Ingeborg van Teeseling

Altruism: Giving to others in aid of one’s self


Approx Reading Time-14Despite what certain panelists might think, altruism is one of the most generous, yet selfish emotions that we have.


Last Sunday, I was watching a very interesting episode of Compass, the ABC’s program on religion and morality. The discussion was about the practice of sanctuary, where churches offer refuge to, in this case, asylum seekers, whom the government wants to lock up on Nauru indefinitely. Although the panel differed in their opinions on this practice, they all seemed to agree on one thing: at the basis of it was the concept of altruism, which in their idea was a moral imperative. And morality, they thought, was a problem, because it asked people to override their selfish instincts for the greater good of others.

You know me well enough by now to realise that I only write something when I disagree with somebody’s point of view, as is the case here as well. Maybe the panelists were too focused on their religious backgrounds to notice, but for the last twenty years or so, science has done a lot of research into altruism and concluded that it is one of the most selfish emotions we’ve got. In fact, human beings “profit” so much from altruism that it is almost time to find another word for it – something that is less associated with sacrifice and self-denial. This is also important because once we understand how rewarding altruism is, it might be easier for us to be kinder to others. This, in turn, would help people like asylum seekers, without the need for sanctuary or complicated political discussions about boats.

First of all, altruism makes us feel good. And not just good, but orgasm-chocolate-kick-nice-glass-of-wine great. In 2006, neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health in the US performed experiments which showed that giving to other people activated the same reward pathway in the brain that lights up when we are having sex or indulging in something equally pleasurable. They concluded that altruism was not so much a moral faculty suppressing basic selfish urges, but hard-wired in the brain, because it was related to social attachment and bonding. Morality, they said, has clear biological roots. It is not a product of culture, so something we have to learn or be taught by our parents or religion, but something that is built-in. In humans, but also in other species. One of the experiments they pointed to was one that was done with rats. This showed that if you shock a rat every time another rat eats, that other rat will eventually stop eating, even if it is hungry. Seeing somebody suffer, especially if they do so in front of us, makes us suffer too. And making somebody feel good makes us feel good.

The reason for this, as biologist Edward Wilson wrote, is that humans need tribes to exist and survive. Without our tribe, we die, not only physically, but mentally as well, and this means that we simply cannot afford to be too selfish. If we don’t cooperate, we can’t belong and that puts our survival at risk. According to Wilson, altruism is a necessary part of a “strategy for personal social interactions” and, over time, the brain has learnt to adjust and has become “intensely social.” The greater good is really the individual good, and even Darwin flagged altruism as an essential part of our instinct. So much for survival of the fittest as we normally view it: part of being the “fittest” is also being the kindest, it seems.

This is also because altruism is fantastic for our love lives. When David Buss of the University of Texas looked at 10,000 people in 37 countries to see how they chose their partners, he came up with a surprising finding: the most important criterion was kindness. It surpassed beauty, wealth, health and even sexual compatibility for both genders, across cultures and ages. A few years ago, researchers from the University of Kent in the UK, and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, built on Buss’s research and found that being generous gives people, especially men, a clear advantage in finding a mate. For women, an altruistic male is a signal of good genes, a willingness to care and a sign that he will be committed to the relationship. For men, this is the case as well, but they need something extra: being seen to be generous and kind gives them prestige. Altruism works, as the researchers said, in the same way as the peacock’s tail: it is a way of showing off, of putting your competitors at a disadvantage.

Then there is overwhelming proof that altruism is good for our health. According to a 1992 study in America, a little over a third of mothers (36 percent) who volunteered their time to help others experienced a major illness during the ten years they were followed by the researchers. This seems a high number, but not as high as the 52 percent of mothers who did not volunteer. In the case of older people, the gain was even more pronounced. If they did volunteer work, they had a 44 percent reduction in mortality. Altruism, it seems, inoculates us not just against illness, but also prevents an early death. And it does more, like preventing or even solving depression and mental health problems, and guaranteeing greater happiness and wellbeing. Not just because it ties us to the tribe, but also because helping others releases endorphins in the brain, which causes what scientists call a “helper’s high.” Interestingly enough, it also fights addiction, as Maria Pagano, from the University of Connecticut, found. She looked at addicts who helped other addicts get off their drug of choice and noticed that after five years 40 percent of the “helpers” were still clean, against 22 percent of the “non-helpers.” So if you activate your altruistic brain, you will stay sober for longer. In fact, Pagano also discovered that altruistic children had fewer cravings for alcohol and drugs, even if they had a genetic predisposition for addiction. Additionally, those children had reduced feelings of entitlement, scored better academically and had a higher social standing.

For those of us who believe in God, any God, there is, of course, also the moral currency that altruism brings. In every religion on the planet, helping others brings untold rewards. For the Buddhists, it is good karma. For Christians, it is a surefire way into heaven. In Islam, it is called ithar and the highest obligation for every believer. In Judaism, it is even the goal of creation, connected to the divine, and the rule is that if you save one person, you save the world. So instead of seeing altruism as something that comes at a cost, it might be time to focus on the myriad compensations it gives us. Or, to paraphrase philosopher Peter Singer: altruism is the best rational choice we can make.

If that doesn’t solve our problem with asylum seekers, nothing will.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

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