A Curated Guide
This guide provides a brief overview of this topic and a curated list of important relevant resources and those frequently cited, referenced, or recommended by current scholars and experts in the field.
Altruism is the act of promoting someone else’s welfare even at great personal cost or risk to oneself. Despite popular arguments among economists in recent history that human nature is primarily self-interested and competitive, recent findings from evolutionary biology, anthropology, and neuroscience show that humans are just as if not more primed by their genes, brains, and physiological makeup for cooperation, kindness, and helping behaviors. Research indicates that such tendencies likely evolved from primitive instincts to care for and assist kin for purposes of species survival and expanded to include empathy with and spontaneous benevolence toward non-kin. Supporting this evolutionary theory of altruism are studies showing that very young toddlers and non-human primates will overcome obstacles to help others despite no reward to themselves.
Many social psychologists and philosophers are particularly interested in the motivation underlying altruistic behavior, which can result from empathy—sharing the perspective or feelings of another who is suffering—or compassion—a genuine concern for and desire to relieve another’s suffering. It also can stem from self-interested (egoistic) motives, such as making a charitable donation for tax deduction purposes or helping others to improve one’s reputation or facilitate reciprocity.
Reciprocity likely played an important part in the development of human societies and cooperation; however, humans routinely help strangers despite no personal benefit, and evidence shows that doing so triggers deeply ingrained neural and physiological mechanisms that make helping behavior intrinsically rewarding and pleasurable. As such, there is growing consensus in the scientific and academic community that caring about the welfare of others and altruistic behaviors are innate and not just products of religious or ethical teachings and norms.
Some philosophers argue that, logically and inevitably, helping behavior always results in benefits to the self even it’s simply because helping others feels good and yields a “helper’s high.” Others argue that debating the egoistic or purely selfless motives underlying altruistic acts is somewhat beside the point because, whether a person desires to or actually receives personal benefits from it, helping others is a moral issue and a virtue that society should value, encourage, and facilitate. In that vein, an increasingly popular social movement is effective altruism—the idea that people have a moral duty not only to help others, but to determine the most effective and impactful way of doing so. Moral philosopher Peter Singer, who is largely credited with galvanizing this movement, argues that people should use evidence and prioritize the most important human values when choosing whom to benefit with their time or money.
To further encourage altruism in society, proponents can now point to empirical studies that have correlated engaging in altruistic behavior with a number of physical and mental health improvements, including reduced mortality, depression, and pain; increased happiness and life satisfaction; and greater connections to and cooperation with others. They can also reference business case studies, such as those outlined in Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, suggesting that those who help others in the workplace may be more productive and successful in the long run than those who only look out for themselves.
Although deciphering the underlying motivation for helping behavior remains a difficult research conundrum, at least one study found that among a group of aging volunteers, only those who volunteered for “other-oriented” reasons showed a boost in life expectancy four years later vis-a-vis non-volunteers (Konrath, Fuhrel-Forbis, Lou, & Brown, 2012). In addition, a strong body of research already indicates that cultivating a concern for and desire to relieve others’ suffering, such as through meditation or mental training, is a source of health and wellbeing itself, as well as a motivator of actual helping behavior. In other words, the reasons for helping do have consequences.
As empirical evidence for the personal and societal benefits of altruism has increased over time, so has interest in determining how individuals can strengthen their own altruistic natures; how workplaces, schools, and other cultural, social, and economic institutions and systems can better encourage and promote such behavior; and how human development periods may best be leveraged to boost altruistic tendencies.
Altruism researchers are also currently studying how to prevent stress and burnout and cultivate resilience among individuals who provide significant help to others either personally (e.g., family caretakers) or professionally (e.g., healthcare workers, teachers); several such studies have indicated that mindfulness and compassion-related training and meditation practices can alleviate the negative symptoms of prolonged altruistic behavior.
Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in Humans. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
This book provides both a comprehensive review of theory and research related to altruism and a more specific exploration of the relationship between psychological theory and neuroscience research. Batson examines the human capacity to care for others and the motivations that underlie related behavior. A summary of research conducted to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis is included, as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the findings.
Batson, C. D. (2018). A Scientific Search for Altruism: Do We Only Care About Ourselves? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
In response to the centuries long egoism-altruism debate, this book synthesizes numerous studies to investigate motivational factors, concluding that empathy-based altruism is indeed part of human nature. A Scientific Search for Altruism provides an in-depth review of Batson’s carefully constructed research, as well as the potential benefits and drawbacks associated with empathy-based altruistic behavior.
Evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm formulates a new theory to explain the origin of altruistic motivation and morality beyond the human instinct to promote survival and selfish reproduction. He examines issues concerning the origins of moral sense, including the nature of self-sacrifice, virtue, and shame. Bohem argues that moral sense is a defense mechanism that promotes survival and flourishing in groups, and provides an explanation of the evolution of human generosity and cooperation in support of his theory.
Grant, A. (2014). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
In this book, Adam Grant utilizes his pioneering research to argue that helping behavior is a driver to success. Grant compares the success of one man’s social network with other examples to illustrate a revolutionary approach toward social connection and productivity. This text is concerned with effective networking, collaboration, influence, negotiation, and leadership skills.
Halifax, J. (2018). Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.
Joan Halifax illustrates the profound value of altruism in creating a flourishing society, and acknowledges the unhealthy aspects of altruism and what social psychologists refer to as “pathological altruism.” Halifax argues that when altruism is not grounded and characterized by insight, it has the potential to harm one physically and mentally. Altruism, along with empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement, is identified as one of the five psychological territories that exemplifies strength of character.
Harman, O. (2011). The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
The Price of Altruism reveals the profound narrative of George Price, an American population geneticist, as he strives to answer evolution’s greatest riddle: survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest? By integrating 150 years of scientific attempts to explain kindness, this book explores the duel between biological necessity and the transcendence of the human spirit to identify a natural origin to kindness.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Daniel Keltner investigates the evolution of positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe, and compassion to demonstrate how human beings are hardwired for altruistic action. By combining scientific insight, personal narrative, and Eastern philosophy, Keltner illustrates how positive emotions connect people and support the development of cooperative societies. Further, this book examines the science of emotion and discusses its implications for ethics and human interaction.
Klein, S. & Dollenmayer, D. (Trans.). (2014). Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made us Human, and Why it Pays to Get Along. New York, NY: The Experiment.
Klein presents a comprehensive synthesis of theory and research on the human instinct for prosocial behavior from a range of disciplines including neuroscience, genetics, economics, social psychology, anthropology, history, and contemporary culture.
MacAskill, W. (2016). Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
William MacAskill integrates his academic research, knowledge as a leading developer of the term effective altruism, and lived experience to examine the question: how can we do good better? MacAskill provides a practical, data-driven approach for helping others in spite of the resources available. In Doing Good Better, he lays out the essential principles to make a tremendous difference in the world by making smarter choices in giving back.
MacFarquhar, L. (2016). Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
In this text, Larissa MacFarquhar shares intimate stories of those living extremely ethical lives and highlights their bravery, recklessness, integrity, joys, and defeats. MacFarquhar acknowledges the skepticism that highly altruistic ideals are often met with and integrates the histories of the literature, philosophy, social science, and self-help that have contributed to the suspicion of do-gooders in Western culture.
Monroe, K. R. (1996). The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Political psychologist Monroe explains altruism from the perspective of social and ethical political theory. She describes diverse examples of altruistic individuals throughout history, arguing that the common denominator is their view of strangers as fellow human beings.
Parfit, D. (1986). Reasons and Persons. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
In this text, British moral philosopher Derek Parfit challenges readers’ deepest beliefs about rationality, morality, and personal identity, arguing that individuals have an incorrect understanding of human nature. Parfit provides reasoning for why humans often act against their own best interests, in addition to holding moral views that are self-defeating. This text aims to examine humanity’s altruistic nature while highlighting the complexity of perceiving human nature accurately.
Pfaff, D. W. (2015). The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
In this book, renowned neuroscientist Donald Pfaff in association with other prominent scientists argues that the source of good human behavior arises purely from one’s physical makeup. Unlike other studies in its field, The Altruistic Brain provides important research into the physical nature of empathy and altruistic motivation. This text aims to understand the behavioral revolution in science and the influence that this may have toward increasing cooperation and altruism in society.
Post, S., & Neimark, J. (2008). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. New York, NY: Broadway.
Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, and his co-author detail the findings from numerous research studies showing positive health and wellness impacts from giving to others, particularly by starting at younger ages, including reduced physical pain, depression, and mortality; increased life satisfaction; and increased health for those suffering with chronic diseases such as HIV and multiple sclerosis.
Ricard, M. (2016). Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. New York, NY: Black Bay Books.
In this book, former geneticist and long-time Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard defines altruism as genuine concern for the wellbeing of others. Ricard combines firsthand experience with empirical research to illustrate how altruism can provide a solution to the main challenges that modern society faces, including economic inequality, life satisfaction, and environmental sustainability.
Singer, P. (2011). The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
In this text, Peter Singer investigates the nature of moral standards and their relationship to evolutionary theory, particularly by examining how individuals are capable of altruism if evolution is a struggle for survival. Singer utilizes his personal research in conjunction with philosophy and evolutionary psychology to demonstrate that human ethics require an understanding of both biology and the human capacity for reasoning.
Singer, P. (2015). The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
This text draws attention to the growing field of effective altruism and illustrates how living a fully ethical life requires doing the “most good you can do.” Singer explains that by utilizing reason instead of emotion, effective altruists extend the possibilities for advancing society. Further, he provides charitable examples of effective altruists and offers hope in support of tackling the world’s most challenging issues.
Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
In this text, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson evaluates the latest developments in evolutionary science to study the relationships among selfishness, human nature, and altruism. From an evolutionary viewpoint, Wilson argues that altruism is intrinsically linked to the functional organization of groups, and demonstrates how a social theory that targets group function can advance the human condition. This text offers a powerful treatise on the nature of altruism and highlights its implications for human society.
Altruism | Defined. (n.d.). Greater Good.
In this article, the editors of Greater Good magazine, a publication of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley, provide an overview of the research and theories related to altruism, including its roots in human nature and findings linking altruistic behavior to increased levels of health and happiness.
Arnocky, S., Barclay, P. (2016, November 15). Altruistic People Have More Sexual Partners. Scientific American.
In this article, researchers identify altruism as a potential sexual signal, illustrating that it may play an important role in mate selection. This theory suggests that acting altruistically can represent one’s values as a mating partner, including one’s concern for others and the likelihood of cooperating with future mates. This finding demonstrates that the inclination toward altruistic motivation may be strong, and is especially preferred in long-term mating.
Banis, D. (2018, November 15). Effective Altruism is the Nerdy Social Movement That Teaches People How to do Good Better. Forbes.
This article explores the logic behind the effective altruism movement and provides suggestions for which problems ought to be solved first in order to advance society. Leaders in the movement highlight three critical issues for humanity: extreme poverty, animal suffering, and the development of a “long-term future” through the minimization of global catastrophic risks. Effective altruism targets the long-term outcomes of actions, and thus, prioritizes causes that are large in scale, highly neglected, and highly solvable.
Brooks, D. (2016, July 8). The Power of Altruism. New York Times.
In this opinion article, Brooks highlights the influence of perception in human interaction and demonstrates how viewing a situation through a moral vs. economic lens determines incentive for ethical action. Choosing to view a situation through a moral lens leads to a natural, altruistic motivation and is often compromised when an economic transaction is introduced. Brooks argues that due to this influence, society has shifted from its altruistic tendencies and is now less cooperative, less trusting, and less effective.
Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing Social Support May be More Beneficial Than Receiving it: Results From a Prospective Study of Mortality. Psychological Science, 14(4), 320–327.
Study of older married adults found a significant reduction in mortality in individuals who reported providing instrumental support to others but not in individuals receiving such support.
Cepelewicz, J. (2016, March 3). What's Your Real Motive For Being Altruistic? Scientific American.
This article examines the neurophysiological fingerprint of altruistic motivation and demonstrates how the communication between different brain regions is dependent on whether someone’s decision is empathy- or reciprocity-driven. Researchers have found that inducing empathy increased altruism in selfish people but not in prosocial people. Meanwhile activating reciprocity increased altruism in prosocial people but had no effect on selfish individuals. In addition, researchers investigate future research opportunities related to a person’s baseline inclination toward altruism or selfishness.
Cowen, T. (2015, August 14). Effective Altruism: Where Charity and Rationality Meet. New York Times.
This article illustrates the advantages associated with the effective altruism movement in which leaders encourage donors to think more scientifically about philanthropy. Effective altruism aims to discourage individuals from donating to charity without little analysis on the use of the money, and instead, offers pragmatic tips to receive the highest return on the donation. Although this article raises concerns about taking the rational approach to altruism, this piece clearly demonstrates the associated benefits.
Davies, S. (2018, May 29). To Get a Grip on Altruism, See Humans as Molecules. Aeon.
In this article, researchers use thermodynamics to explore the nature of altruism and why creatures sacrifice themselves for the common good. They examine how the laws governing heat and the interaction of microscopic particles might convert into macroscopic behavior. Additionally, researchers aim to explain altruism by assigning humans as atoms and molecules, and societies or populations as solids, liquids, or gases. This novel approach to altruism through physics can establish rules for certain organizational structures that might foster cooperation.
Davis, J. L. (2005). The Science of Good Deeds: The 'Helper's High' Could Help You Live a Longer, Healthier Life. WebMD.
Author describes latest studies connecting helping behaviors to better health.
Eaton, K. (2011, January 26). Is There an Altruism Gene? Greater Good.
This article outlines a study about the relationship between genetic makeup and altruistic behavior, specifically looking at three variations of the COMT gene. COMT influences how certain neurotransmitters are activated in the brain, and these neurotransmitters have been previously linked to positive emotions and social behaviors like bonding. As the first study to link a specific gene to altruistic behavior, the results indicate a promising area for future research on the genetics of altruism.
Hamblin, J. (2015, December 30). The Physiological Power of Altruism. The Atlantic.
This article illustrates the physiological benefits of engaging in altruistic behavior like volunteering. Research confirms that adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves, resulting in lower levels of depression and mortality risk. Though some of these results have been attributed to the effects of having purpose in life, findings demonstrate that individuals who care for themselves, and thus make better decisions about their health, have the capacity to care for others in the same way.
In this study, researchers assess levels of empathy, stress, mindfulness, and self-compassion alongside altruistic orientation—the ability to feel empathic concern rather than personal distress when faced with the suffering of another. Results indicate that the amount of time spent meditating was associated with the degree of improvement in altruistic orientation.
Karns, C. (2018, December 23). New Thoughts About Gratitude, Charity and Our Brains. The Washington Post.
This article describes scientific studies that suggest that the more grateful people are, the higher their tendency to be altruistic and that experiences of gratitude and altruism similarly activite a particular region of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and release neurotransmitters in ways that signal reward, pleasure, and goal attainment. One study showed that participants induced to practice more gratitude through journaling had increased brain activation indicative of reward/pleasure while witnessing a charitable act.
Lichtenberg, J. (2010, October 19). Is Pure Altruism Possible? New York Times.
In this op-ed, Lichtenberg discusses the possibility and prevalence of pure altruism (actions intended to benefit others, even strangers, that aren’t motivated by personal gain) relative to psychological, logical, and evolutionary arguments that suggest altruism stems from egoistic motivations such as reciprocity and kin-selection (helping your own kind survive and reproduce). She also highlights the limitations and detriments of even debating egoism versus pure altruism if we want to encourage more altruistic behavior.
Macmillan, A. (2017, July 14). Being Generous Really Does Make You Happier. TIME.
This article highlights the results of a study designed to investigate whether making a commitment to being generous is enough to make people happier. As evidenced by brain activity in the regions associated with social behavior, generosity, happiness, and decision-making, results indicated that those who made more generous decisions had more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with altruism and happiness and reported higher levels of happiness. Additional research highlighted demonstrates correlations between generosity and lower blood pressure and positive life expectancy.
Nutt, A. E. (2017, November 21). Why Fear Motivates Both Altruists and Psychopaths. The Washington Post.
This article highlights Abigail Marsh’s social neuroscience research on the motivations underlying altruism and psychopathology and how recognition of another’s fear or lack thereof may be a critical factor motivating these extreme forms of behavior.
Ricard, M. (2018, January 16). In 2018, Let’s Be Altruistic. Huffington Post.
In this article, Ricard describes how the banality of goodness is the foundation of human life and illustrates that despite tragic deviations from this goodness, the vast majority of human interactions are constructive rather than destructive. He highlights research portraying humans as having a strong predisposition for cooperation over competition, even at an early age and argues that making concern for others the linchpin of social movements and policies is key to overcoming the remaining injustices and suffering in the world.
Suttie, J. (2016, April 14). Can Helping Others Keep You Sober? Greater Good.
Author discusses research from Maria Pagano and others showing that social connections especially through helping others can boost the chances of maintaining sobriety.
Aknin, L. B., Hamlin, J. K., & Dunn, E. W. (2012). Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children. PLoS One, 7(6), e39211.
This study showed that very young toddlers experienced more happiness (as evidenced by researchers’ coded observations of toddlers’ emotional expressions) when giving a treat to others than in receiving one themselves and that those who engaged in “costly giving” in which the gave up another resource had a greater happiness boost. Authors suggest that these finding support the theory that prosocial behavior is innate by virtue of the good feelings it generates.
Andreoni, J., Vesterlund, L. (2001). Which Is the Fair Sex?: Gender Differences in Altruism. Quarterly Journal of Economics 116, 293–312.
This study investigated sex differences in altruism. Findings illustrated that when altruism is expensive, women are more altruistic, but when it is cheap, men are kinder. In addition, they found that men are more likely to be completely selfish or completely selfless, whereas women tend to prefer sharing evenly. Researchers conclude that depending on the price of giving, both sexes can be found to be more altruistic.
Bowles, S. (2007). Group Competition, Reproductive Leveling, and the Evolution of Human Altruism. Science 314 (5805), 1569-72.
This article discusses the evolution of human altruism, highlighting distinctive human practices that were integral to the evolutionary process, like sharing food beyond the immediate family, monogamy, and other forms of reproductive leveling. The author explains that an altruistic disposition may be the result of a gene-culture coevolutionary process in which group conflict played a key role.
Choi, J-K., Bowles, S. (2007). The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War. Science 318 (5850), 636-40.
This article provides a model to explain the lethal nature of warfare among humans and illustrates the evolution of genetically transmitted behavioral types within a population of individuals who engage in within- and between-group interactions. The purpose of this model is to determine whether individuals are altruistic (or not) and parochial (or not).
de Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology 59, 279-300.
In this review article, primatologist de Waal argues that motivation underlying altruism stems from empathy mechanisms as ancient as mammals and birds. He describes how this theory is consistent with kin selection and reciprocal altruism in evolutionary theory.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319 (5870), 1687-1688.
This article describes studies that found spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally than spending it on oneself and that participants who were randomly assigned to spend windfall money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend the windfall on themselves.
Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The Nature of Human Altruism. Nature 425, 785-791.
In this review, the authors consider some of the most fundamental questions about evolutionary origins of social relations and the structures within society and how repeated interactions, reputation-formation, and strong reciprocity are strong factors underlying human behavior. They also discuss research suggesting that, in some environments, a small group of altruists can influence a large group of selfish individuals to cooperate, and contrarily, a minority of egoists can convince a majority of altruists to defect.
Fowler, James H., and Nicholas A. Christakis. Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 12 (2010): 5334-5338.
A series of experiments involving public goods games showed that cooperative (helping) behavior by players influenced other players to engage in cooperative behaviors with others up to three degrees (i.e., person to person to person). Finding suggest that cooperative prosocial behavior is contagious.
Harbaugh, W. T., Mayr, U., & Burghart, D. R. (2007). Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations. Science, 316 (5831), 1622-1625.
Study showed that charitable giving was associated with brain activation consistent with reward or a “warm glow” feeling, particularly if the giving was voluntary.
Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, A., & Brown, S. (2012). Motives for Volunteering are Associated With Mortality Risk in Older Adults. Health Psychology, 31 (1), 87–96.
Study examined how participants’ motives for volunteering impacted their mortality risks four years later. Results indicate that volunteers live longer than non-volunteers, but only if they volunteer for other-oriented (i.e., compassionate as opposed to selfish or other) reasons.\
Lamm, C., Bason, C. D., Decety, J. (2007). The Neural Substrate of Human Empathy: Effects of Perspective-Taking and Cognitive Appraisal. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19 (1), 42-58.
In this study, the researchers used behavioral measures and FMRI to determine how participants responded to observing another in pain. Findings indicated that participants induced to adopt the perspective of the sufferer showed stronger empathic concern, which is associated with altruistic motivation, whereas those induced to imagine enduring the painful situation themselves showed increased personal distress, which has been shown to correlate with self-interested (avoidance) behaviors.
McCullough, M. E., Kimeldorf, M. B., Cohen, A. D. (2008). An Adaptation for Altruism: The Social Causes, Social Effects, and Social Evolution of Gratitude. Current Directions in Psychological Science 17 (4), 281-285.
In this article, the authors examine the social causes, evolutions, and effects of gratitude, as well as its relationship to generosity and related helping behaviors. They discuss findings that suggest gratitude evolved to facilitate social exchange and how and why it correlates with helping behaviors.
Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Gillath, O., Nitzberg, R. A. (2005). Attachment, Caregiving, and Altruism: Boosting Attachment Security Increases Compassion and Helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89 (5), 817-839.
In this article the authors discuss how theories related to innate systems underlying caregiving and emotional connections between dependents (particularly children) and their caregivers may provide insight into the motivations underlying compassionate altruism. They explain research findings that indicate secure attachment boosts caregiving and compassionate altruism tendencies, while insecure attachment suppresses these tendencies.
Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. American journal of public health, 103 (9), 1649-1655.
Building on previous research linking increased stress to increased mortality, the results of this five-year study showed that participants dealing with stressful situations were less likely to die if they’d helped others during the previous year; non-helpers’ chances of dying over the five years increased by 30 percent for each stressful event. Researchers speculated that helping others provides a buffer to biological effects of stress.
Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good To Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 12 (2), 66-77.
This article provides a comprehensive review of research data linking altruism to mental and physical health. The author also discusses the negative impact that compassionate motivation can have if the subject becomes overwhelmed by helping tasks.
Rand, D. G., Greene, J. D., & Nowak, M. A. (2012). Spontaneous Giving and Calculated Greed. Nature, 489 (7416), 427.
Psychologists conducted a series of studies comparing the effects of intuitive versus deliberate decision-making on cooperative versus competitive behavior in a series of experiments involving economic games. Findings suggested that participants who engaged in quicker, more intuitive decisions howed more giving behavior and participants behaved more self-interestedly after deliberation.
Simpson, B., & Willer, R. (2007). Altruism and Indirect Reciprocity: The Interaction of Person and Situation in Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychology Quarterly 71 (1), 37-52.
In this study, researchers examined how indirect reciprocity (the idea that providing helping to others builds up a reputation such that reciprocity is likely in the future) affects prosocial helping behavior. The results suggest that indirect reciprocity has little effect on those who already have altruistic tendencies, but may induce helping by those with priori egoistic tendencies. Additional findings suggest that compared to egoists, altruists indirectly reciprocate at higher levels and tend to discount prosocial behaviors induced by reputational factors less.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees. Science 311 (5765), 1301-3.
In this article, researchers discuss their research findings that support the idea that although evolutionarily rare, humans do have a tendency to provide help to non-kin with no personal benefit to themselves. These findings include studies showing that prelinguistic human children as young as 18 months and even non-human primates will overcome obstacles to help others even with no expected reward.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2009). The Roots of Human Altruism. British Journal of Psychology 100, 455-471.
In this article, the researchers discuss arguments and findings on the extent to which altruistic behavior arises from culture (such behavior being encouraged and rewarded by society) or biology (being motivated by reciprocity to promote cooperation). They provide evidence for the theory that young children start out as indiscriminate altruists and become more selective as they grow older through emerging social-cognitive understanding and new experiences.
West, S. A., Griffin, A. S., Gardner, A. (2006). Social Semantics: Altruism, Cooperation, Mutualism, Strong Reciprocity and Group Selection. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 20(2), 415-432.
The authors discuss and attempt to clear up confusion in the prosocial behavior research literature because of conflicting and overlapping terminology and the redefinition of certain key concepts. For example, they explain how altruism has been redefined to mean simply behavior intended to benefit others (what used to be referred to as weak altruism).
Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Hessenthaler, H. C., Stodola, D. E., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). The Role of Compassion in Altruistic Helping and Punishment Behavior. PLoS One, 10(12), e0143794.
Two studies investigated the relationship between compassion and altruistic behavior and showed that compassion is related to greater altruistic helping of victims and is not associated with or may mitigate altruistic punishment of transgressors.
Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z., Olson, M. C., ... & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1171-1180.
Study examined whether short-term compassion training increased altruistic behavior and whether individual differences in altruism are associated with training-induced changes in neural responses to suffering. Results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.
Whillans, A. V., Dunn, E. W., Sandstrom, G. M., Dickerson, S. S., & Madden, K. M. (2016). Is Spending Money on Others Good For Your Heart?Health Psychology, 35(6), 574.
Article describes studies on adults with high blood pressure with findings suggesting that prosocial spending (on others) may lower blood pressure. Researchers speculate that a mediating factor may be the reduction in stress induced by helping others.
Greater Good (producer). (July 2010). Happiness for a Lifetime: Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses how helping others helps ourselves. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EJIaTFfBss
Happiness researcher Lyubomirsky, best-selling author of The How of Happiness, discusses research showing that 40 percent of people’s happiness depends on their behavior and daily activities and that helping others is key happiness-inducing behavior
Ricard, M. (2015, January 7). What is Altruism? [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgIxEEQEK6E
A former scientist and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard discusses his views on altruism and emphasizes that motivation determines whether behavior is altruistic or selfish. He also argues that the benefits of being altruistic are simply a byproduct and not to be associated with the initial intention of removing the suffering of another or fulfilling their needs for happiness. Ricard provides a practical understanding of altruism supported by scientific insight and ancient wisdom.
TED (producer). (2013, March). The Why and How of Effective Altruism [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Diuv3XZQXyc
In this talk, moral philosopher Peter Singer defines effective altruism as a redistribution of money toward those in need in a well-directed manner. By highlighting effective altruists across the world, Singer highlights how each of these compassionate motivations are supported by the rational understanding that all lives have equal worth. Singer emphasizes the importance of changing culture to facilitate effective altruism by arguing that these ethics must be at the forefront of both belief and action.
TED (producer). (2014, October). How To Let Altruism Be Your Guide [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p_GKCr8rq8
In this talk, Matthieu Ricard demonstrates how altruism can be used as a tool to navigate personal and global challenges. Ricard uses three time scales to illustrate the impact individuals have on the planet, and argues that the solution to effectively govern this impact is to increase consideration for others. This talk offers a pragmatic approach for applying altruistic motivation to the real world, beginning with individual and societal commitment.
TED. (2016, October 7). Why Some People Are More Altruistic Than Others [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq-6T6TAu74
After experiencing the extreme kindness of a complete stranger, Abigail Marsh became inspired to redirect her research toward examining the motivations underlying extreme altruistic behavior and its structural processes. In this talk, she demonstrates how extreme altruists exhibit a larger than average amygdala, thus increasing their ability to recognize other people’s states and extend compassionate behavior toward those outside their social circle. This talk offers a clear understanding of the behavioral differences between psychopaths, the average individual, and extreme altruists.
TEDx (producer). (2010, December 12). Oren Harman: The Evolution of Altruism [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=db7li_TMJ0M
Oren Harman dissects the notion of altruism to identify the dynamics in which altruism arises and the difference between its biological and psychological bases. Harman discusses approaches that have been taken to establish the function of altruism in natural selection, and concludes by classifying the evolution of altruism as a problem living amongst science, evolution, and culture. This video provides key research findings on the nature of altruism and illustrates the relationship between altruistic motivation and action.
Tricycle. (2015, October 20). The Power of Altruism to Change the World [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5E7t14J9UQ
In this interview, Matthieu Ricard discusses how altruism can be used as tool to merge individual and societal change and thus, create a more harmonious society. The video discusses issues such as climate change, species extinction, and inequality. Ricard argues that developing an altruistic motivation whilst having more consideration for others offers a pragmatic approach to advancing societal flourishing. In addition, this video illustrates how society ought to step out of maximizing self-interest and enhance cooperative tendencies.
Aims to increase compassion and resilience among healthcare professionals and their patients by encouraging basic human caring in medical practice. The institute delivers lectures and workshops, produces an associated curriculum, publishes relevant books, and collaborates on metrics to measure outcomes. AMI works with global research programs to demonstrate the physical and emotional impact of compassion and meditation through neuroplasticity.
Aims to promote, support, and conduct rigorous scientific studies on compassion and altruistic behavior. Directed by Dr. James Doty, CCARE collaborates with neuroscientists, behavioral scientists, geneticists, and biomedical researchers to investigate the physiological and psychological correlations of compassion and altruism. In addition to scientific collaborations and academic conferences, the center offers a compassion cultivation program and teacher training as well as related educational programming.
Aims to advance and maintain the effective altruism movement by using evidence and scientific reasoning to help others as effectively as possible. The centre combines empathy with evidence to inspire people to take action based on this knowledge. Recent projects include securing philanthropic funds, organizing conferences, and providing in-depth resources and related content on effective altruism.
Founded in 2001 and directed by Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, this center promotes a more thriving, resilient, compassionate, and altruistic society by supporting and promoting scientific research on prosocial emotions and behavior and wellbeing and providing education on related topics through its website, events, and Greater Good magazine.
Conducts research to examine the social, cognitive, and neural bases of social processes, including those of empathy, altruism, and aggression. Directed by Abigail Marsh at Georgetown University, the team aims to understand how individuals perceive the emotions and thoughts of another, the motivating factors driving helping behavior, and the factors supporting the prevention of harm to others. Current research projects include investigations of altruism among living altruistic kidney and stem cell donors.
Kirat Randhawa is a student at Columbia University. She studies psychology and the use of contemplative practices for societal transformation.
Katherine Ludwig is a writer and editor for the Contemplative Sciences Center.