an outlet for people to give. Building a supportive community (like a support group for single parents or at-risk teens) is a great way to do that.
4. Promote acceptance
People are more likely to help members in their personal circles. Encouraging the people around you to be more inclusive is vital to promoting altruism.
Encourage others to bring new friends to gatherings. Offer to help your workplace create a diverse workforce. Share your thoughts on social media.
5. Get your coworkers involved
Bring altruism to the workplace by supporting specific causes and creating an environment of mutual aid.
Real-life examples of altruism
A study from the University of Otago in New Zealand found that altruism boosts well-being and resilience after a tragedy. The study found that charitable acts seemed to benefit both the receiver and the altruist.
Here are two inspiring examples of real people helping others.
Viral running challenge
27-year-old Olivia Strong set out to raise £5,000 (about $6,212) for U.K. healthcare workers fighting COVID-19. She never expected she would raise over £5 million.
Her campaign was called ‘Run for Heroes.’ She started it after she noticed people taking advantage of their once-a-day permission to exercise outside. Under lockdown rules, people were only allowed to leave the house for essential work, grocery shopping, and one form of daily exercise.
Strong said, “if we combine our one form of exercise a day that we’re currently getting because everyone’s out running anyway, then maybe we can make a difference.” She decided on the tagline ‘run, donate, nominate.’ It stood for running, walking, or cycling 5km, donating £5, nominating another five people to do the same.
The campaign resulted in 800,000 participants, 64,000 followers on Instagram, and a combined distance that equals a trip to the moon and back. Over £5 million in proceeds were donated to NHS Charities Together for British healthcare workers battling the virus.
Adding diverse books
Rachel Koppa and her eight-year-old son Elliot are on a mission to diversify all registered Little Free Libraries in Dallas, Texas.
Rachel and Elliot were inspired by Sarah Kamya’s goal to amplify diverse voices through books. So they began diversifying their local book-sharing sites.
Their goal was to add ten racially and culturally diverse books for all ages to each Little Free Library in their hometown. So far, the Koppas have diversified 100 of the Little Free Libraries in Dallas. They’re planning on continuing their mission into the suburbs.
“The reality is that everyone can make a difference somewhere. You just have to pay attention,” Rachel said.
Are there any downsides to being altruistic?
Altruism often involves sacrificing one’s personal needs to help someone else. This means it can sometimes result in negative consequences.
Here are some potential adverse effects of altruism:
- It can lead people to put their own health, time, and money on the line.
- It can create tension at home if giving requires something that could hurt the giver’s family.
- It can threaten personal boundaries and needs for the sake of others’ well-being.
- It can put people in grave danger if there are a lot of risks involved.
For example, giving a friend money when you’re struggling to pay the bills could result in getting your phone turned off or even losing your home.
To avoid any potential negative effects of altruism, try to balance it with healthy selfishness.
Altruistic punishment is the act of giving punishment even when it results in no benefits for the punisher. In fact, altruistic punishment is often costly to the punisher.
It is closely linked to human cooperation and social connection. When people perceive that a group member’s behavior goes against the greater good, they may resort to altruistic punishment.
This punishment rectifies the offender’s behavior for the benefit of others, thus making it an act of altruism.
For example, if you’re standing in line and someone jumps in, what do you do? The person has violated a social norm, so if you do nothing, you’re letting them get away with it.
If you tell them to go to the back of the line, it may be emotionally costly to you. If you shy away from confrontation, you might feel uncomfortable speaking up. You also run the risk of a negative reaction from the person.
However, if you speak up, and their “punishment” is to go to the back of the line, everyone in the group benefits.
Altruism: find the right balance
When it comes to altruism, finding the right balance is key. Oftentimes, giving does require some kind of personal sacrifice, but if it costs you your health or invades your boundaries, it may be too extreme.
Interested in bringing altruism into the workplace? At BetterUp, we love seeing humans reach their highest potential. Check out our video to learn more.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions