Altruism and Caring: The Psychology of Kindness…and Selfishness

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Altruism and Caring: The Psychology of Kindness…and Selfishness

The ’altruist’ expects reciprocation from society for himself or his closest relatives. (E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature)

Self-sacrifice enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing. (George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman)

Most societies and religions value altruism, caring and compassion. They stress the virtues of empathy and sympathy; of helping other people.

Yet people differ widely in when, where and why they help others. More importantly for some areas of psychology, altruism is a puzzle because it would seem much more beneficial to be selfish and self-absorbed.

Psychologists talk about pro-social behaviour, which is any act performed with the goal of helping another person. The motive may or may not be altruistic, which is the drive to help others even if there are costs to oneself.

Psychological questions about altruism are divided into two categories. Some ask the big theoretical questions: who, why and when do (or do not) people help? They also ask questions about the factors that are related to helping as well as the encouragement of helping: how to teach pro-social behaviour in communities.


The search for the ’altruistic personality’ has proved long and unsuccessful. There is evidence of sex differences but they seem to be related to the type rather than the amount of altruism. Males predominate in chivalrous, bold, heroic pro-social behaviours, while females are more nurturing, volunteering, caring.

People tend to help others from their own cultural group. So, we are more likely to help people from noticeably the same ethnic, religious, linguistic and demographic group than an ’obvious’ member from other groups.

We also know about the ’feel good: do good’ factor: when people are in a good mood they are much more likely to help others. Give a person a small gift, play pleasant upbeat music and compliment them and they voluntarily give more help to others. But people who are sad and distressed will help others to make themselves feel better and reduce their gloom. Equally people who feel guilty have been shown to increase their helpfulness, presumably to reduce their guilt.


Psychoanalysts see the same altruistic behaviour as the manifestation of two very different drives. Some kind, generous, helping acts occur because of identification with the ’victim’, like helpful figures in their past such as parents or teachers. But Freudians also believe it can be a defence against a negative impulse: a neurotic syndrome to cope with anxiety, guilt or hostility. Thus, a deprived child may become a generous giver. Instead of feeling helpless around those in need, they offer help — therefore being both giver and receiver.

Others may only be able to cope with their guilt about their own greed and envy by giving. Some get into debt, due to excessive giving to assuage their guilt. Freudians also talk of hostility-based, reaction-formation giving: the giver masks an expression of aggression by being helpful.

Darwinian-inspired psychologists have tried to offer their explanations for the puzzle of altruism, which at first sight contradicted the central tenet of the theory: if a person’s prime motive is to ensure their own survival, why help others at risk and cost?

A central tenet of this approach is the concept of kin selection. The more a person (relative) shares your genes, the more likely you are to help. Therefore, you ensure survival of your own genes by helping those with them. The biological importance rule becomes ingrained into human behaviour and is not conscious. This means people do act altruistically because they do not do so with a genetic calculus formulae.

However, they do also suggest the reciprocity norm which is simply a tit-for-tat behaviour that supposes helping others will increase the likelihood that they help you in return. It has been suggested that people who learn and practice the norms and social rules of society will survive best because cultures teach survival skills and co-operative behaviours. People become genetically programmed to learn cultural norms of altruism.

Thus we seem to be genetically programmed to certain types of altruism because of two processes: Kin selection (helping relatives helps our genes survive) and reciprocal altruism (others help us to survive if we help them).


It seems situational factors are more powerful in determining help than personal factors. There is a rural vs urban difference: people in small towns or the countryside are more likely to offer help. Also the longer a person has lived in an area and identifies with that community, the more he or she is likely to help. The higher the residential mobility factor, the less stable the community and the less forthcoming the help.

The most famous and counter-intuitive finding in this area is called the bystander effect. The greater the number of bystanders (or witness) to an emergency or situation requiring help, the less likely any one individual is to help. This research leads to the development of the famous five-step decision model of bystander intervention. It asserts that people must go through five steps before they offer help:

First, they must notice the event. People who are in a hurry, talking on their mobile phone or otherwise distracted might simply not notice ’an emergency’.

Second, they must interpret the scene as an emergency where help is required. Many emergencies are confusing. People look to those around them for clues. If others seem unconcerned, people are unlikely to respond.

Third, they must decide that it is their responsibility to help. The bystander effect is all about the diffusion of responsibility. Believing there are others present who can help, individuals may have no strong personal responsibility to act. The problem of course is that if everyone thinks the same way, nobody acts.

Fourth, people must feel they know how to help. Perceived ignorance about mechanical issues means people may not help a stranded motorist. The less one knows what to do, the less one does it!

Fifth, people have to decide to help. There are various reasons why people decide not to help. They may be embarrassed by memories of volunteering to help and being rebuffed because of a misinterpretation of the situation.


Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). ’Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 8, 377—93.