Understanding Altruism

Altruism is acting out of concern for another’s well-being. Often, people behave altruistically when they see others in desperate circumstances and feel empathy and a desire to help. Altruism doesn’t always come naturally, since by definition, it requires people to disregard their own concerns to help others without any expectation of reward, though "reciprocal altruism" is a term used by evolutionary biologists and psychologists to characterize the decision to help with an expectation that one will receive some benefit or pay-off to oneself. Cooperative behavior allowed our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions, and it still serves a necessary purpose to a highly complex society.  Even when people don’t behave altruistically for recognition or reward, they often feel energized and happy after helping others, sometimes called the 'helper's high." Humans aren’t the only animals who behave altruistically. Many species benefit when individual organisms disregard personal costs and act in service of the larger group.

The Givers

What kind of people behave altruistically towards those not in their immediate social or familial circle? Research shows that people who have less resources and live in the present, instead of looking to the future, are more prone to acts of altruism. Most altruism is reactive — that is, human beings respond compassionately when they see others in pain and in need of help. While altruistic givers don’t expect any recognition, behaving compassionately toward others activates the reward centers in their brains, allowing them to feel good about themselves. Children in particular are likely to be altruistic: They begin sharing with others at a young age, and when they see that someone is distressed, they naturally employ comforting strategies.

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