Throughout our history, people have been helping each other – from sharing the discovery of fire, to developing antibiotics, to becoming peace corps members or firefighters. It has been noted, however, that maybe these ‘helping hands’ are not necessary done for altruistic reasons, but rather for our own ego-boosting ones. The concept of altruism is based mostly on the emotion of empathy. The concept of egoism is based mostly on self-gratification. These two concepts have been in debate with each other for a long time, each one having reason to define the reason why people help other people.

Given a situation where help would be needed, either concept (altruism or egoism) could be the defining factor on why someone would help someone else they did not know. Many motivating factors can be attributed to either concept. For example, if there is a car accident, a stranger may approach the car to see if any of the passengers need help; this could be because the stranger may feel that the passengers may be in grave danger and he would not want them to die (altruism). On the other hand, the stranger could feel that he could help the passengers because he is the best person around to help; the stranger is strong, smart, and needs to be in control of this situation (egoism).  If you change the scenario to the car being on fire, the altruistic-type stranger would still try to see if they could possibly get the passengers out of the car, whereas the egotistic-type would see this situation as ‘doomed’ and may explain his inaction by stating that there is nothing anyone could do.  In either case, there is almost always a rewarding feeling of being helpful by a helping stranger which aides in the continuation of helping someone in need.

Prosocial behavior is the action or the behavior to a situation that in intended to be helpful to others. The desire to be helpful to others with no expectation or anticipation of being rewarded is the basic definition of altruism.  Although there is some argument on whether or not we are born altruistic, prosocial behaviors are learned.  People who are self-serving have learned to use prosocial behaviors in order to appear to be helpful, but their expectation or anticipation of a reward is leering over that helpfulness.

There are many reasons why people behave prosocially. There are generally three different ways in which we ‘learn’ prosocial behaviors: social learning, social/personal standards, and arousal and affect.  Social learning is basically learning to be helpful by watching those around you be helpful.  If your parents and social environment exhibit prosocial behaviors, then you are more likely to do the same.  Of course, the flip side is also true where your parents and social environment are egotistical and only watch out for themselves, then you would learn and behave in the same manner.

Social/personal standards are our feelings of being morally obligated to exhibit prosocial behaviors to fall into the social norm. This is where we feel social responsibility to be helpful, which assists in our positive self-image. And then there are the arousal and affect theories that concentrate on the importance of emotion as a motivator in prosocial behaviors and altruistic helping. Everyone is aroused by the distress of other people, and it is experience (or lack thereof) that motivates the behavior of the one that is aroused; for example, if a man had once stopped and helped a woman change her tire but got robbed during the process, he has had the experience and will probably be less likely to help someone else in that same situation. The same goes on the other side, where if a man helped a woman change her tire and she paid him for it, then he may be more likely to help someone again in that situation. But does this support the altruistic or egotistical reasons for helping?

There are stories where a woman lifts the back-end of a car to save her child that is pinned under it, or the story about the guy who beats a wild animal to death because that animal was threatening to the safety of his children. These stories are seen to be heroic and almost supernatural, but is it considered to be done with altruistic motives. Putting yourself at risk for those that you love can be considered normal, or expected, but when you do the same for strangers, that is when it can be considered altruistic. Does true altruism exist? I would like to believe so. There are people who do not even take a second to think when they see someone step onto a street with an oncoming car. And there are people who are in a burning building or after an earthquake who will automatically help people to get outside. I would like to believe that true altruism runs through everyone’s veins – it just depends on how deep you look.

Professor Mercy