Pure altruism: does it exist?

What does human nature look like? Are humans naturally good or bad? Are we selfish by nature or are we capable of purely selfless (altruistic) action? Are we mainly engaged in a constant battle with each other or is it more correct to say that we mainly work together and take care of each other? How we answer these kinds of questions for ourselves is quite important. Our answers to these questions determine to a large extent what we expect from ourselves and what we expect from others. And as a result, they also determine how we treat others and how we interpret behavior of others.

Human nature is mainly focused on helping, working together and caring 

Psychologist Richard Ryan, co-founder of self-determination theory, explains that human nature can express itself in many ways, both good and bad. He explains that many people assume that we are primarily competitive and want to outdo other people. But a lot of research shows that this is not true. As people, we are particularly focused on supporting each other, on giving, and working together. And this gives us a lot of satisfaction. But when we feel threatened, a different, more competitive, side of our nature emerges. The predominance of the caring and cooperative side is not unique to humans. Biologists have shown that the same is true for many primates (read more). 

Isn't altruism just egoism in disguise? 

Many people who think about the egoism / altruism question believe that pure altruism does not exist. They say that an altruistic act is actually selfish because you often get something in return. In two ways it can indeed be the case that you get something in return if you show something helpful. 

First, helping behavior can create a tendency to reciprocate. You help him, he wants to help you as a thank you. Second, helping behavior can make you feel good. Even then, you might think that helping yourself is not completely selfless. In short, maybe others are only helping to benefit themselves. However logical this reasoning may sound, it turns out to be incorrect. 

Research: Only pure altruism makes us feel good 

Research by Ryan and some of his colleagues (see here, here, here and here) has shown that when we act helpfully and selflessly towards others, we feel happier. Selflessness makes us feel autonomous, competent and related to others and, due to that, happier. And the surprising thing is that this effect only occurs when there is genuine selflessness. 

If we help or give, expecting to get something in return or to benefit ourselves, this does not lead to tthe same sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Only when we don't expect to get anything in return for our altruism does it make us feel better. As soon as helping other people becomes instrumental (“What's in it for me to help the other?”) he effect that we start to feel better by helping disappears.

Proximal and ultimate explanations of behavior 

So part of human nature is to give without expecting anything in return. Psychologically it may seem strange that we as humans can have tendencies (to help) that lead to positive effects (we feel good, we get something back) while these positive effects are not the direct reason for the inclination. But from a biological way of thinking this is not so strange at all. Within biology, a distinction is made between different types of explanations for behavior: proximal (close) and ultimate (final) explanations (Tinbergen, 1963; Scott-Philips, 2011). 

Proximal explanations describe how behavior comes about while individuals interacts with their environment. Ultimate explanations describe how certain behavioral tendencies have arisen through evolution within a species (and therefore also within individuals belonging to the species). Proximal mechanisms explain how behavior comes about in a certain situation, while ultimate (evolutionary) mechanisms explain why the animal species (and the organism in question) has that particular behavioral tendency. All behavioral tendencies, anchored in the genes, that increase the reproductive chances of individuals, will become more common in the relevant species through natural selection. 

An example: A baby lies in the crib in a cold room and starts crying. A proximal explanation is that the cold is unpleasant for the baby which causes crying, an ultimate explanation is that crying alerts the mother who is coming to help (which provides an evolutionary advantage as it increases the baby's survival and thus the chance of reproducing). 

Now for the example of human altruism: we see someone who needs help which triggers our innate behavioral tendency to help (proximal explanation). Possible ultimate explanations for the existence of this innate behavioral tendency are: helping behavior of individuals leads to strong connections and more cooperation between these individuals, which increases the survival and reproduction chances of the individuals who exhibit behavior. 

Altruism is quite normal 

It is rather important to have a realistic view of human nature. If we believe that people are primarily selfish, you may be less likely to trust others and allow yourself to act selfishly. But this view of life and ourselves and the accompanying behaviors is unlikely to make us happy individually or benefit the community in which we live. Understanding that collaboration, selflessness, and the like are normal human behaviors is not only more realistic but also works better for ourselves and our communities. 

The role of the news 

But there are many factors that complicate this more optimistic view of human nature. One of those factors is the way the news media report about what is happening in the world. In the news we see countless examples of violence, deceit and exploitation. We may be tempted to think that is the norm. But we have to remember that these things make the news because they are in fact shockingly different from the norm. Look around you in your life. Most people interact socially most of the time. 

The Role of Populists 

A second factor that complicates a realistic-optimistic view of human nature is that there are many religious and/or ideologically inspired people who are constantly talking to us. Their rhetoric may say things like “we” are threatened by “them”. “They” are bad and want to destroy “us”. “We” must act tough and protect ourselves by keeping out or defeating “them”. 

Once, while listening to these types of fanatics (like Donald Trump), we start to feel threatened, our less-beneficial tendencies are triggered. Then the aggressive, competitive side may get the upper hand. Maybe the primary motivation of these populist is to acquire money and power. But it is also possible that they are mainly driven by their own fear. Either way, their behavior can scare us and make us irrational and lead to useless fighting. 

Altruism is common

Spread the word: pure altruism exists. It's very normal.