Altruism: Getting By with a Little Help From Our Friends

04/12/2016

One of the big issues in the field of social psychology is the question of why human beings help others and why we do not. Are we by nature selfish or are we giving? It’s an interesting question and one that pops up every now and then. For example, I’m a big fan of the television show Friends. Although there were tons of great episodes (especially considering that it ran for 10 years), one of my favorites addressed the issue of altruism. In the episode, Phoebe is challenged by Joey to find a selfless deed. Joey contended that no one does anything without some sort of gain to themselves while Phoebe was certain that some people will perform good acts just because it is the right thing to do.

Joey believed in prosocial behavior. This is an act that is performed with the goal of benefiting another person. This is wonderful but, as he pointed out, people generally get something out of their helping. If we donate to a worthy cause, help out a friend, or even administer first aid to a stranger, there is almost always a gain to us. We get something tangible in return or maybe just are able to feel good about ourselves. Consequently, there are lots of examples of prosocial behavior because there’s little risk and the payoff is good.

However, Phoebe’s side of the argument – that true altruism exists – is a bit harder to prove. Altruism is behavior that is not advantageous to the person but benefits others of the species. Succinctly put, prosocial acts benefit both giver and receiver while altruism only benefits the person being helped. Phoebe kept finding great examples of prosocial behavior, like acting as a surrogate for her infertile brother (but then she felt good because she helped him) and raking the leaves for an elderly neighbor (but then he gave her cookies and cider). The whole point of the episode (other than making us laugh) was that altruism is tough to find. However, there are examples out there.

The Holocaust provided some great examples of altruism. At Auschwitz, one of the most notoriously cruel concentration camps, they regularly called out numbers printed on the prisoners’ shirts. Death followed for those whose number was called. There were two young brothers who were prisoners there and one day, the number of one brother was called. A family friend was nearby and told the brothers that they had a better chance of staying alive if they stuck together. So the friend changed shirts with the brother and went off to the gas chamber. Both brothers survived Auschwitz.

Another example occurred in 1982 when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River. Most passengers were killed but the few survivors clung desperately to the tail of the plane in 30-degree water. A helicopter from the National Park Service dropped a rescue line, hoping to tow survivors to the rescue workers waiting on the shore. Most were in shock and could not grab the line. One man was more alert than the rest and time after time, caught the rope and handed it to another person. The helicopter at last returned for the man who had helped the others only to find that he had succumbed to the freezing temperatures.

A more recent example occurred in Fort Worth several years ago. Four year old Xander Vento saw a three year old girl struggling to stay afloat in a community pool. He swam over to her and used the last of his strength to hold her head above water. She survived but he did not. Imagine that. A four year old child saved the life of a three year old at the cost of his own.

What causes people to put themselves at such risk for the sole benefit of others? Social scientists have long searched for the answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as an altruistic personality. What they’ve found is that while there certain characteristics associated with the higher likelihood of helping others (e.g., a high level of empathy, an internal locus of control and a belief in social responsibility), people do not always respond in the same way in every situation. Consequently, we cannot predict future helping behavior based on past helping behavior. Depending on your perspective, that information can be either depressing or encouraging.

Social scientists have also looked into whether there is a cultural difference to helping behavior and they found that there is. In 23 cities around the world, researchers observed how many people helped across three different situations. Four of the six cities who helped the most (93% to 76%) – Rio de Janeiro, San Jose (Costa Rica), Madrid, and Mexico City – hold the cultural value of simpatĩa, which prizes friendliness, politeness and helping others. If you’re wondering, New York City came in at 45%.

It seems like the upshot to all this research on helping is that, while you cannot predict altruism, you can certainly encourage prosocial acts and set a foundation. Perhaps if you are used to acting prosocially, altruism will not seem like such a big leap. In the Friends episode, Phoebe kept trying until she eventually performed an altruistic act. In the doing, she accidentally helped Joey and then felt good, so you can never tell how the universe will respond. Maybe we should all give a try.

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