Altruism is the unselfish concern for other people; doing things simply out of a desire to help, not because you feel obligated to do so out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons. Pure altruism involves true selflessness.
We don’t often think of animals as altruistic. However, there are many incidences of animals engaged in helpful behavior to others. For example, we adopted a puppy who immediately bonded with our middle-aged Labrador Retriever. They each enjoyed a nightly raw hide bone. However, the raw hide was too tough for the puppy, so the Lab would chew it until soft and then they would trade bones. This developed into a nightly ritual in which they would chew their bones, the puppy would release his bone and bark, and they would then switch. The Lab was truly altruistic. He got nothing in return for softening the other’s bone. However, years later when the Lab lost his hearing from old age, the younger dog would alert him to sounds by touching his nose.
According to Kendra Cherry, MS, author of The Everything Psychology Book, there are a number of theories for why altruism exists. There are biological reasons in which altruism toward blood relatives increase the odds of gene transmission to future generations. There are neurological reasons in that altruism activates pleasurable reward centers in the brain. There are social expectations or norms that influence kind behavior. For example, we feel pressured to help others if they have already done something for us according to the norm of reciprocity. Researchers suggest that people are more likely to engage in altruistic behavior when they feel empathy for a person who is in distress. And helping relieves negative feelings. Seeing another person in trouble causes us to feel distressed, so helping them reduces our own negative feelings. Most often people behave altruistically for selfish or hidden reasons. But sometimes people exhibit altruism even when it does not benefit them.
Some people step up to help others at the risk of their own peril. Why would some people risk their own lives to save a complete stranger? For example, more than 100,000 people in the US today are waiting for a kidney transplant. About 200 extraordinary altruists unconditionally donate their kidneys to people whom they don’t know and will never meet. What’s different about these people?
There is research to suggest that brain function and structure play a part in these actions. Professor Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University has studied altruism. She conducted research on 19 people who donated a kidney to strangers. They performed psych testing, brain imaging, gathered background information, but none of these indicated a difference from the control group of people who had not donated a kidney. One difference however, was found in a part of our brains called the amygdala, which is called the emotional center of the brain. They found that the amygdala was significantly larger in altruists compared to those who’d never donated an organ. The amygdala in altruists is supersensitive to fear or distress in another’s face.
Think of altruism on a spectrum with psychopathy. Psychopaths comprise 2% of the population and are primarily motivated by self interest. They have traits of callousness, manipulativeness and a lack of guilt or remorse. Psychopaths have smaller, less active amygdalas. The brain’s emotional radar in psychopaths was blunted and unresponsive to others’ distress or fear.
If such small percentages of people are either psychopaths or pure altruists, most of us are in the middle. Where do you think you fall on the spectrum between pure altruism and psychopathy? Although you can’t change the size of your amygdala, if you value altruism you can purposefully practice acts of kindness. The world will be better because of it.