Do people care more about themselves than others?

Understanding why people do or do not help one another has been a question that involved social scientists, psychologists, anthropologists as well as neuroscientists. As noted by authors Manning and Levine (2017), “helping”, “prosocial” and “altruism” are terms that are often used interchangeably in the scientific literature, often without consistency from the same authors. This is because, although all three behaviours are objectively the same, in that they all describe a form of interpersonal support from one individual to another, they differ in underlying driving motivation for each. Research has shown how social and cultural influences, emotions as well as identity and genetics, all play a role in the manifestation of altruistic behaviour. Thus, in this essay, the extent to which human altruism exist will be critically evaluated, starting from an evolutionary and anthropological overview of its origin, followed by a brief discussion on the biology and neuroscience involved and how it develops from childhood to its morality and social importance.

Evolutionary theory has consistently and accurately predicted how the environmental challenges a species face, shape its gene pool promoting the survival of the fittest. Thus, in an environment of scarce resources, fierce competition and a consequent pursuit of self-interest lead to selfish behaviour so to ensure the passing on of genetic information to the next generation; humans are not exempt from this natural order, as described by Dawkins (1976). However, humans are distinct from other animals in that they will frequently help unrelated strangers as well as people they have never met, without any expectation of a reward or reciprocity (Richerson & Boyd, 2005), a behaviour at odds with most other lifeforms. Among the first ideas that sought to explain altruism from a genetic perspective, was that of inclusive fitness theory where this behaviour is explained as outcome-oriented instead of emerging from inherent motivation (Hamilton, 1964). These theories would suggest, however, that helping behaviour is dependent on the individual’s cost-benefit analysis of any given situation, such as the notion of reciprocal altruism which describes how people may help others with an expectation of being helped back in the future (Trivers, 1971).

As truly altruistic behaviour is understood as the action an individual takes towards another or a group outside that individual’s self-interest, it has been argued that it is impossible to demonstrate pure altruism (Piliavin, et al., 1981). Egoistic or selfish behaviour is indeed distinguished by the fact that it only benefits its actor. However, when one’s personal benefit includes the wellbeing and happiness of one’s tribe or group of belonging, the scope of self-interest extends beyond the self. Thus, altruistic behaviour emerges as an extension of self-interest, as described by Batson’s model (1987), where an overlap occurs between the self and the other. Moreover, the theory of reciprocal altruisms also supports the viewpoint that the motivation driving such behaviour is the expectation that it will be reciprocated in the future. As Hamilton (1964) suggested, natural selection would favour an altruistic gene if the benefit of altruism outweigh its cost, thus ensuring that altruistic behaviour is passed on to the next generation.

More recent research in evolutionary psychology, however, suggest that, has early humans learned to cook, and thus gained a more efficient and less time-consuming method for obtaining calories, the brain had the opportunity to develop its prefrontal cortex by increasing the number of cortical neurons (Gabi, et al., 2016). This development of the brain is significant as the relationship between the feeling of empathy and activity in the prefrontal cortex has been demonstrated both the research conducted with fMRIs (Seitz, et al., 2006), as well as in studies involving patients with brain damage to that region of the brain (Shamay-Tsoory, et al., 2003). As the human ability and capacity to experience empathy increased, the species was better equipped to deal with the evolutionary challenges it encountered on its path, as helping others would have increased the chances of survival through cooperation instead of pursuing rigid competition. Indeed, one crucial and distinctive feature of human empathy is that it is not restricted to interaction with kin, nor does it have to be prompted by the actual perception of distress signal or emotion contagion (Decety, 2011, p. 35).

The claim that truly altruistic behaviour would be impossible to demonstrate, however, was soon disproved by the research conducted by Dovidio et al. in 1990, in which an experiment with the goal to demonstrate purely egoistically motivated helping, as posited by the empathy-altruism hypothesis, showed the opposite, as also noted by Piliavian in 2009. This hypothesis posted that it would be in the individual’s self-interest to minimize emotional distress and thus when in the experimental condition participants were exposed to a person in emotional distress and then given the chance to help, it was thought that altruistic behaviour would decrease. Instead, the opposite was found to be true: participants would consistently help more in relation to the distress perceived. Such finding seems to indicate that the motivation driving altruistic behaviour is the same as the helping behaviour, as in an empathic response from individuals towards one another. The arousal: cost-reward model put forward in the research by Piliavin et al. (1981), does suggest that observing a situation of emergency, raises a state of arousal in bystanders that becomes increasingly unpleasant the longer it continues, thus perhaps explaining what would motivate the helping behaviour in such circumstances. This, however, does not apply when other people are present as, in such a scenario, another effect comes into play: the bystander effect, where the diffusion of responsibility can be observed and the reaction is heavily influenced by social influence (Darley & Latané, 1968).

Is altruistic behaviour, therefore innate or a social construct product of the required cooperation for ensuring survival? Studies have shown that small children display a preference for actors that demonstrate altruistic behaviour, as the research conducted by Hamlin et al. (2011) has shown. Further research has also shown that babies from the age of 14 to 18months, will help others without the expectation of any reward; interestingly, rewarding the behaviour appears to reduce its occurrence (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009). This would suggest, therefore, that altruistic behaviour is not only understood but also sought intuitively from an early age, thus validating, to some extent, Hamilton’s theory on the role of genes in the propagation of altruistic behaviour through the generations of the human species and thus that it is innate in humans.

Yet, the early theory of mind, pioneered by Jean Piaget in the 1920s, acknowledges that one of the states of early childhood development is egocentrism, in that the child is not yet aware that other people have different thoughts and feelings about the world. Although, there is evidence that helping behaviour remains stable throughout childhood, as the research by Zahn et al. (2001) suggests, developmental psychology identifies the achieving of the child recognizing its own mental state, thoughts and belief and, consequently the ability to infer the mental state of others, by the age of five (Hughes & Donaldson, 1979). Moreover, one of the stages of moral development identified by Kolhberg (1969) also shares the quality of altruistic behaviour: stage 3 – The morality of interpersonal concordance “Be considerate, nice and kind: you’ll make friends”. Such stage explicitly indicates the social value of prosocial behaviour as it helps create a new connection with other people using kindness as a currency, indicating, therefore, that altruistic behaviour is an acquired social tool in the developmental stages of childhood. Indeed, in a social world, reputation is as valid as a currency and consequently, altruistic behaviour acquires value to one’s group (Mifune, et al., 2009).

From a social perspective, moral foundation theory (Haidt & Joseph, 2004) suggests that there are fundamental rules to ethical behaviour that are true throughout all cultures as they are the foundation upon which moral behaviour is built upon. Of these foundations, two appear to reflect features of altruistic behaviour: the care/harm foundation, which underlies the virtues of kindness gentleness and nurturance, and the foundation of fairness/cheating from which the principle of reciprocal altruism and justice can be extrapolated. This would indicate, therefore, that altruistic behaviour is both a social construct, as much as it is one of the underpinnings of human cooperation that is innate of the human species on which rules for cooperation have been built upon.

Therefore, considering this body of research, altruistic behaviour could be understood to be both a product of human evolution, as well as the outcome of social reinforcement, as well as people’s empathic reaction towards the world around them. As experiments have shown (Coke, et al., 1978), helping behaviour is driven by one’s empathy, yet social influence also plays a role in the reaction time of the actual helping, if any does indeed occur (Piliavin, et al., 1981). The definition of Prosocial behaviour, however, indicates that it is the kind of behaviour that is generally beneficial to other people and to the ongoing social system (Piliavin, et al., 1981, p. 4). It has indeed been argued that the same emotional and cognitive processes which lead people to display altruistic behaviour towards strangers, constitute an inherent part of the human psychological equipment (Tamas, 2008).

In conclusion, it is undeniable that human altruism does indeed exist. Evolutionary theory and anthropological psychology both describe how it was a natural development of early humans have adapted to a changing environment, particularly stemming from the most important discovery of humankind: cooking, which then led to the ability to experience empathy with far more complexity than any other animal in nature. Consequently, this led to the development of the social structures at the foundations of civilization, from its moral and ethical rules to its cultures. Although innate, it is reinforced through childhood that helping one another is far more beneficial and advantageous than competing against each other.


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