Altruism, or the selfless concern for the well-being of others, is another trait that has mystified researchers and us average folk alike. Why – WHY – would someone give up something of themselves or put themselves at risk for someone else? Economics tell us that people are self-interested and rational, but altruism, in general terms, is neither of these things. How do we explain it?
Kin altruism, or sacrifice to help a family member, makes more sense biologically. Our imperative is not just to survive as individuals, but to sustain our lineage. We can think of this as sustaining our family names. So it’s in our interest to make sure our children and siblings survive so that our family can get bigger, stronger, and continue to last. But as we move farther away from our immediate family, to cousins and more distant relatives, until eventually we get to strangers, why do we continue to help?
In simple terms, the more people there are, the more competition there is for resources. Imagine you lived thousands of years ago. You’re in your cave with your family and nearby is another family in another cave. Both families need to harvest the same berries, hunt the same animals and catch the same fish. Perhaps there’s enough to go around, but every fish they eat is a fish you never will. And for the most part, this truth holds, and people compete and fight over property, mates and resources.
But over and over again, across history and species, we see individuals sacrifice their time, resources, safety and personal well-being to help others. Many – if not all – species of animals display altruism. There must be something inside of us that overrules the biological imperative to compete and survive.
As we learned from Bloom’s babies (and the capuchin video), humans and other species have an innate sense and understanding of fairness, and place great value on it. We all want to be treated well, and fairly. We prefer helpers to hinderers. Perhaps altruism is simply an extension of these congenital tendencies.
performing acts of kindness stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain activated when we eat comfort foods, exercise or have sex.
Some often argue that there is no such thing as altruism, that people only help others for selfish reasons—to alleviate guilt, for some future benefit, or others. But such a hypothesis doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, as it requires advanced cognition and planning in order to be true. And according to recent research on altruism in animals, there is very little relationship between higher cognition (brain size) or even strong social bonds between group members and altruistic behaviors.
Our brains, which we will be covering in a new section to be released soon, are designed to be social. And social relationships have always been at the heart of our survival and happiness. Without cooperation, early humans likely could not have survived. In fact, our brains treat our emotional pain the same way it treats physical pain. To our brains, a broken leg is virtually the same as a broken heart. Perhaps, then, there is something inside of us that intuitively understands we all need help sometimes, we all need to rely on each other, and this provides a springboard for altruism.
Altruism, like other forms of kindness, also feel good. Sometimes called “The Helper’s High,” performing acts of kindness stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain activated when we eat comfort foods, exercise or have sex. This offers another insight into how important cooperation has been to human survival. Our bodies evolved to reward us for being kind and helping others, and this incentive paints a very different picture of human nature than the economic models described earlier. This distinction is noteworthy. We evolved to be social, and evolved to be kind. Kindness isn’t a weakness, but rather a strength, and key to the survival, growth and development of our species (and others).