Altruism, often referred to as selflessness, is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others.
Voluntary behavior with the intent to help other people is known as prosocial behavior. Specifically, altruism is the desire to help others even if the costs outweigh the benefits of helping.
The social-exchange theory argues that altruism only exists when the benefits outweigh the costs—i.e. when your behavior helps you even more than it helps the other person. The theory is based on the idea that all human relationships are formed through the use of this subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives. The potential benefits from a relationship can be tangible, such as food, money, gifts, or housing. They can also be intangible, like support, love, fun, and companionship. According to the social exchange theory, when the risks or costs of a relationship outweigh the benefits, the relationship is abandoned or ended.
The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that psychological altruism does exist and is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering. People with empathic concern help others in distress even when exposure to the situation could be easily avoided. In contrast, those lacking in empathic concern avoid helping unless it is difficult or impossible to avoid.
Empathic concern is thought to emerge in later developmental years. However, research indicates that children as young as two years of age can interpret the psychological and affective states of others, and have some access to the knowledge of how to alleviate emotional discomfort. Developmental psychologists suggest that both personal disposition (temperament) and social context contribute to individual differences in empathic concern.
Reciprocity involves an exchange of positive actions between people. It is the give and take in relationships. We contribute to relationships, but we expect to receive benefits as well; we want our relationships to be a two-way street.
Reciprocal actions are essential to social psychology as they can help explain the maintenance of social norms. The human tendency toward reciprocity is so strong that a person will feel obligated to return a favor regardless of whether they like the person who originally gave the favor, and even if they did not want the favor.
MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)
Sample Test P/S Section Question 28
Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 4 Question 18
• Altruism, or the concern for others, is explained by several theories, including the social-exchange theory, the empathy-altruism hypothesis, and reciprocity norms.
• There has been some debate as to whether or not humans are truly capable of psychological altruism; because altruism ultimately benefits the self in many cases, the selflessness of altruistic acts is brought into question.
• The social-exchange theory postulates that altruism only exists when the benefits outweigh the costs.
• The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that psychological altruism does exist and is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering.
• The reciprocity norm suggests that people will be most likely to cooperate if and only if others are likely to reciprocate.
altruism: Desire to help others even if the costs outweigh the benefits of helping.
norm: A rule that is enforced by members of a community.
prosocial behavior: Voluntary behavior with the intent to help other people.
reciprocity: A relation of mutual dependence or action or influence.