Does true altruism exist?

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How far would you go to help another person?

It’s easy enough to help other people when it costs you nothing, but where things get interesting is when there’s a trade-off between helping someone and incurring a cost yourself. That’s what altruism is—action that benefits another person, at a cost to yourself, motivated by concern for the other person’s welfare.

For decades, the dominant perspective in psychology was the theory of “universal egotism,” the idea that we’re all fundamentally selfish, and even actions that appear altruistic are actually selfishness in disguise, designed to enhance our reputations or advance the interests of our genetic relatives.

More recently, psychologists have proposed that to the extent that altruism exists, it’s made possible by empathy. This idea, known as the empathy-altruism hypothesis, suggests that we’re driven to increase the welfare of others insofar as we’re able to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine their pain[1].

Of course, some people have no regard for the pain of others (psychopaths) or even derive pleasure from seeing others suffer (sadists). On the other end of the spectrum, we’d expect that highly empathic people might value avoiding inflicting pain on others almost as much as—but never more than—they value avoiding pain themselves.

Most studies have found that people care about themselves more than they care about others.

Psychologists like to study “dictator games,” one-off interactions in which one of two participants is allocated a sum of money and given a choice about how much, if any, to donate to the other person. The recipient has no say—they receive whatever money the dictator deigns to give them. These studies find that although people are not entirely selfish (which would mean keeping the entire sum to themselves), those assigned to be the dictator almost always value themselves more than the other person, giving only a portion of the total and keeping a larger share for themselves[2].

But recent research shows that in some situations, people will actually go further to prevent another person’s pain than they will to avoid pain themselves.

An experiment divided participants into two groups—deciders and receivers—and placed them into two separate rooms. Care was taken to preserve the anonymity of deciders, so their choices wouldn’t be motivated by concerns about their reputation, retaliation, or reciprocity.

Deciders were asked to make a series of choices that involved choosing between either a smaller amount of money and a smaller number of shocks, versus a larger amount of money and a larger number of shocks. Sometimes it was the decider who received the shocks, and sometimes the receiver, but either way, the decider was the one who got the money. For example, deciders might have had to choose between two options: 7 shocks for £10, or 10 shocks for £15.

Surprisingly, the study found that while many people readily chose to receive three additional shocks to make an extra £5, they were less willing to administer those shocks to a stranger to get the same money[3]. In fact, people were willing to sacrifice twice as much money to prevent shocks to other people as they were to avoid shocks themselves[4].

This study suggests that at least when it comes to inflicting pain, true altruism may exist, and people seem motivated to help another person with no benefit to themselves. Maybe Socrates was right after all when he said, “I for one would wish neither; but if it were necessary to do or to suffer wrong, I would choose rather to suffer than to do wrong”[5].


1. Batson, C.D., Duncan, B.D., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 290–302.
2. Engel, C. (2011). Dictator games: a meta study. Experimental Economics, 14, 583–610.
3. Crockett, M.J. (2014). Behind the scenes of a shocking new study on human altruism. The Guardian.
4. Crockett, M.J., Kurth-Nelson, Z., Siegel, J.Z., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R.J. (2014). Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 17320–17325.
5. Plato. (380 BCE). Gorgias. Indianapolis: Hackett.