Altruism versus Egoism
The ideal person feels joy when he/she can serve others.
In spite of this idealistic quote of the Greek philosopher altruistic behaviour was always debated controversially. Many scientists claimed that human beings are exclusively driven by egoistic motives. The biologist and evolution theorist Richard Dawkins even stated in his book The selfish Gene (1976) that every single human gene aims at asserting and augmenting itself 1. This theory seems to leave no space for the explanation of helping behaviour except of helping members of the own family in order to maintain the biologically related genetic make-up.
But on the other hand we can give countless examples of people who help others without obvious personal gain, and we don’t have to go back to Mother Teresa. Amongst others, the recent so-called “refugee crisis” showed that people invest time, energy and money to tackle the welfare and integration of newcomers. Many Europeans voluntarily distribute food and clothes, care for administrative issues, give language lessons or engage for the social integration of others. How can psychology explain this cooperativeness?
This leads us to the antithetic psychological concepts of altruism and egoism. Whereas egoism can be defined as an expression of the human drive for survival that is directed to the maximisation of personal benefit, altruism can be described as unselfish behaviour and thinking and acting processes that are characterised by respect for others.
Studies showed that persons who feel sympathy and compassion for the distress of others are most inclined to help them. The concept of empathy is the basis for all altruistic thinking and acting. It can be described as the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing and, moreover, to put oneself in their framework of reference. Summarising, empathy means the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position.
- The protégés are close to the helper;
- The helper is able to experience empathy and compassion;
- The helper owns a sense of responsibility for the situation of others;
- The helper is the only one who is able to help in the respective situation;
- The helper owns resources that are necessary to help.
Helping and unselfish behaviour can also serve as an inspiration for others. Hence, helpers can be role models for others who may feel inspired to help as well.