The Psychology of Altruism: An Urgent Quest of Humanistic Psychology

Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Photo by Ed Yourdon.

On a globe that daily witnesses countless acts of conflict both large and small, our human capacity for altruism seems more important than ever. Not surprisingly, psychologists today are increasingly interested in understanding this vital care-giving phenomenon, certainly with the hope that such knowledge will lead to a more harmonious humanity.

The rapid rise of positive psychology, led by Seligman and his associates (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005) has amplified interest in prosocial interaction. But such an interest is hardly new. More than 50 years ago, Maslow (1954) criticized the emphasis on sickness and pathology regarding human nature and declared that “kindness, generosity, benevolence, and charity have too little place in the social psychology textbooks.” Asserting that psychology was fixated on the negative aspects of social exchange, he rhetorically asked, “Where are the researches on unselfishness?” (Maslow, 1954, p.371)

As the 21st century enters its mid-second decade, Maslow’s challenge to our field remains highly relevant. Little empirical knowledge yet exists about socially benevolent behavior, especially from the standpoint of its recipients. For this reason, my investigations of altruistic experiences diverse countries today is guided precisely by Maslow’s humanistic vision.

Altruism in Psychological Inquiry
The term “altruism” derives from the Latin word “alter” (“other”), which literally translated means “other-ism.” The concept was brought into the social sciences by the French philosopher-sociologist August Comte in the mid-19th century as the antonym of selfishness; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded date for its usage is 1853. Since then, the concept has remained part of international social and natural science terminology. In Comte’s highly influential view, people have two distinct motives in life: egoism and altruism. Although Comte viewed most human behavior as self-serving, he regarded the unselfish desire to help others as a motivator, too.

Similar ideas were later advanced by Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, in The Division of Labor in Society. In this 1893 work, he argued that altruism as well as egoism has always existed in human history, for community requires that individuals live together with some degree of mutual understanding and cooperation. Though Durkheim’s formulation carried considerable philosophical weight, he never defined altruism in measurable terms or sought to elucidate it empirically (Dubeski, 2001).

Several decades later, altruism was catapulted into social scientific and popular interest by the scholarly activities of Pitirim Sorokin. A Russian émigré who helped to build American sociology in the 1920s and 1930s, he became devoted to the study of altruism after the horrific death and destruction of World War II. Establishing the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism in the late 1940s, Sorokin hoped to spark intense academic study of altruism in the United States and abroad. In 1950, his book Altruistic Love highlighted the lives and practices of eminent altruists, including both Christian saints and American good neighbors.

Among those Sorokin influenced was Maslow, who, in 1955, became a co-founder of Sorokin’s new Research Society for Creative Altruism. Maslow, who had studied directly with Alfred Adler in the 1930s, shared his mentor’s opinion that compassion, friendship, and cooperation were basic features of the healthy human personality, and was strongly interested in scientific research to confirm that view (Hoffman, 1999). Unfortunately, as Maslow soon discovered, Sorokin’s organization was poorly run and able to accomplish little. By 1970, both Sorokin and Maslow were dead, and psychological research on altruism languished for more than 20 years.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the empirical study of altruism revived as a result of two separate streams: the first involved “hero” research, focusing, for example, on the brave persons who saved European Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War, and on famous exceptional altruists like Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa (Brehony, 1998; Fogelman, 1994; Oliner & Oliner, 1988). Such studies were essentially anecdotal and had meager scientific grounding. Only one consistent finding was rooted in objective measurement, and that was that individuals with an “altruistic personality” tended to score higher on empathy than others (McAndrew, 2002).

The second stream came from the growing sub-field of evolutionary psychology, as adherents (Boehm, 1999; Boone, 1998; Nowak & Sigmund, 2005) argued that cooperative and benevolent behaviors among individuals carried a significant advantage in natural selection for human group survival. For example, according to such scientists, the mother who sacrifices her life to save her children may actually be engaging in genetically adaptive behavior, as the copies of her genes that reside in them will in the long run lead to greater genetic fitness than if she alone had survived (McAndrew, 2002).

Although altruism has regained increased psychological attention, most related empirical investigations have focused experimentally on helping behaviors in the laboratory (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Danzis & Stone-Romero, 2009) or public settings (Fischer-Lokou, Lamy & Gueguen, 2009; Lamy, Fischer-Lokou & Gueguen, 2009). Typically, such studies have examined helping between complete strangers in brief, one-time interactions. Other studies have administered self-report surveys to various categories of individuals, such as ministers (DaSilva, 2008), nurses (Johnson, 2007) and medical, law, and business students (Coulter, Wilkes & Der-Martirosian, 2007). While undeniably shedding some useful empirical light, the generalizability of these studies to situations of “real-life” altruism appears limited. As Yeung (2006, p.22) astutely concluded in her monograph review of social science research on altruism, “Our next step in altruistic research should involve exploration of everyday experiences and views of altruism through combining survey and qualitative data.”

In this light, Mastain (2006) conducted detailed interviews with three adults who had provided altruism in daily life that encompassed care-giving to strangers. She identified 15 constituent themes, such as empathy with the person in need and the conscious decision to act on the desire to help. However, Mastain (2010) noted that no empirical research to date had examined everyday altruism from the standpoint of the recipient. To this end, I have been conducting with colleagues internationally empirical investigation of “real-life” experiences of altruism among recipients in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and now Venezuela.

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— Edward Hoffman

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