Americans give more than $300 billion to charity every year.* But giving money to organizations is not the only way we can be altruistic. We can volunteer. We can stop on the side of the road to help a stranded motorist. We can donate blood. Every day, there are ways we can selflessly give of ourselves to help others. But some people are more likely to give than others. Why is this? Psychology professionals have a few answers.
What Exactly Is Altruism?
Altruism isn’t just the act of helping others. It is the desire to help others even when there is no reward for you. You choose to help not because you’ll receive accolades or because you feel obligated by religion, duty, or societal pressure, but because you simply want to help.
Neurological Components of Altruism
Can the way our brain functions influence how altruistic we are? There’s evidence to suggest it can. A recent study by Dr. Abigail Marsh and her colleagues at Georgetown University found that people who exhibit strong altruistic behavior have more active—and, in some cases, even larger—right amygdala,† a part of the brain that helps us feel certain emotions and perceive them in others, particularly the emotion of fear. These results suggest that at least one component of enhanced altruism is tied to a neurologically driven ability to perceive and empathize with the fear and vulnerabilities of others.
In other words, because you are more sensitive to the way others, including strangers, are feeling, you’re more likely to want to help them through a difficult situation. Their fear registers in your brain. When you help them alleviate that fear, it helps you feel better, too.
Even in people whose right amygdala hasn’t been shown to be more active than normal, acts of altruism can create positive psychological benefits. Research has found that, in some of us, being altruistic can release endorphins, giving us a rush of positive feelings.‡ For people who experience this endorphin rush, altruism is not as unrewarded as it may seem. It’s just that the reward is internal rather than external.
Evolutionary Components of Altruism
If you’re wondering why altruism can make you feel good, evolution may hold the answer. Psychologists have recorded acts of altruistic behavior in species across the animal kingdom, including worker bees that choose feeding the hive’s young over reproducing, vampire bats that share blood with bats that weren’t as lucky at hunting, and ravens that alert other ravens of a carcass they all can share.§
If altruism is common among animals, then perhaps our own altruism isn’t some quirk of humanity but is instead ingrained at an evolutionary level. One theory is that altruism, in its most basic form, is a way to preserve our species. Helping each other helps us continue to propagate. Perhaps those who are more altruistic are just more attuned to this instinct, or perhaps, evolutionarily, each species only needs a certain percentage of altruists to keep the species going. The science is still unsettled.
How Can You Learn More About Altruism?
There is a lot of research left to be done on altruism, which means there is a lot of room for you to contribute to our understandings of why we give. If you want to advance the study of altruism, you should consider earning a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. With a psychology degree, you can devote yourself to studying why we come to behave the way we do, including why we are—or are not—altruistic.
While there are many psychology colleges, one of the best ways to earn a BS in Psychology is through an online university. When you choose an online BS in Psychology program, you won’t have to move to be close to your school or disrupt your full-time job to attend classes. Instead, an online bachelor’s degree in psychology can allow you to complete the majority of your coursework from home and on a schedule that allows you to continue handling all your other responsibilities.
Altruism is a fascinating subject about which we know too little. By enrolling in an online school of psychology and earning a psychology degree, you can put yourself in position to make great contributions to this field.
Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online BS in Psychology degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.
*National Philanthropic Trust, Charitable Giving Statistics, on the Internet at www.nptrust.org/philanthropic-resources/charitable-giving-statistics.
†S. Gonzalez, The Neuroscience of Altruism, Psychology In Action, on the Internet at www.psychologyinaction.org/2015/05/28/the-neuroscience-of-altruism.
‡S. Bourg Carter, Helper’s High: The Benefits (and Risks) of Altruism, Psychology Today, on the Internet at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201409/helpers-high-the-benefits-and-risks-altruism.
§S. Dingfelder, Altruism: An Accident of Nature?, American Psychological Association, on the Internet at www.apa.org/monitor/dec06/altruism.aspx.
Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.