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Human Motivation: The Influential Drive behind Human Altruism Paper Sample

Biological Anthropology

The Connection Between Human Motivation and Human Altruism

The main question of altruism is what is the psychology that motivates one to act in an unselfish manner? There are many theories and responses to explain why people act altruistically. It is interesting to examine whether or not altruism is a result of someone acting out of an innate response of empathy and compassion, or due to self-interest. By definition of the English Cambridge dictionary altruism means, “the attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them although you do not get anything by doing those acts”. Clearly everyday acts of altruism exist but is it driven by pure selflessness? The main paradox of altruism is that any altruistic act is driven by personal gain instead of pure selflessness. However, the influence of motivation in human altruism is discussed as we go further.

Basic Concepts of Altruism

Motivation is a vital component behind human behaviour and is a crucial factor in explaining why humans act altruistically. The idea that we offer assistance and expect it in return is known as reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism involves returning benefits that depend upon and are conditional upon the circumstances under which the benefits were received (Fishbein). It is done with the motivation of one’s personal wellbeing in mind. Likewise, the concept of motivation also provides an understanding of kin selection where people are more likely to help out someone who is genetically related to themselves in hope that by helping a family member will ultimately better oneself. This can be deemed as a selfish act because the motivation of helping out a family relative is to prolong family survival. The question is whether we are motivated by the intention of maximising personal gain or natural selfless capacity. However, authentic and genuine acts of altruism exist in situations where help is needed. Therefore, consciously or subconsciously, such an individual offering help is more likely to personally benefit from his or her action.

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A motive refers to the goal or object of a person’s action. Humans have inherently selfish nature, therefore when an individual is deciding whether to engage in a pro-social act or not, the primary concern is usually selfish. This is not always conscious to the individual, yet whether it is a simple question of the motives for an occupation, or concern for the environment; it is linked to benefits that a personal or a society as a whole can gain.

A research was conducted in order to determine what would motivate people in such help-related fields as psychology, education and nursing to work with underserved population, which consists of such groups as ethnic minorities, the mentally ill, the homeless and the elderly. The research was conducted involving 135 students of Midwestern University majoring in help-related fields. Whilst factors such as work autonomy, troubled past experiences or a parent in a helping profession did inspire some to work with such groups, economic reward and prosperity as well as diverse training proved to be vital to a vast majority (Krous 688). Another way in which we can relate people’s motivations with the concern for themselves is through their view on the environment. This was put to the test through a study whereby participants were presented with illustrations of eight large trees being cut down and a dead bird on a beach covered in oil. The findings concluded that participants conveyed empathy and were dismayed at the devastating state of the environment (Berenguer 269). One needs to pose the question; what does motivate one to act altruistically towards the environment? The fact that they are ultimately a part of the environment that they endeavor to save, and as a result prevent the personal and societal hardship that would follow its total destruction suggests that this is related to personal gain of one’s environment.

The concept that an individual’s sense of belonging in a group impacts their willingness to behave in a socially caring manner, once more brings the notion of selfishness because any altruistic act is done in relation to the group. People are encouraged by their culture and society to take part in prosocial behaviour. While engaging in a prosocial act often entails risk and cost to oneself, in the big picture, belonging to a group provides vast benefits. In an interview with E.O. Wilson the benefits of group belonging are explained. “If your territory is invaded, then cooperation within the group will be extreme. That’s human instinct”. A collective territory or land that is shared makes people act altruistically because they will do whatever they can to preserve it. This explains why people are willing to die for their countries in times of war because sacrificing yourself you are not being driven by natural selflessness but by the intention to preserve the wellbeing of your family which live in the particular territory you are defending. According to Wilson, belonging to a group is one of “the strongest propensities in the human psyche.” Affirming the fact that altruism has more to do with personal gain than pure selflessness capacity, acts that benefit yourself or your group can be considered selfish as they are carried out to ensure the progression of your group at the expense of others.

Steven Pinker’s Argument

Steven Pinker, who provides his own argument in regard to the false allure of group selection, puts forward that altruistic individuals have not evolved to happily sacrifice themselves or act as ‘a human shield’, because a gene that promotes that would never succeed. Instead the evolution is in those who manipulate others to sacrifice their own lives to benefit the group. However, if an individual becomes a victim of such a manipulation, then, there’s no need for such person to call it altruism and search for an evolutionary explanation (Pinker). Also, he examined the idea that group selection is a viable method of explaining the traits of human groups such as cultures, religions, tribes, and nations. However, the empirical phenomena that claimed to prove the necessity or importance of group selection in explaining human altruism are:

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Group Selection for explaining the traits of groups – This phenomenon states that natural selection is a special scientific explanatory concept which is based on Daniel Dennett’s designation as the best idea anyone has ever had. This is due to the fact that it explains one of the greatest mysteries in sciences: the illusion of design in the natural world (Pinker). The main satisfying factor in the theory is that it is mechanistic; there are random mutations.

However, natural selection could be legitimately applied to groups if they meet certain criteria such as:

The groups making copies of themselves by fission or budding. The descendant group faithfully reproduced the traits of the parent group, except for mutations that were blind to the benefits and costs to the group.
The competition between groups for representation in the meta-population of groups.

Group selection for explaining the traits of individuals – This phenomenon explains whether group selection is necessary to explain the evolution of psychological traits which are adapted to group living such as bravery, tribalism, xenophobia, self-sacrifice, empathy, moral emotions and religion. It states that if a group is annihilated, then all its members and their genes are annihilated. If a group acquires food, territory or mates, it will definitely befit some, if not all its members (Pinker). Nevertheless, in an environment that includes other humans individual traits evolve just as they evolved in environments that include predators, fruit trees, pathogens and day-night cycles (Pinker).

Do humans have adaptations that benefit the group at the expense of individuals? – This phenomenon is based on two concepts that motivate the recent surge of interest in group selection which are:

Eusociality in insects such as ants, termites and bees whose soldiers sacrifice their own reproduction, and sometimes sacrifice their lives in order to benefit others. However, this concept explains that the genes promoting self-sacrifice were selected based on the fact that they benefited their own copies inside the queen.

The existence of self-sacrifice and altruism among humans such as the costly punishment of free riders, martyrdom during warfare and generosity towards strangers. However, group selection experts usually relate self-sacrifice among humans to eusociality in insects, and explain both concepts based on group selection (Pinker).

However, group selection has a superficial appeal based on the fact that humans are indisputably adaptive to living in groups and because some groups seem to live longer, are more influential and indisputably larger than others. This makes it possible to draw the conclusion that the properties of human groups or human minds have been transformed by a process that is similar to natural selection acting on genes (Pinker).

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Richard Dawkins’ Argument

Richard Dawkins has a similar indirect view towards altruism but clarifies that when talking about an altruistic gene the effects should be considered and not the motives. Therefore, a gene for altruism is any gene that causes individuals to benefit other individuals at the cost of themselves, when compared with its alleles (Dawkins). Dawkins uses a pride of lions as an example, where one lion has a genetic predisposition to chew food slower, and so it eats less while the rest of the pack can eat more. ‘The gene for bad teeth would be…a gene for altruism’. If an altruist is without an altruistic motive but inadvertently delivers an altruistic effect, is this altruism? The problem again lies with the definition. Altruism is an ambiguous term and the trouble is these biologists are not talking about altruism in the sense that the action is done intentionally, the way in which Pinker and Dawkins describe altruism is very much an indirect form of altruism that is done unintentionally which goes against the definition of altruism which states that the act has to be done intentionally for it to be deemed altruistic.

Gandhi’s Altruistic Individualism

Gandhi was neither a dogmatic opponent of all aspects of modernity nor a traditionist but he contributed to the political and social thought. His contribution was the concept of altruistic individualism in a culture setting which was generally seen as a group (Madan). Based on the western scholarship of the 19th century regarding eastern culture, the key point is that communitarianism has replaced individualism (Madan). However, it was not that individualism was totally absent as an actor in eastern societies, but it was embedded in groups such as family, caste, community or clan to an extend whereby it is rendered virtually invisible.

Evolutionary Theories Pertaining Altruism

Evolutionary theories pertaining to altruism have played a role in understanding human motivations; moreover, the kin selection theory and the concept of reciprocal altruism emphasise once again that we are compelled by rational self-interest to always put ourselves first. As explained by Neyer in 2003, kin selection focuses on actions of people who are genetically related (Neyer), “blood is thicker than water, which implies that kin are generally favored over non-kin.” The motive of parents, whether animal or human, to protect their offspring is an attempt to ensure and maintain the safety of the next generation. When natural selection favours genes for altruism among relatives, that process is the same whether the relatives in question are cousins, offspring, great aunts or some mixture of them (Sorrentino 28). This explains the idea that help is more likely to be offered by a relative or a distant relative. The notion of looking after one’s genetic coding for future generations, through the idea of kin selection once more exemplifies the way in which we are hard-wired to act in a socially caring manner to maximise personal gain. Some of the evolutionary concepts that are used to explain altruism are discussed below:

Reciprocal Altruism

Reciprocal altruism refers to the way in which humans help another person, thus building a relationship where help is expected to be returned at a later date. It is an evolutionary process that clarifies prosocial acts that occur among non-related people. A basic example of such an exchange is whereby two fishermen in a village agree to share what they catch for the day with one another. Therefore, if one fisherman does not catch any fish they are reassured that they will not go hungry. (Sorrentino (34) Such an example supports the theory that engaging in reciprocal altruism increases the chances of survival over individuals who act selfishly, as long as both parties involved reciprocate. However, in this case the fishermen’s agreement has more to do with the fear of spending a day without food than a true act of altruism that expects nothing in return. With this agreement in place, the fishermen have a guarantee that the fish will be shared. In this case the altruistic act is fuelled by the fear of going hungry instead of compassion and empathy.

Our willingness to help is determined by the likelihood that the help will be returned, therefore in a situation where a stranger requires help it is unlikely that an act will be reciprocated and therefore we feel less inclined to help. In order for reciprocal altruism to survive, there must be a willingness to chastise those who do cheat and find ways of gratifying individuals that voluntarily refrain from cheating (Dovidio). Reciprocal altruism can be considered as a two way street, a relationship in which both parties will profit; and therefore the main goal is to maximize personal gain.

Reciprocal altruism is motivated by the act of one person helping out another; however, there are those who take the benefit without returning the expected favour. Dawkins provides evidence that altruism is inherently selfish and he separates all individuals into three categories: ‘grudgers’, ‘cheats’ and ‘suckers’. Grudgers in this case are the most evolutionary stable category because they are able to control and punish cheats who abuse the help of others by not returning reciprocal acts. Grudgers could coexist with ‘suckers’ who continuously provide others with help (Sorrentino 28). Therefore, if there is a group that continuously help others even though they are not gaining anything in return then they would be vulnerable to a group of “cheats” who accept but do no reciprocate (Sorrentino 29). In the laws of natural selection the cheats would prevail but for reciprocal altruism to evolve organisms must recognise “cheats” in order to benefit from the reciprocal acts of altruism. Otherwise reciprocal acts could be taken for granted by ‘cheats’ who depend on altruistic acts for survival. If a cheat constantly exploits the laws of reciprocal altruism then he/she is a hindrance to the particular group because they are contributing nothing in return and at the same time benefiting immensely from the reciprocal acts of others. In terms of survival a group of cheats would have a poor chance compared to a group that practiced reciprocal altruism because they only seek personal gain. It proves that acts of altruism have some sort of personal gain in order to function and prosper.

Gene-culture Co-evolution

In this approach, the key argument is that group selection can be best applied in isolated groups because interdemic group selection is much stronger than intrademic group selection (Fehr and Fischbacher 37). If groups were randomly mixed, the genetic difference between them in population of mobile vertebrates such as humans is roughly what should be expected. This argument seems plausible when applied to a pure genetic group selection but may not be applicable to gene-culture co-evolution or to the selection of culturally transmitted traits (Fehr and Fischbacher 37). However, recent theoretical models of this gene-culture co-evolution might be able to provide solutions to the challenges of strong reciprocity. The relationship between altruistic punishment and cultural group selection could provide solutions for two problems simultaneously such as: the evolution of cooperation in a relatively large group and the evolution of altruistic punishment.

Altruism with Green Beards

Based on this approach, a potential explanation of strong reciprocity is to assume that people who altruistically punish and reward others have some observable characteristics which are referred to as green beards which differentiate them from non-altruists (Fehr and Fischbacher 35). Therefore, it is in the self-interest of individuals to cooperate with green beards due to the fact that non-cooperation will be punished. Altruistic punishment evolves as results of the benefits punishers directly gain from their observable willingness to punish. However, even if there are no opportunities to punish, green beards tend to favour the evolution of cooperation because people can always condition their cooperation based on the existence of a green beard. It is also worth noting that: if an altruist meets a green beard, he cooperates; and if an altruist meets an individual without a green beard, he or she defects (Fehr and Fischbacher 36).


The reputation-seeking approach to altruism represents important facts beyond reciprocal altruism. In this approach, people help to underrate others with whom they believe they have no further future interactions based on the fact that by helping them, they tend to increase the probability that they will receive help from them in the future. This is due to the fact that third parties reward individuals with a good image score if they themselves can acquire a good image score by rewarding (Fehr and Fischbacher 33). However, the question is that: should an individual who does not help someone with a bad reputation lose his or her reputation? The current image-based approach gives an affirmative answer to this question while others take negative positions (Nowak and Sigmund). The question is intrinsically related to the prevailing norms in the society which are the products of evolutionary forces (Fehr and Fischbacher 33).

Other Forms of Prosocial Motivation

There are other forms of prosocial motivations that go beyond the egoism-altruism debate. In these forms, the ultimate goal is neither to benefit another person nor to benefit oneself.

Collectivism – Collectivism is a form of prosocial motivation which tends to benefit a particular group of people. The ultimate goal of this form of prosocial motivation is not one’s welfare as a person but that of a group (Batson 18).

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Principlism – This form of prosocial motivation explains the fact that most moral philosophers have shunned collectivism and altruism. They tend to reject empathy-induced altruism because the feelings of sympathy, empathy and compassion are too restricted (Batson 18). They advocated that prosocial motivation has the ultimate goal of upholding an impartial and a universal moral principle such as the justice (Batson 18).

Reasons for Engaging in Prosocial Acts

The cost and benefits of engaging in a prosocial act ultimately determine one`s willingness to involve oneself, hence supporting the concept that we are hard-wire for personal gain. From this view, humans are rational and mainly concerned with their own self-interest and agenda. Dovidio (2006) explains the notion of a cost reward analysis, whereby in a potential helping situation an individual weighs the possible costs and benefits in order to reach the most desired outcome. An important aspect of grasping the parameters of prosocial behavior consists of learning when people will help. Dovidio (2006) makes a reference to an assault of Kitty Genovese, whereby arriving home late from work she was brutally attacked outside her apartment building. This horrific event took place for more than 45 minutes whereby the attacker returned three times, finally stabbing her to death; with a shocking 38 onlookers that did nothing to help. This incident confirms the view that we are predominantly concerned with our own survival and self-interest as the potential helpers perceived the dangers to dominate over the benefits. In 2006 Dovidio cited the case of Reginald Denny, who was brutally beaten during the civil disturbance in Los Angeles in 1992 (Dovidio). Four African Americans were watching nearby on live television and rushed to the scene fending off his attackers and transporting him to hospital, consequently saving his life. Whilst the four helpers were deemed heroes and rewarded with internal benefits of self satisfaction and fulfillment of one’s duty, it challenges the idea that we are hard-wired for personal gain as this act is undeniably a genuine expression of altruism.

There is a vast array of motivators that explain why humans engage in altruistic behaviour, a large majority pertaining to the desire to maximise personal gain. Such motivations are reinforced by the evolutionary theories of kin selection and reciprocal altruism as well as one’s emotional state and the concept of a cost and reward analysis. This is not to say expressions of genuine altruism do not exist, as we have clearly established they do; they are simply few and far between. It is evident that humans have the capacity both to be incredibly selfish and heroically altruistic; it would seem that tragically selfishness is hard-wired into us where we are motivated with one leading concern, ourselves.

In conclusion, motivation is a vital component behind human behaviour and is a crucial factor in explaining why humans act altruistically. Offering assistance and expecting it in return is referred to as reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism involves returning benefits that depend and are conditional on the circumstances under which the benefits were received (Fishbein). In this paper some arguments concerning altruism were discussed such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Gandhi’s Altruistic Individualism concepts. Also, some theories were discussed such as reciprocal altruism, gene-culture co-evolution, altruism with green beards and reputation-seeking which explain certain facts about altruism and how it is being influenced by human motivation.


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