My own take on altruism

This research topic submitted by Perrault Jean-Paul (pj22@cornell.edu) on 5/13/00.

The altruistic personality

I know a man who devotes countless hours of his time and energy to help relatives, friend and total strangers. This man is there when cousin Geda needs to complete her income taxes. This man is there when Uncle Metard needs to go to immigration to resolve his visa status. He is there when my brother Ted needs to pay his tuition expenses. He is there when a motorist who is trapped in a parking lot needs a battery boost to start his car. This man has been there all of my life when I have needed him, and he is still there for me in good times and in bad. This man of whom I speak is father. From an early age I realized that he wasn?t like everyone else. In situations where most people would turn their back, he would stop to lend a hand. In fact, one of the sharpest memories in my mind is what he did when he returned to his town in Haiti. Taking not that the townspeople needed a new bridge to over the main canal, he donated $4,000 to help build the bridge. Many well-off foreigners and village people had
seen the need for the bridge. Yet, they would rather let the bridge deteriorate to a scrap of cement than to invest a few dollars to help repair. It so happened that the townspeople were corrupt and did not use the money for its intended purpose. Yet, even though he felt betrayed and deceived, he continues to help people with no obvious gain.

My father can be described as being altruistic ? possessing behavior that entails an unselfish concern for the welfare of others (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 414). He displays a great degree of prosocial behavior ? helpful actions that benefit others but have no obvious benefits for the person who carries out the action and sometimes even involves risks (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 395). I have always wondered what motivates my father to be so altruistic. What are the components of an altruistic personality (a combination of dispositional variables that influences prosocial behavior, Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 419)?

One of the key components to an altruistic personality is empathy. Empathy is defined as a complex affective and cognitive response to another?s emotional distress (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 415). In the case of my father, I can say he possesses such personality traits as tolerance, responsibility, and a desire to make a good impression. Another factor in prosocial behavior is a belief in a just world. According to this theory, people who believe in a just world perceive the world as fair and predictable place in which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. My father?s personality trait in this regard can be regarded as being religious. My father believes in the Golden Rule ? do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

Social responsibility is also important in prosocial behavior. People who cite social responsibility believe that each person is responsible for doing his or her best to help others in need. This is especially important when one considers such social effects as the bystander effect and diffusion of social responsibility. The bystander effect occurs where the probability that any one bystander will help and the time it takes for a bystander to help, in the case of an emergency, decreases with the number of bystanders present (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 398). The bystander effect plays into diffusion of responsibility where the assumption of responsibility by witnesses of an emergency decreases as the number of witnesses present increases. In this respect, my father has a personality trait where he believes that every human is responsible for his actions. He has strongly advocated against following the herd to my siblings and me.

Another variable that plays into prosocial behavior is internal locus of control. This theory states that an individual has the choice to behave in ways that maximize good outcomes and minimizes bad ones (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 419). My father is a strong believer in the notion that every individual determines his or her fate. He does not rely on luck to control the progress of his life. He makes his fate rather than waiting for it to occur. In this regard, my father does not possess a strong self-serving bias (the tendency to attribute one?s own positive outcomes to internal causes and negative outcomes to external causes). In terms of personality traits, he possesses a great degree of self-esteem that allows him to understand and correct his faults. My father also has a low degree of egocentrism. He does not view the world as revolving around him. He sees the other people around him and attempts to help them. My father believes in self-improvement not only of himself, but also of others.

Even though my father may possess personality traits that makes him display prosocial behavior, are those traits the only reason why he helps others? Even though I highly respect my father, ultimately the answer to that question is no; there are other motives for him to help other people. I do not believe that there is a human being that is purely altruistic. Such a human being could not survive very long as he would deplete all of his resources too quickly. Prosocial behavior is rather a mix of altruism and egoism (an exclusive concern with one?s own welfare) (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 415). Perhaps one of the reasons why my father helps others is because it makes him feel better about himself. According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, prosocial behavior is motivated by the desire to help someone in need (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 430). Prosocial behavior, according to the experiments of Batson, can be the result of the notion that ?it feels good to be good.? Empathy, in such cases, are often a
result of similarity to the victim. As the case with the complete stranger, my father may have experienced a similar situation where he need a batter jumpstart, and placed himself in the shoes of that motorist in his decision to help him.

In line with the empathy-altruism model is the negative-state relief model that proposes that prosocial behavior is motivated by the bystander?s desire to reduce his or her own uncomfortable negative emotions (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 431). For instance, a bystander in a bad mood may want to make himself feel better. Thus, he decides to help a person in need. I must admit that I, and I am certain my father, have used the negative-state relief model in opening the doors for a stranger when we are in a bad mood. It?s amazing how powerful a simple ?thank you? from someone can be in elevating the mood of an individual.

The empathic joy hypothesis may also be an end-effect of prosocial behavior. According to this hypothesis, prosocial behavior is motivated by the positive emotions a helper experiences as a result of making a positive impact on someone?s life (Baron and Byrne, 2000, pp. 431). In the case of my Aunt, my father probably helped her to complete her taxes by the self-satisfaction that he has played an important role in making someone?s life better. Thus, even though his behavior was altruistic, he gained an emotional satisfaction from performing it.

Perhaps the most likely cause, and the evolutionarily most significant cause, for prosocial behavior is genetics. According to the genetic determinism model, prosocial behavior is driven by genetic attributes that evolved because they enhanced reproductive success and thus the probability that individuals would be able to transmit their genes to subsequent generations. That would certainly explain why my father has tolerated and allowed me to live in his house during my teenage years. It would also explain why he continues to bail me out of economic problems at the age of twenty-four even though he has no legal or social obligation to me.

Prosocial behavior is a crucial part of humanity. Perhaps the entire definition of ?human? involves the ability to sacrifice oneself with no obvious gain. However, there are underlying factors that either encourage or discourage prosocial behavior. They include personality traits, similarity and dispositional states. Even though there is usually an ultimate gain to prosocial behavior, we must commend and respect the individuals that engage in it. It takes a special person to be maintain an altruistic personality.

LITERATURE CITED

Baron, R. and Byrne, D. (2000). Social Psychology, 9th ed. s. Massachusetts, Allyn and Bacon


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