Behaviour which takes account of the interests of others, usually treated as in opposition to egoism, selfishness, and individualism . There are extensive theoretical and empirical research literatures in social psychology, economics, political behaviour, and sociobiology (as well as sociology) on altruism, its sources and consequences, and on whether altruistic behaviour is ultimately reducible to and explained by egoistic motives. Research on altruism is also relevant to exchange theory and rational choice theory, public policy-making, and the voluntary sector. Studies have focused on blood donation; acts of bravery in wars and other conflicts; spontaneous acts of helping strangers in public situations compared to help offered to family and friends; the willingness of citizens to tax themselves for the benefit of others; participation in voluntary non-profit organizations; and giving money to charities.
Research seems to confirm that altruism is part of human nature. People do have regard to the interests and needs of others, make sacrifices for their children and even non-kin, and contribute to public goods . Some research suggests there is a hereditary component in altruism. Other social animals display altruistic behaviour, for example birds give predator alarms. Sociobiologists have identified selection processes that lead to the establishment and perpetuation of ‘altruistic’ genes in populations. In addition, socialization in the family and community encourages people to adhere to public-spirited values and engage in helping behaviour. People who do voluntary work generally give altruistic reasons for becoming involved in such activities (such as a desire to help others). But self-oriented reasons are often simultaneously present, such as the desire to gain work experience, enjoyment of social contacts, and an interest in the particular activity in question. For some people, involvement in charity work confers the prestige, power in the community, and self-fulfilment that others obtain from employment. Similarly, studies of corporate philanthropy conclude that charitable donations are good for business, with enlightened self-interest rather than altruism being the driving factor in firms' public activities. In many cultures, gift-giving is used to enhance prestige, or even defines a person's social status.
Economists are concerned with the ‘ free rider ’ problem in the provision or use of public goods, such as the problem of the person who benefits from public TV but does not contribute his or her share of the costs through taxes, or the country that regularly exceeds its allocated fishing quota and so depletes fish stocks for all other countries fishing in the same seas. Sociologists are concerned rather with the development of trust and co-operation in relationships, and the impact of social norms and group identity on decision-making in social dilemmas. These issues are often studied through decision-making in the Prisoner's Dilemma game, with variable results from short-term studies.
Research based on simulations with the Prisoner's Dilemma game has shown that, in the long run, altruism and selfishness are not always or necessarily mutually exclusive choices. In hisEvolution of Cooperation (1984) R. Axelrod showed how co-operation can evolve in a society of completely self-interested individuals, in effect that altruism and individualism are not necessarily in conflict in human society where public goods are of benefit to all, including people who do not use them directly. Axelrod carried out a series of computer simulations to assess the effectiveness of various strategies in the Prisoner's Dilemma game, an issue which is usually studied with laboratory experiments of short duration. Strategies were submitted to the tournament by sixty-two players in six countries from the fields of psychology, economics, political science, mathematics, and sociology. Contrary to expectation, one of the simplest strategies, named TIT FOR TAT, emerged repeatedly as the winner, owing to a combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. By using computer simulations of the competing strategies, the game could be run for a much longer time and with a larger number of diverse players than in laboratory experiments, thus approximating to evolution in the long term. For a useful overview of relevant literature see, ‘Altruism’, Annual Review of Sociology (1990). See also gift relationship ; suicide.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • Altruism — • A term formed by Auguste Comte in 1851, to denote the benevolent, as contrasted with the selfish propensities Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Altruism     Altruism      …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • altruism — ALTRUÍSM s.n. Atitudine morală sau dispoziţie sufletească a celui care acţionează dezinteresat în favoarea altora; doctrină morală care preconizează o asemenea atitudine. – Din fr. altruisme. Trimis de Alex, 25.11.2008. Sursa: DEX 98  Altruism ≠ …   Dicționar Român

  • altruism —    Altruism is disinterested benevolence. In other words, an action is altruistic if it is done solely for the benefit of another. Christian philosophers differ on whether it is possible for us to be altruistic. Hobbes took the extreme view that… …   Christian Philosophy

  • altruism — (n .) 1853, unselfishness, opposite of egoism, from Fr. altruisme, coined or popularized 1830 by French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798 1857), from autrui, from O.Fr. altrui, of or to others, from L. alteri, dative of alter other (see ALTER (Cf.… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Altruism — Al tru*ism, n. [F. altruisme (a word of Comte s), It. altrui of or to others, fr. L. alter another.] Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; opposed to {egoism} or {selfishness}.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • altruism — index benevolence (disposition to do good), charity, goodwill, humanity (humaneness), largess (generosity), philanthropy …   Law dictionary

  • altruism — [n] unselfish concern benevolence, charity, humanitarianism, kindness, magnanimity, philanthropy, public spirit, selflessness, social conscience; concept 633 …   New thesaurus

  • altruism — ► NOUN 1) unselfish concern for others. 2) Zoology behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense. DERIVATIVES altruist noun altruistic adjective altruistically adverb. ORIGIN from Italian altrui somebody else , from Latin alteri …   English terms dictionary

  • altruism — [al′tro͞o iz΄əm] n. [Fr altruisme < It altrui or Fr autrui, of or to others < L alter, another: see ALTER] 1. unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness 2. Ethics the doctrine that the general welfare of society is the proper …   English World dictionary

  • Altruism — Selflessness redirects here. For the 1965 jazz album, see Selflessness: Featuring My Favorite Things. Giving alms to the poor is often considered an altruistic action in many cultures and religions. Altruism …   Wikipedia

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