What Is Altruism?

My 9-year-old granddaughter announced, “I feel very sorry for my friend Olivia.”

“Why?” her father asked her.

“Because I will be away and won’t be able to attend her birthday party,” she replied.

This struck me as a typical child’s self-centered behavior. But another way of looking at it is that it’s the epitome of altruism.

Most young kids view themselves as the center, or near the center, of the universe; that being so, their absence from an event honoring somebody else will in their minds detract from the other person’s enjoyment, so that my granddaughter’s sympathy for Olivia can be viewed as charitable.

We economists have lots of trouble describing what constitutes true altruistic behavior, and in that light, my granddaughter’s pronouncement doesn’t look so bad. Of course, if she were 13 and made this comment, I would be pretty convinced that her grandmother, her parents, and I had succeeded in spoiling her!

(Hat tip: M.A.H.)


i think the epitome of altruism is empathy, and it's what makes us social creatures- if we truly have empathy for someone, we will simply act altruistically


I'm not an economist, but it seems like much of the hand-wringing over altruism happens when we try to assess a person's motives. In many cases, the benefit received for a possible act of altruism is emotional or internal, and can't be measured.

If this is the case, I'm not sure that worrying about motive is important. What seems important is that a person or group did something to benefit someone else in the absence of a commercial transaction.

Face the facts

Face it, your granddaughter is spoiled!


I agree with frankenduf, what you describe is empathy not altruism.


The 3 comments before me are my thoughts exactly...


It would probably be safe to assume in the general case that any act, altruism or not, implies some sort of personal benefit. Those acts we categorize as "altruistic" are simply those where the reward entails the servicing of a belief -- primarily as proof to actors themselves that they are "good people" for living up to their own specific standards.

This seems to be the case when the act is unpleasant or even suicidal -- the perceived pleasure derived from the service of the particular belief outweighs the perceived cost -- regardless of the true outcome. Even if it so happens that the charity has unintended consequences, it is often the perceived benefit of having followed the applicable rules that leads people to the conclusion that they "would not have acted differently" in spite of knowing the actual cost in hindsight.

How else can one explain the fundamental contradiction of people like Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie playing cutthroat business games to destroy their opponents, only to end up spending their time giving away their vast fortunes? What matters to people on a visceral level is control--to say their own lives have meaning and direction--the exercising of their belief--and this usually matters more than other people. This is why recipients of charity or welfare often feel they are being manipulated--even if that is not the direct intent, the evident flow of power makes it feel that way--and ultimately they know that they are *not* the ones in control. The purest altruism expects no gratitude; in fact realistically it should probably expect disdain in return and accept as much, despite the usefulness of gratitude as a feedback mechanism for encouraging helpfulness to others.

The generally common observation is that it is only with relative rarity that adults revise their fundamental behavioral rules in response to contrary outcomes. Children and juveniles, being more conceptually flexible, find it easier to learn new tricks and are somewhat less likely to have such statically rigid social responses. At some point most of us get locked in to a particular way of thinking.

So maybe the more interesting question is, what makes people define "goodness" and can it be done rationally and systematically on all sides? For the most part, what we define as "good" behavior is so culturally and personally subjective that we don't even bother to enumerate the ends we intend to achieve in any meaningful, apolitical way.


John M.

All I know is, any 9-year old who uses phrases like "I will be away and won't be able to attend" can have a job at my company as soon as she graduates. All she has to do is apply!


One thing many economists, or whoever doesn't believe in voluntary giving (as opposed to forced taxation), seem to assume that one needs to sacrifice one's self-interest to contribute to others' wellbeing. Therefore it won't happen easily. Therefore we need forced contribution.

I don't agree. Whether you call it self-interest or greed or utility or whatever, people pursue happiness. And very often people feel happy when seeing others happy. Plus, people feel proud and happy when they have helped others.

I don't know academic distinction between altruism and empathy, but I am certain that contributing to others' happiness is not inconsistent with pursuit of one's own happiness.


I would like to see the following question answered:

What changes between 9 and 13 to categorize an action previously "altruistic" to now "selfish"?

Lisa Yannucci

I'll defend your granddaughter! If Olivia is a very close friend, her enjoyment of the party might be lessened without your granddaughter there. Last year, my daughter's best friend couldn't make it to her 7th birthday party and she was sad about it. Though my daughter did enjoy her party in the end!

I think from the point of view of children, it's a reasonable thing to say, and it might even be a correct assessment of the situation.



Wouldn't the altruistic "decision", in the case above, be not going with her parents to go to the birthday party? Isn't there a requirement in altruism that the "other" is of more value than the self in terms of decision-making? In the case above, it is clear that in her decision-making process, she valued herself first before valuing anything else. I guess it could also be argued that she valued her parents more than her friend Olivia and made her decision accordingly.


You don't need to consider yourself the center of the universe to think that. If we take "altruism" to mean being concerned for the welfare of others, then it's perfectly altruistic to assume other people value you if you have an objective reason. "Consideraiton" is not "dogmatic self-abasing modesty."

A 13 year-old could potentially say it just as innocently. Statistically they're just less likely to do so because it's somewhere between 9 and 13 that society sucks most people's benevolence out.

Dewey Munson

"Most young kids view themselves as the center, or near the center, of the universe"

This of course is a position reserved for economists.

On the otherhand the cild never changes

Science minded

you ask the question as if there is an ultimate meaning of altruism- there isn't-- how do I know-- been there and done the test of its somewhat different sides. In sociology, we refer to altruistic suicide as the result of too strong integration in certain groups (as compared with others) as objectively measured.

When a school places the same rigid demands/ test standards on all students irrespective of their individual differences- I would expect deviance to generally rise.

As far as the specific ethic of ultimate ends are concerned as distinct from the ethic of responsibility and the question of the circumstances under which people behave altruistically in the interest of some higher goal-- I would imagine- that religion would be a factor. Also, love-- when one loves someone so much as to be willing to deprive oneself of something for their love- that is altruism of the highest subjective sort- that person deserves to be honored




The "what is altruism?" question is one that social psychologists have been tackling for over many, many years. While it has caused a lot of heated and interesting debates in the field of psychology, the findings apply to a much wider audience. On the one hand, there is empirical evidence of empathy underlying altruistic motivation such that when we feel empathetic towards a target, we help more. However, there is also evidence that seeing someone in need makes a person feel "bad" and any help they give is to try to reduce those "bad" feelings. But if you give them an alternative way to reduce the "bad" feelings that doesn't involve helping, they help the person in need less.

What is altruism? I'm not exactly sure, but I am certainly enjoying all the discoveries made from trying to answer this important question.


I had not read this series of comments before today, but I find it very interesing what blue92 writes. I have given up on nacissistic blogging as of late and decided selfisly to just send myself Private emails to which only I have access . This mornings SASE -self addressed stamped email- considered this issue of control and the various questions posed in your comments.

Thank you for completing some of my thoughts.


It's not altruism since her friendship and her friends happiness are both very important to her.

Her friend adds value to her life, so in return she wants to contribute to her friends happiness by being at the party; she's still thinking in self interest, although it's a very mutually beneficial, positive self interest.

Now, if the school bully was hosting a party, and she said that she wanted to be there to selflessly help organize the party (even though the bully is extremely mean to her), that would be altruism.


I agree with Matt that this is probably a fine, benevolent statement, but is not altruistic as benevolence is perfectly compatible with self-interest and altruism, by its true definition, is self-sacrifice and really helps no one. But I decided I'd humor a benevolent definition of altruism in my comment instead of presenting my ulterior view of ethics.


I think your daughter was being empathetic not self-centered. She knows her friend enjoys her company and would like to have her at the birthday party. I find the comment very sweet and understanding.

Clark Thompson

Altruism a poem
Altruism is a parent that cares more about the success of a child than the importance of living a normal life
Altruism is a friend that realizes that in most cases the truth that helps that friend grow is more important than total acceptance from that friend.
Altruism is the man or woman with extra money displaying a selfless act and finding out how they changed the outcome of a Christmas.
Altruism is the foster parent that cannot distingue between them and their own blood.
Altruism is the mother and father that reach a point in their lives to be ready to help their children one more time when they need it most and do.
Altruism is the pet owner that pays someone to check up on that pet but not to walk it
Altruism is Christ and the way he writes his name on our mistakes praying that we become like him.