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What Is Altruism?

Altruism is acting out of concern for another’s well-being. Often, people behave altruistically when they see others in desperate circumstances and feel empathy and a desire to help.

"Reciprocal altruism" is a term used by evolutionary biologists and psychologists to characterize the decision to help with an expectation that one will receive some benefit or payoff to oneself. Even when people don’t expect recognition or reward for a good deed, however, they often feel energized and happy afterward, a sensation sometimes called the "helper's high."

Cooperative behavior allowed our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions, and it still serves a purpose in a highly complex society. Humans aren’t the only animals who behave altruistically, though: Many species benefit when individual organisms disregard personal costs and act in service of the larger group.

What Makes Someone Altruistic?

What kind of people behave altruistically toward those who are not in their immediate social or familial circle? There are likely many factors that underlie altruistic tendencies, though research suggests that people who are more grounded in the present and people who have fewer resources may be more prone to acts of altruism.

Many altruistic acts are reactive: Human beings respond compassionately when they see others in pain and in need of help. Some extraordinary altruists even put themselves at serious risk to aid strangers, and researchers have found evidence of differences between their brains and those of other people.

Children in particular are likely to be altruistic. They begin sharing with others at a young age, and when they see that someone is distressed, they tend to naturally employ comforting strategies.


Social Life, Empathy

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