Altruistic Behavior: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Altruism?
  • 1:00 Altruism and Survival…
  • 2:07 Examples of Altruistic…
  • 3:17 Examples of Altruistic…
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of altruism and how it runs counter to evolutionary theory, in particular to Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. You will be given examples of altruistic behavior in humans and in animals.

What Is Altruism?

Penelope was driving to a friend's wedding in a beautiful gown with impeccable makeup and hair. She noticed a car jet off the road and flip upside down into a deep canal. Without a thought, she immediately stopped her car, kicked off her heels, and ran towards the accident. Knowing the driver was still in the car, she single-mindedly jumped into the deep canal and swam towards the bottom to attempt to rescue the driver. Penelope was not a great swimmer, and she was having difficulty breathing in such deep water, but her heart told her that she needed to save the driver.

One could say that Penelope is exhibiting altruistic behavior in this example. Altruism is the belief that the well-being of others is equally, if not more, important than the well-being or survival of the self. Further, altruism involves selfless acts or undertakings that put the welfare of others before one's own. Truly altruistic people do not practice seemingly selfless acts for their own benefit; they do not have ulterior motives, such as a desire to gain recognition, a reward, or even make themselves feel better.

Altruism and Survival of the Fittest

Penelope is an example of a human who performed an altruistic act, but there have been many observations of animals exhibiting altruistic behavior as well. These altruistic behaviors have stumped evolutionary theories, especially Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. This theory states that the strongest, smartest, and fittest individuals in a species are the ones that survive and reproduce, carrying on their genes and traits to the next generation.

The puzzling question is, if the individual humans and animals with the best adaptations are the ones that best survive and carry on their better-adapted traits into the next generation, then why do some individuals perform altruistic acts that may actually impede their survival?

In response to this question, some philosophers and scientists argue that there is no such thing as true altruism. For example, in Penelope's case, some could say that she wanted recognition as a hero. Or, it could be said that someone who volunteers or does social work may be doing it to feel better about themselves. Finally, individuals who have been observed performing acts of altruism could be doing it so that others are indebted to them and they can collect on the favor in the future.

Examples of Altruistic Behavior

Let's take a look at two examples of altruistic behavior.

Example 1

Helping the homeless can be altruistic as long as it is not done for recognition or to make oneself feel better.

Aimee was taking her early morning run when she saw a homeless woman on the sidewalk. She truly felt for this woman, who looked like she was fairly clean and mentally intact, but currently struggling in her life. Aimee remembered the time that she almost became homeless when she lost her job. Aimee worked as a preschool teacher and had a hard time getting by financially herself at times, but she wanted to really help this homeless woman. She pulled out a $20 bill from her pocket and told the woman to buy herself breakfast and dinner.

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