Altruism Is Ultimately Selfish

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 13 November 2016

Altruism Is Ultimately Selfish

Discuss the proposal that pure selfless altruism does not exist. Bartel (1976) defines prosocial behaviour as ‘behaviour that intentionally helps or benefits another person’. Batson (1987) defines altruism as ‘helping another person for no reward, and even at some cost to oneself.’ This definition of altruism seemingly depicts the behaviour as selfless, however there is a wealth of research which suggests that this is not the case. Dawkins (1976) also provides evidence that altruism is ultimately selfish. He separated individuals into three categories in regards to prosocial behaviour displayed. These were grudgers, cheats and suckers. Grudgers were deemed to be the most evolutionary stable category, as they could control and ‘punish’ cheats (who seek out and accept the help of others without returning the help) and could coexist with suckers (who indiscriminately provide others with help). This therefore provides support for the sociobiological view of prosocial behaviour, that it is ultimately selfish as its aim is to promote gene survival.

However, this theory can only work if we know one’s altruistic or egoistic behaviour, and so Many studies have shown that we will only help others if we believe they would also help us. Clutton-Brock and Palmer (1995) found altruism to be conditional, which suggests that it therefore cannot be selfless. However, this can only work if we know one’s altruistic or egoistic behaviour, and so cannot benefit evolution if we do not (Mifune et al. 2010) This view is supported by the Social Norm approach. The Social Norm approach argues that altruism is based on reciprocity and equity. Equity theory states that we consider interactions to be fair if the outcomes are equally proportionate to the inputs (Wagstaff, 2001). A limitation of this theory is that Buunk et al (2012) found it difficult to apply to intimate relationships. A further limitation is that positive inputs could yield negative results, which is not fair or just (Wagstaff, 2001).

An amendment to this theory by Wagstaff and Perfect (1993, 2001) ensured that good inputs can only be returned with rewards, and negative inputs can only be returned with punishments. There is evidence to suggest that people do operate by this model (Wagstaff, 2001) which implies that decisions of whether to display prosocial behaviour are weighted in fairness, meaning that altruistic acts may only be displayed if the individual perceives it to be fair to others. Cialdini and Kendrick (1976) devised the Negative state relief model to offer a possible explanation of altruism. This suggests that we help others to relieve negative feelings. This has been supported by Piliavin (1981) who argued in his Arousal: Cost reward model that negative feelings, such as guilt, instigate negative arousal and therefore people may provide others with help to alleviate this negative emotion. Both of these models suggest that we are helping others to help ourselves, which supports the claim that true, selfless altruism does not exist.

However, other research has found that helping behaviour increases in correlation with positive mood states (Isen, 1999). Even so, Carlson (1988) argues that this could be due to an individuals drive to prolong their good mood state by helping others. One limitation of this view is that it assumes that helping is a rewarding behaviour. Another norm in respect to prosocial behaviour is social responsibility, which can be defined as helping those in need. Altruistic or prosocial acts tend to be more frequent towards ingroup (such as friends and family) than outgroup members (Cohen, 1978; Mifune et al, 2010.) Burnstein (2005) found that identical twins are more likely to help (94%) than fraternal twins (46%) which supports this hypothesis. There is also evidence to suggest that kidney donors are three times more likely to donate to relatives than nonrelatives (Borgida et al, 1992; Axelrod et al 2010).

These findings suggest that altruistic acts are not purely selfless; seeing our friends and families in pain increases our own personal negative affect, and so we are more motivated to help them than we would be strangers. However evidence suggests that social responsibility can be diffused. This reduces helping behaviour within groups. Latane and Darley (1970) coined the terms pluralistic ignorance (not helping because it appears that no one else is concerned) and diffusion of responsibility (the tendency to believe that someone else must be dealing with the situation). This lack of helping behaviour in group situations shows that prosocial behaviour cannot be explained by social responsibility alone and so do individuals who help despite the above effects show more selflessly altruistic tendencies? Further evidence against selfless altruism comes from the evidence that individual attributes appear to effect prosocial and altruistic behaviour being displayed.

Ruggiero et al (1981) found that taller, heavier and physically stronger people are more likely to put themselves in harm’s way to help others in an emergency. This would suggest that an individual has first considered the cost to themselves of helping, meaning their act would not be selflessly altruistic. One contrast to this theory is that this body type closely resembles Sheldon’s (1942) mesomorph body type; who was claimed to be more likely to have tendencies towards violent crime. Pantin and carver (1982) found that participants were more likely to help a choking confederate after three weeks first aid training than without it. Also, Eisenberg-Berg (1979) found that prosocial behaviour increases if a person believes their fate to be within their own control, and if the person has mature moral judgement.

This again implies that an individual tends to consider their own competency and implications of helping others prior to doing so, again raising doubts over the existence of selfless altruism. However Batson et al (1987; 2003) claim that true, selfless altruism does exist; and that it is motivated by empathy. Batson claims that if helping is motivated by relieving personal distress, an individual could simply flee the scene., yet true empathic concern for another cannot be alleviated by escaping. In his study, Batson assigned participants to high and low empathy conditions, and easy or difficult to escape conditions; to leave after two trials or ten trials respectively. He also gave participants the option of changing places with the victim after two trials. When escape was easy, individuals with low empathic concern escaped the situation.

However those with high empathic concern stayed and changed places with the victim. Batson claimed this to be true altruism. Traits such as aggression and dominance are associated with reduced empathy , and individuals with these traits have been shown to show less prosocial behaviour than those without them (Eisenberg et al, 2010). However empathy can be perceived as creating a negative affect such as guilt if help was not offered, and this negative state would be beneficial for an individual to relieve; therefore helping another individual with whom you have empathy for can relieve negative emotion in oneself, and can even instigate positive affect and/ or mood. This supports Pilliavin’s (1981) Arousal: Cost reward model and Cialdini and Kendrick’s (1976) Negative state relief model and therefore provides evidence that selfless altruism does not exist. In contrast, Batson (1989) found that people were not more likely to help others when informed that doing so would give them access to a mood enhancing procedure.

The finding that reciprocal altruism can be learned (Rachlin, 2003) raises an interesting question of whether it can be unlearned. Warnekin and Tomasello (2008) found 36 20 month old toddlers who consistently helped by picking up an object. Some were rewarded after showing this behaviour. They found that the children who were rewarded decreased this behaviour unless they were rewarded for it again; whereas the toddlers who were given no reward were more likely to continue helping. In support of this, Knafo, Schwartz and Levine (2009) found that in countries were individuals are raised to be helpful, there was a reduced tendency to help out group members. As helping in group members is more likely to relieve negative affect than helping outgroup members, this could be viewed as a reduced tendency to display altruistic behaviour.

These studies raise the question as to whether it is possible that true altruism does exist, and whether theories such as social learning theory may play a role on its nurturance or demise within a culture or group. Sabini (1995) stated that if true altruism exists, it excludes any rational reasons for helping others, be it extrinsic or intrinsic rewards. In fact according to the sociobiological principle, it would be evolutionarily weak to be selflessly altruistic, as we may become like Dawkin’s ‘suckers’ helping cheats to prosper. This provides further evidence that selfless altruism does not exist; as we would not be able to grow and prosper as a society. In conclusion, the majority of evidence suggests that true altruism does not exist.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 13 November 2016

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