Monday, 30 September 2013

Altruism and aggression

In my previous post I suggested that people sometimes act as they do because they want to help others and that to this extent they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called altruistic. This seems no more contentious than suggesting that people sometimes act as they do because they want to harm others and that to this extent they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called aggressive. I can think of few more worthwhile tasks than trying to understand people being altruistic or aggressive in these ways.

These conceptualisations of altruism and aggression are as elegant as I can make them. Multiple important things are and are not intended by the words I have very carefully chosen. I will explore all of them in later posts, but here are some headlines.

Altruistic and aggressive actions require an ability to conceive another’s welfare, motivation to influence that welfare, and the ability to pursue that goal. It is possible that things other than people can behave altruistically or aggressively if they have these capabilities. (Maybe certain animals, God, nature, groups, laws...?) It is also possible that, if they lack one or more of these characteristics, some people cannot behave altruistically or aggressively. (Maybe new-born babies, people in comas, the grief-stricken, narcissists, psychopaths...?)

Altruism and aggression are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible to try to harm someone at the same time as trying to help them in other ways. (Think of an angry father holding his daughter just a little too tightly while explaining the importance of her not running out into the road again.)

A person being both altruistic and aggressive towards another can be called ambivalent. A person seeking neither to help nor harm another can be called indifferent. Altruism, aggression, ambivalence, and indifference capture all the orientations a person can adopt towards others.

No one can be altruistic or aggressive all the time, in every way, to everyone. When considering the possible existence of altruism or aggression it is almost always useful to ask, “Who is trying to help or harm whom and in what way?” (To whom and in what ways is a policewoman altruistic, aggressive, and indifferent when she shoots a man because she wants to prevent him killing some children?)

People do not always succeed in their sincere attempts to help or harm others. Even when they do succeed as intended, there may be unanticipated or unwelcome additional consequences. People who seek to help or harm others are altruistic or aggressive even if things do not turn out exactly as they wished. When deciding if a person is, was, or will be altruistic or aggressive, it is their goals to help or harm that count. (Is killing a sick animal altruistic or aggressive? What about relieving someone’s pain with drugs which are likely to kill them?)

It follows that the outcomes altruists or aggressors seek are intended to be helpful or harmful as they, the altruists or aggressors, understand those terms. Others may disagree with their assessments of what is helpful or harmful, including those they are trying to help or harm.

It is not only other individuals that people seek to help or harm. In my next post, I will compare and contrast people trying to influence others’ welfare (altruism and aggression) with people seeking to influence their own welfare (prudence and ‘self-harm’).

I hope you liked this post. If not, I apologise. I was trying to help.

Key points

Altruists seek to influence others’ welfare in ways that the altruists think are likely to be beneficial for those others.

Altruism requires an ability to conceive another’s welfare, motivation to influence that welfare, and the ability to pursue that goal.

When considering potentially altruistic behaviour, it is useful to ask, “Who is trying to help whom and in what way?”

Consequences other than those intended can result from altruistic acts.

Final thoughts and further reading

Parallels can be drawn between altruism and other goal-seeking behaviour and it is useful to draw them. People seem relatively reluctant to use the term “altruism” and relatively permissive in using the term “aggression”. I believe that the two are largely equivalent and should be used equally freely or equally restrictively. (Is a cat ‘playing’ with a mouse altruistic, aggressive, ambivalent or indifferent to its welfare?)

Carlsmith, K. M., & Sood, A. M. (2009). The fine line between interrogation and retribution. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 191-196. [Link]
Rempel, J. K., & Burris, C. T. (2005). Let me count the ways: An integrative theory of love and hate. Personal Relationships, 1 (2), 297-313. [Abstract]

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, September 30). Altruism and aggression. Retrieved from

Image credits

Soldier carrying child from link
Record cover from video link

Monday, 23 September 2013

No such thing as altruism?

When I tell students about my course on The Psychology of Altruism and Helping, someone always announces that “There is no such thing as altruism.” When I ask them to explain, they say something like: “People are selfish. Everything they do, they do to pursue their own interests. Therefore there is no altruism. People never really care about others; only themselves.”

Delighted to encounter such passionately engaged students, I tell them it all depends on how the various key words are used – a claim they will get very used to hearing if they sign up for my course. I then suggest that we start our conversation somewhere other than by arguing about what words like selfish, self-interest, and altruism might mean.

I invite the student to start instead by thinking about the sorts of things that people do and why they do them.

Sometimes, I suggest, people do things because they want to have a positive impact on others’ lives. People with this goal do things like give blood, volunteer, comfort friends, donate to charity, buy Fair Trade goods, become organ donors, help strangers, and leave bathrooms as they would like to find them.

I invite the student to think about their own life. I ask if they have ever wanted to make things better for anyone else and whether they have ever acted on that impulse. I ask if any of their friends are nicer than others; more considerate, compassionate, and caring. Maybe I’m lucky in the students who show an interest in my course, because they keep saying “yes”.

At other times, I suggest, people do things for reasons other than wanting to improve others’ lives. Often without a thought for how such things might affect anyone else, people eat, watch films, drink, chat, and relocate traffic cones.

I invite the students to think again about their own lives. I ask them to identify times when they have done things without even thinking about whether or not their actions might be helpful for anyone else. They can always think of examples.

I then ask the students to consider whether there might be important differences between people doing things without considering the impact of those things on the welfare of others and people doing things because they want those things to have a positive impact on the welfare of others.  

I tell the students that I believe there are important differences between such behaviours and that I set up my Psychology of Altruism and Helping course as part of my attempt to understand the more other-considerate, other-serving ones.  I say I know that not everyone will agree that “altruism” is a good name for the behaviours I am interested in, and that people will claim that those behaviours are “not really altruistic” but, hey, they need a name! (In my next post I will start an argument that “altruism” is a good name for them.)

I then thank the students for their interest and wish them luck in finding a course that’s right for them. I bid them fare well and hope they have a good life.

Thank you for reading. Considerate questions and constructive comments are welcome.

Key Points

People sometimes do things because they want to have a positive impact on others’ lives.

When people do such things, they, their actions, their goals, and their desires can, to that extent, be called altruistic.

It is important to be able to identify and understand when people are and are not altruistic.

Final thoughts and further reading

Academics routinely confuse themselves and others with jargon. This is not trivial. It impedes knowledge, understanding, and progress.

Jingle-jangle fallacies. (No date). Wikipedia. Link
Rozin, P. (2001). Social psychology and science: Some lessons from Solomon Asch. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 2-14. Link

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T Farsides. (2013, September 23). No such thing as altruism? Retrieved from

Image credits

Girl sharing ice lolly from link

Relocated traffic cone from link