Self Improvement — 26 May 2013
The wonders of altruism

The recent acts of heroism seen immediately following the Boston marathon explosions may have rekindled our public amazement at the courage of untrained strangers who put themselves at risk to aid others.  What is the source of these altruistic acts commonly seen at times of extreme human suffering that defies the evolutional instincts of self-preservation?

The word Altruism is credited to the French Philosopher August Comte. It is derived from the Latin word alter, which means “other”.

Researchers have posed several hypotheses for Altruism defined as “Behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but benefits others of its species.” Emma Seppala, the Associate Director of the Center of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University hypothesizes that the interpersonal connection that occurs during times of crises may have evolutionary benefits for the survival of humans.

Dr. Seppala also believes that social preprogramming may explain why “Countless soldiers have perished running into a line of fire to save an injured brother-at arms.” She surmises, “Acute Stress may help remind us of our common humanity” which “can inspire kindness, connection, and a desire to stand together and support each other.”

In their book, The Altruistic Personality, Samuel and Pearl Oliner state, “Plato, Marx, Freud and mainstream psychologists suggest that people rarely act out of any motive higher than enlightened self-interest.” Yet, their research of rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe found no compelling benefits to the self-endangering rescuers beside following their values and living with integrity. Early parental non-prejudiced upbringing, healthy attachment to parents, familiarity with some discriminated “others”, a strong sense of moral justice and deep compassion for the suffering of humans were several of the factors that led rescuers to risk their own lives to save others.

The proclivity for performing helpful behaviors at the cost to themselves has been observed in young children prior to their ability to have mature moral reasoning. Some adults who rushed to aid others report no higher motives or personal considerations, only the ones that were associated with the process of saving a stranger’s life.

Although neuro-scientific explorations have not yet discovered the neural mechanisms underlying altruism, researcher Dharol Tankersley of the University of California San Diego reports, “Empathy and its component abilities, such as the perception of the actions and intentions of others, have been proposed as key contributors.”

If empathy, kindness and selfless, heroic action can be motivated by compassion, shouldn’t we, as a society, focus on developing it in ourselves and in our children? What can be a more beneficial enhancement to individuals and humanity than deepening our caring for others?  It is within our arms’ reach.

To expand altruism:

  • Concentrate on being the best parent you can be.
  • Teach your children and model for them acceptance, kindness, consideration and compassion for others.
  •  Practice altruism: help others even when it is inconvenient or hard. We can all be heroes.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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