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What is altruism (and is it important for work)?

While we have deeply ingrained tendencies to act, ranging from altruism to selfishness, our challenge is learning how to lean into the positive sides of our nature.

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What does altruism mean?

4 types of altruism

Why are human beings altruistic?

Is altruism innate?

Altruism: selfish vs. selfless

Why is altruism important?

8 signs of altruism:

How to cultivate altruism

How to promote altruism in others

Real-life stories of altruism

Find the right balance

In other words, we’re naturally torn between helping others and helping ourselves — the challenge is learning how to find a healthy balance between the two. 

But in order to do that, we need to know what drives humans to be altruistic and what to look out for when performing altruistic acts. 

In this in-depth article, we’ll cover the positives and negatives of altruism, the psychology of altruism, plus how to cultivate it in yourself and how to promote it in others.

What does altruism mean?

Let’s start with a definition of altruism. 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 other’s well-being, even if that means putting your own health aside. 

If you looked at altruism on a spectrum, you’d see varying types of altruism spanning from genetic altruism to group-selected altruism and a few in between. In the next section, we’ll cover each type.

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4 types of altruism

Altruism has different flavors, each with a slightly different psychology that drives the behavior. The four main types of altruism are: 

  1. Reciprocal altruism: This type of altruism involves reciprocity, meaning you help someone because one day they may be able to help you, too. If they’re struggling to pay rent this month, you may offer to pay it, knowing that if you were ever in the same situation, they’d return the favor.
  2. Genetic altruism: Also called nepotistic altruism, genetic altruism is behavior that benefits family members. This type of altruism is common in parent-child relationships, where parents sacrifice their time, money, and energy for their children’s well-being.
    4 types of altruism
  3. Pure altruism: Also called moral altruism, pure altruism is the most unselfish kind of altruism. It involves helping people without reciprocity or rewards, even if there’s great risk involved.
  4. 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:

Compassionate empathy

Compassionate empathy naturally draws people to help others they’ve connected to through emotional and cognitive empathy. 

In other words, when you can intellectually understand someone’s situation, see their perspective, and feel what it’s like to be in their shoes, you’re naturally drawn to help them.

Feeling good

Since altruism can activate pleasure centers in the brain, performing an altruistic act can induce feelings of happiness. Scientists have also concluded that altruistic behaviors can relieve physical pain

Modeled altruism

Research shows that leaders (especially parents) who model altruism can significantly 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 while you run an important errand, you may feel obligated to watch their children whenever they need to run an important errand. 

Instincts

In the 1960s, W. D. Hamilton explained that individuals are more likely to help others they’re genetically related to. This evolutionary theory called kin selection explains that doing so can increase the chances of gene transmission in upcoming generations. 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, take turns guarding the group, and dig shared burrows. 

While it can be difficult to truly understand their motives, scientists believe that since meerkats are related to everyone in their social circle, they’re instinctively altruistic.

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Is altruism innate?

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

While selfishness focuses purely on personal benefit, ‘true altruism’ is the epitome of selflessness since it’s done without 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.

altruism comparison chart

Some people argue that any type of altruism is selfish because it feels so good to give.

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: 

Creating a harmonious society 

Bryant P.H. Hui, Ph.D., the lead author of a study by the American Psychological Association, said that "Prosocial behavior — altruism, cooperation, trust, and compassion — are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society."

Better physical and mental health

The same study showed that prosocial behavior also contributes to physical and mental health

Hui and his team found that spontaneous acts of kindness, like leaving a generous tip or paying for a stranger’s coffee, contributed more to overall well-being than formal or scheduled acts.

Eudaimonic well-being

The study also reported higher levels of eudaimonic well-being in younger givers and female givers. Beyond happiness and positive feelings, eudaimonic well-being focuses on finding meaning in life, self-actualization, and realizing one’s potential.

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8 signs of altruism:

Below, we’ve listed our top 8 signs of altruistic behavior, along with an example of each.

infographic describing the 8 signs of altruism

  1. Putting others first: Risking your own safety to defend someone who’s being bullied.
  2. Sacrificing time and money to help others: Bringing a week’s worth of freezer meals to a family that’s just welcomed a new baby.
  3. Anticipating needs: Waking up early to make breakfast for your kids before they go to school.
  4. Offering support: Helping a new work colleague with an important project they’re struggling with.
  5. Forgiving others: Forgiving a friend after a heated argument or forgiving your parents for making mistakes when they raised you. 
  6. Worrying about how your actions may affect others: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes before doing something to make sure you won’t hurt anyone.
  7. Not expecting reciprocity: Offering to lend someone money without expecting them to pay you back.
  8. Being considerate of others’ well-being: Offering to bring gluten-free and vegan options to a company picnic for work colleagues with dietary sensitivities and preferences. 

From visible signs, like helping a neighbor fix their fence, to invisible signs like depositing money in a friend’s bank account without telling them, altruism is everywhere.

How to cultivate altruism

Although cultivating altruism may look different for each individual, these tips can apply to anyone looking to be a better helper.

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.

Cultivate compassionate empathy

Focusing on understanding other people’s perspectives and feelings can help you feel naturally drawn to help them.

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.

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 large 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.

How 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. 

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. 

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.

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 moms or at-risk teens) is a great way to do that.

Promote acceptance 

Since people are more likely to help members in their personal circles, encouraging 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, and share your thoughts on social media. 

Get your coworkers involved

Bring altruism to the workplace by agreeing to support specific causes together and creating an environment where everyone helps each other.

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Real-life stories of altruism

A study from the University of Otago in New Zealand found that people boost their sense of well-being and resilience when performing altruistic acts after a tragedy. The study found that charitable acts seemed to benefit both the receiver of the gift and the altruist.

Here are two inspiring examples of real people helping real people after the Coronavirus outbreak and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A data image showing findings from an altruism study

Viral running challenge

When 27-year-old Olivia Strong set out to raise £5,000 (about $6,212) for UK health-care workers fighting Covid-19, she never expected she would raise over £5 million

Her campaign, called ‘Run for Heroes,’ started after noticing people taking advantage of their once-a-day permission to exercise outside. Under the UK’s strict lockdown rules, people have only been 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,’ which stood for running, walking, or cycling 5km, donating £5, and asking participants to nominate 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 health-care workers battling the virus. 

Adding diverse books 

A woman named Rachel Koppa and her eight-year-old son Elliot are on a mission to diversify all registered Little Free Libraries in Dallas, Texas. 

After getting inspired by Sarah Kamya’s goal to amplify diverse voices through books, Koppa and Elliot began diversifying their local book-sharing sites. 

Their goal was to add 10 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, too. 

“The reality is that everyone can make a difference somewhere. You just have to pay attention.” Koppa said.

Are there any obstacles or downsides of being altruistic?

Since altruism often involves sacrificing one’s personal needs to help someone else, it can 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 other’s 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 house.

Infographic showing the downsides of altruism

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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 these principles into the workplace? At BetterUp, we love seeing humans reach their highest potential. Check out our video to learn more.