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


  1. A colleague of mine had a good scenario to test students' intuitions about whether there are any altruistic motivations. Imagine you are a parent who is put in a situation where you will be separated from your daughter and will never meet up again. Assume also you know this. You are given two options. Either she will suffer some great harm but you will live out the rest of your life with the pleasant thought that that you conferred some great benefit on her, or she will enjoy some significant benefit, but you will spend the rest of your life thinking you inflicted some great harm on her and feel terrible guilt because of that. Which would you choose? Self-deceit may play a role here, but it is hard to imagine that one would choose the first option.

  2. Dear Stirling,

    I like that exercise, too. I believe it is adapted from Heal (1991). (I think Simon Blackburn may also have discussed something similar in his multiply titled 'Ethics: A short introduction'/'Doing good'.)

    I remember using it at a talk a few years ago and being taken-aback when an audience member indignantly asked why on earth anyone would choose the daughter-regarding option if it meant feeling bad for the rest of one's life. The fact that he appeared not able even to consider the value of the alternative got me thinking!

    Heal, J. (1991). Altruism. In R. A. Hinde & J. Groebel (Eds.), Cooperation and prosocial behaviour (pp. 159-182). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    1. I've never had a student respond like that! But the issue of what motivates people to do what they do is an empirical one, so I guess it should be no surprise that some people are motivated solely by self-interest, though I'm not sure such a person could have any friends.

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