Psychology of Social Connection

Altruism that Matters

October 3rd, 2020 · 9 Comments

How can a person form meaningful relationships without empathy? In the lecturette, we learn that empathy causes prosocial behaviors such as compassion, cooperation, trust, support, and altruism due to its underlying mechanism of affiliating with others (Batson, 1991; de Waal, 2008). Empathy inspires so many behaviors critical to meaningful relationships. Humans thrive off of forming and maintaining relationships, and empathy plays a huge role in facilitating these processes (Pickett et al., 2004). Without empathy, the world would be a much colder place. How empathy intertwines with altruism, particularly sparks my interest.

Altruism is such a tricky subject. A lot of people think that they are being altruistic when they make a “selfless” decision, but are they really being truly altruistic? In terms of empathy-driven altruism, does it inherently include “selfish” aspects?

Well, in a world of personal relationships and everyday encounters, I don’t believe that pure altruism exists. There is always an underlying benefit – big or small – for the person performing the altruistic act despite what one’s motivation for the act is. de Waal (2008) explains that empathy-driven altruism benefits the actor by giving him/her “an emotional stake in the recipient’s well-being” (pg. 281). No matter what empathy-driven altruistic act you are performing, you are being offered an emotional stake, which is a benefit in and of itself. The opportunity to have an emotional stake in someone’s well-being is a privilege that we as humans gain satisfaction from, as it allows us to richen our relationship with another person. And, as we know, it is important for humans to form and maintain relationships (Pickett et al., 2004). 

I like to think of myself as someone whose empathy-driven altruism is pure. However, when I pause for a moment, I realize that when I help a friend out, send someone a care package, or comfort a friend, I tend to feel happier after the act. No, I don’t only engage in these behaviors expecting something in return or only because I will feel happier afterward. But, when all is said and done, my action makes me feel good and sometimes takes a weight off of my shoulder. Even though I didn’t go into the act with the intention of helping myself, I feel satisfied and happier internally. Our empathy towards a person carries us to follow through with a task regardless of what we do or do not gain. But, at the end of the day, we’re gaining a feeling of internal happiness; we’re feeling good about ourselves. This side effect doesn’t take away from the original intention of my altruistic act, but it suggests that altruism may not be strictly pure.

The bottom line is that “it is futile to try to extract the self from the process” of altruism (de Waal, 2008, pg. 292). It is too hard to take yourself out of the equation, but that’s okay. Although helping another person generally makes you feel good, it doesn’t mean that you’re doing it out of selfishness. Essentially, you don’t know exactly how something will make you feel until you do it. So, if that means you perform an empathy-driven altruistic act and end up feeling amazing because of it, it doesn’t make it morally wrong.

Whether you think altruism can be pure or it inherently always includes a selfish motive, we all need to continue to perform altruistic behaviors. The gain that you receive from an altruistic act doesn’t outweigh the good deed that you did for another. Small acts of empathy-driven altruism make the world a warmer, happier place.

Despite our discussion on the impossibility of pure altruism, there may be some cases for when altruism is driven more by selflessness, and that is in activism. De Waal describes empathy-driven altruism as one that “boil[s] down to helping oneself” because we are using “emotional identification” to essentially put ourselves in the shoes of the person we’re helping, feeling what they’re feeling, and thus alleviating our own discomfort when we help them (292). For example, if I decide to volunteer at a soup kitchen, my encounter with a hungry citizen might make me feel upset or uncomfortable as I imagine what it must be like to be hungry and homeless. But, as I start to serve this person food and talk to them, I may feel satisfied and happier because I had played a role in making their day a bit better. Thus, I’ve not only alleviated a bit of their hardship for that day, but I’ve also alleviated my own discomfort that stemmed from empathizing with their struggle. As de Waal notes, this emotional stake that I have in their well-being is the privilege that makes altruism seem a more selfish desire than a selfless one. So, when does a good deed like this go beyond our connectedness with an individual and towards a purely selfless goal? 

I define true activism as commitment to a cause, a movement, or the organization of people towards a common goal. Activism involves a continuous understanding of the local and underlying causes of a social issue and consequent devotion to organizing people and resources around the cause. Let’s revisit the example of volunteering at a soup kitchen. What if after I’ve volunteered at this soup kitchen, I decided to dedicate everyday to expanding awareness around homelessness, organizing the logistical work at this soup kitchen, and dedicating my life’s work to eradicating the housing crisis happening in America. My motivation goes beyond serving the few people I worked with at the soup kitchen and more towards fighting a system that is broken. One piece of evidence that may account for this shift from selfish to selfless motivations is a change in attitude from the results of our work. When we engage in public service, we may feel satisfied because we see immediate results: the person we are helping is happier and thus we are happier. But, with activism, as many activists may relate to, the work is exhausting, because we realize that expansive change–the change that would remedy a broken system–is nowhere near. In fact, this work can often lead people to despair, sharing the pain and hopelessness that oppressed and marginalized communities feel as our country seems to constantly ignore our cries for justice, progress, and equity. 

Yet, on the flip side, some may say this still has selfish motivations, because we are still working from a place of empathy for our community or even for the hungry citizen who inspired us in the first place. Thus, our work in organizing and advocating for our community is still giving us a sense of purpose that is benefiting our own self-actualization. So, can altruism ever, truly, not benefit ourselves? Probably not. But, I do think that there are levels of altruism and a spectrum of selfish and selfless motivation when we engage in it. Making a donation or sharing a post on Instagram, to me, is less altruistic than organizing a protest, fundraising for mutual aid funds, or even just showing up to protests everyday. Yes, activism is tiring and it feels like it won’t reap results because progress in our country is slow, bureaucratic, and broken. But, when we choose to keep fighting, losing, and fighting again, I believe that we’re taking steps towards altruism that actually matters. 


By Camerin Rawson & Anna Pacheco


Batson CD. 1991. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum.

de Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300.

GIPHY. (n.d.). Be Kind Animation GIF by Red & Howling – Find & Share on GIPHY. Retrieved October 2, 2020, from… LcWIEhR6z6. 

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095–1107.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • christinelee // Oct 4th 2020 at 11:16 am

    While I agree that acts of pure altruism are almost impossible to find, I thought the example of volunteering at a soup kitchen showed the different perspectives from both the volunteer and the recipient side. Whether the act is selfless or selfish seemed to be an intentions based framing. In Debbie Haski-Leventhal’s paper, “Altruism and Volunteerism: The perceptions of altruism in four disciplines and their impact on the study of volunteerism”, she explains that “any act for another will be considered altruistic if it benefits the recipient and harms the helper. If both gain from the interaction, then it is cooperation—not altruism” (p. 272) – so if these acts are selfish and benefit both people, is that even altruism? Also, harm seems like a strong characterization – it may be more costly in terms of time or going out of their way.

    The paper also brings up an interesting distinction between altruism and volunteering, which could be applicable to the soup kitchen example. Volunteerism is “focused on aspects of helping another without material rewards” (p. 272) and has an element of free will since the volunteer actively chooses to pursue the volunteerism. On the other hand, “altruistic behavior is often perceived by the helpers as a reflex, a sense of duty, whether as an inner voice … as an instinct to preserve the genes and as a reflex” (p. 273). Relating back to the soup kitchen example, it might be an active choice to go to the soup kitchen, but when you are there, it might be a natural instinct to help, communicate with the people their, feed them, and lend a hand. Despite the minutiae of these definitions, cooperation, altruism, and volunteerism are all beneficial for society. If everyone volunteered at soup kitchens, we would recognize the semantics of these words would not matter compared to the experiences we would gain.

    Haski-Leventhal, D. (2009), Altruism and Volunteerism: The perceptions of altruism in four disciplines and their impact on the study of volunteerism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39: 271-299. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00405.x

  • rachelrey // Oct 4th 2020 at 9:45 pm

    Hey Camerin and Anna!

    To start off, I definitely identified with the sentence you mentioned about having to “pause for a moment” when you think about empathy and altruism. During our discussion this past week, I experienced a similar moment – my first instinct was that of course altruism can be purely empathy-driven! Of course people can do altruistic actions out of the kindness of their own hearts! Yet, as I thought about it more (and in the context of our practicum this week), I realized how deeply our own perceptions of ourselves can be wrapped up in these actions.

    Your use of the de Waal quote summed it up nicely – no matter how much we may *want* altruism to be from a truly empathy-driven place, we’re humans. We are, in many ways, selfish beings. But even going back to the evolutionary context brought up by Gaby in the other post, it makes sense that we’re like this! We’ve evolved to both have our own individual survival in mind, while also living within a distinctly social and group-based environment and thus relying on others for this survival as well.

    In all, I agree – even if this idea of a “pure” altruism doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean that we should all just stop doing it (especially as we consider activism and the high stakes consequences of just dropping such work). We may not be able to separate ourselves from these acts of altruism, but at the same time we can’t separate the benefits these acts are able to provide for all.

  • suyeonlee // Oct 5th 2020 at 3:34 pm

    Hello Cameron and Anna!

    First of all, I greatly enjoyed reading your post and I believe we are sharing the same viewpoint regarding altruism.

    I also have been thinking about this, and I concluded that there is no such thing as “true altruism”. Just as you mentioned, there exists selfishness at the core of empathy-driven altruism. Whether it is tangible rewards or not, there is a return to altruistic behavior, and one of the most common rewards is “sense of self-enhancement”. We regard ourselves as a good person within a community as we engage in altruistic behaviors.

    I was very fascinated by how you brought up activism and defined it as an evidence that supports pure altruism does exist. Despite that reward is not guaranteed, people still engage in activist behaviors as they desire to bring positive changes in the society that could provide welfare for members of the society.

    However, I also think the motivation doesn’t really matter. Whether people engage in altruistic behavior due to selfishness or not, the fact is, they are still engaging in altruism and striving to secure goodwill of others.

  • gracerotondo // Oct 5th 2020 at 5:13 pm

    I found the way you distinguished altruism as having different motivators was particularly interesting and it was something I wrestled with this week when considering whether there is really a pure form of altruism. When thinking of altruistic behavior, I usually think of it broadly as selfless acts performed on behalf of others. But, when considering the psychological mechanisms that drive these behaviors more specifically, the water gets murky. I feel that many times it’s easy to distinguish when people are behaving altruistically solely for personal gain, and in these cases, altruism is used as a means to mask selfishness. But, when you behave altruistically to genuinely help someone or make someone’s day, altruism is used as a means to spread goodness. Though this latter behavior often causes a positive side effect, as you mentioned, I don’t think the weight of this side effect is enough to discredit the entire act.

    I understand that the evolutionary perspective suggests that we only engage in this type of behavior because it is beneficial to our own survival and/or reproduction, but I don’t wholly agree with that. I agree with you that it is possible to want to do something genuinely nice for someone, and though there may be a positive side effect that benefits yourself, this side effect doesn’t make the act “morally wrong”.

  • kat // Oct 7th 2020 at 6:33 am

    This is such a fascinating question. I totally understand the argument that there isn’t ‘true’ altruism. To take it to the extreme (and as an interesting aside), game theory can explain even anonymous donations and modesty in altruism. It was actually proposed by Harvard HEB researchers: (but this Larry David clip provides just as a funnier, but just as good explanation: The math is confusing to explain concisely, but in short, someone who donates anonymously is signalling that they are ‘high status’ enough that they can risk people not knowing and them not benefitting from the altruistic act.

    However, given all of that, I still believe in altruism. I think neither the evidence discussed that altruism gives the ‘giver’ satisfaction nor the game theory necessarily makes the act selfish (even to some degree). I think this is one question in which the lived experiences of humans are a bit neglected. Each of us can describe stories when our friends (or strangers) acted completely selflessly. Psychology and the sciences are extremely important, particularly now. But I think it would be silly to claim that ‘sure, it seems selfless, but they did it because their brains liked it.’ Or perhaps I just need a little bit of optimism right now. In any case, I absolutely agree that we need more altruism and altruism matters.

  • gracethawley // Oct 7th 2020 at 8:19 pm

    Cameron and Anna,

    First of all, WOW. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post on altruism. Of course, your adherence to the argument that no pure form of altruism exists definitely makes sense. I really loved Rachel’s comment that just as we can’t seemingly “separate ourselves” from acts of altruism, we also can’t “separate the benefits” that are quintessential of altruistic acts. I think this brings up a really interesting and new perspective about how we perceive altruism. Normally, we think of altruism of provide for another while accumulating costs ourselves (such as working at a soup kitchen for the benefit of others enjoying a much needed meal). But Rachel’s point really tripped me up – altruism doesn’t even exist without a giver who gives. So does it really matter if it’s pure or not, given that it wouldn’t even be a thing if there wasn’t someone to provide an ‘altruistic’ act?

    But just like Kat, I still somehow thoroughly believe in the existence of pure altruism, despite the accumulating evidence and seemingly bulletproof logic that says otherwise. It’s hard for me to believe that the the depth of our human behaviors, like altruism, simply end at our mesolimbic reward pathways systems and positive reinforcement. I don’t have a great counterargument that science might support, unfortunately. But in the end, you’re both VERY right. No one can deny the good that is fundamental in strong acts of altruism (for whatever reasons those acts might be completed on).

  • hannahpearce // Oct 8th 2020 at 12:34 am

    Hey Camerin and Anna!

    First off, I really enjoyed your blog post. I think it was really well written and ties in really well with the discussions we had this week.

    I agree that empathy-driven altruism can never truly be pure as there is always going to be some selfish thought or personal gain attached to it. We are extremely social human beings and as we have been learning throughout this course we require social connection and have this need to belong. We engage with people through empathy (and other things) in order to strengthen our connection. I do agree that the intent and the motivation behind why you engage in the altruistic act is very important. Although I believe that the reason behind the act doesn’t take away from the goodness of the deed, it’s the intent or motivation behind the act that can make an even bigger impact and what truly matters.

    I really like the way you guys bring true activism into the discussion and how you make the connection between altruism that matters and the motivation that we let drive us to attain the altruism that matters and makes a change.

  • jenniferperry // Oct 12th 2020 at 4:08 pm

    @christinelee: Love these papers that you are bringing in— gives me ideas for the next round of this class! I really like your insight that the automaticity of altruism likely depends on the context. Perhaps, as your example suggests, we must explicitly choose (maybe for somewhat “selfish” reasons) to situate ourselves within certain contexts for the more reflexive, pure forms of altruism to become activated. I think this makes sense. Think about the examples that we typically reference for altruism: helping someone out on the side of the road, helping someone carry something heavy after watching them struggle, etc. All very context-dependent, as though people’s sense of reflexive altruism was activated because they were in the right place at the right time.

    @rachelrey:  “I realized how deeply our own perceptions of ourselves can be wrapped up in these actions.” This is a very insightful way to put it. This brings up a broader question: Are our brains capable of perceiving the world from any other perspective than our own? Can we completely take ourselves out of the equation when we make decisions about other people? These are complicated questions. But, as you point out, as long as our actions produce some good in the world, perhaps the separation of the self and the other doesn’t really matter in the end.

    @suyeonlee: “We regard ourselves as a good person within a community as we engage in altruistic behaviors.” Totally, good point. Do you think this is an important component of consistent altruism? If we see ourselves as someone that contributes to our community, and as a good person, are we driven to maintain this self-concept? It’s a very interesting idea!

    @gracerotondo: “I understand that the evolutionary perspective suggests that we only engage in this type of behavior because it is beneficial to our own survival and/or reproduction, but I don’t wholly agree with that. I agree with you that it is possible to want to do something genuinely nice for someone”. This statement struck me because it’s something I wrestle with as well when I consider the evolutionary perspectives on why we behave the way we do. I think remembering that there seem to be both proximate and ultimate causes of behavior (see de Waal paper for brief explanation) is helpful to disentangle these questions. We learn in psychology that yes, we seem to have innate motivations. But we also learn that people can differ vastly in these motivations. Many people choose to pursue lives that “compromise” their own survival/survival of their genes in myriad ways, and many are happier for it. But does this actually mean they are going against what is best for our species?

    @kat “But I think it would be silly to claim that ‘sure, it seems selfless, but they did it because their brains liked it.” This is a fantastic point. I think this also speaks to a larger question about the validity how academic fields end up defining really abstract concepts like selfishness, even the definition evolves over time in a natural manner. Certainly a few decades ago selfishness wasn’t discussed explicitly in terms of brain activity. But the science developed and now the fact that our reward systems activate when we do good deeds is on the table. Is it valid to say that selfishness can be operationalized by brain activity? What does this communicate to the public? I would argue that good scientists recognize and communicate the limitations of the work, but certainly we all need to remind ourselves of points like yours as we continue to forge ahead.

    @gracethawley: See my comment to @kat— also relevant to your disbelief about our behavior ending at “mesolimbic reward pathways systems and positive reinforcement”, which is a great point. You should continue to express your disbeliefs, as they are 100% valid! The mystery of human behavior is mind-bendy. It certainly can’t be entirely explained by brain activity and reward-seeking. So continue to question, lest we become complacent in our conclusions about why we behave the way we do.

    @hannahpearce:  “…it’s the intent or motivation behind the act that can make an even bigger impact and what truly matters.” Ah, very interesting, Hannah! You’ve brought in a fantastic counterpoint to the idea that keeps coming up that it doesn’t matter why we engage in altruistic acts, as long as there is some benefit. You are totally right, intentionality brings with it the benefits of preparation, strategy, and a mission. We’ve been so focused on the selfish side of motivation that we forget all the benefits that intent & motivation bring to the table!

  • Patrick Adolphus // Dec 12th 2020 at 2:15 am

    Hey Cameron and Anna!

    After thinking long and hard about this, I concur that in the vast majority of cases committing an act of altruism does impart some sort of satisfaction on the actor. However, selfishness entails the motive being of concern for one’s self and disregard for others, so if someone is helping another and feels good for it, I would argue that the action is still to ameliorate the condition of another. Furthermore, the altruistic action, if done anonymously, does not even carry the possibility for betterment of one’s own condition as there is no chance for future recompense because no one will have known the identity of the actor. This serves as a solid exception to the theory of reciprocal altruism, unless you believe in some sort of cosmic justice.

    Maybe the concern for one’s self takes on the form of satisfaction alone, but in this case I would offer the counter-example of people that commit acts of altruism out of a sense of duty. Perhaps doing a good deed because it is your duty would result in a feeling of validation and this could be the selfish motive, but then I have to think of people who offered the greatest sacrifice they possibly could in the line of duty, their lives. On 9/11, 343 firefighters committed the greatest act of altruism by giving their own lives to save the lives of others and I would argue that this is an example of pure selfless altruism. They lost literally everything, whether it be their son’s first baseball game, walking their daughter down the aisle, playing fetch with a canine companion, or embracing their spouse one last time. Ultimately, they lost their very own lives. Meeting such an ending does not allot for feelings of satisfaction, the feeling of validation, or any kind of feeling for that matter. Their entire pursuit of happiness met an abrupt halt so that others could continue their own pursuit. They never got to witness the effect that their actions would have and yet they did it anyway. In such cases of heroism, I firmly believe that true altruism does exist.


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