Our Natural State of Altruism

A girl altruistically helps a boy get up from a log

Is Altruism Real?

Some people claim that altruism is a myth, that we humans do nothing except that it serves our own ends. True, there are those who calculate the value for themselves of everything they do, whether benevolent or hurtful. They don’t understand that altruism feels good. It boosts endorphins, increases oxytocin levels, and sends dopamine to our dopamine receptors, but only if we act out of a true desire to help and heal. [1]

Perhaps those who discount altruism do so because they have no such desire, so have no idea what it feels like. Concerned more with their own reputation or financial well-being, their own comfort or security, than with the needs, emotions, or sensations of others, such people can’t imagine what it is like to care about anyone else, to experience empathy and compassion, to reach out to another with actual kindness.

While researching a column about gun violence, I came across a chatroom for self-identified sociopaths. Motivated by winning at all costs, they bragged about grooming victims, about manipulating and controlling them. They distrusted the motives of everyone around them, certain that love and compassion were lies.

Grateful for the Hormone of Love

I cannot understand their thoughts, nor can I imagine their feelings, if they have any. Nonetheless, I pity them. Pity is not an emotion I’m proud of, yet look at their lives. The stress must be enormous. Imagine always having to watch your back, to be ready for a fight, to plot and plan, to seethe with rage. To me it seems exhausting, though the sociopath must find it fun. To judge by the comments they make in their online community, they think theirs is a decent life, even a superior one.

Yet where is the ease, the peace, the contentment, the joy? From what do they gain a sense of accomplishment, meaning, and purpose? I have known the exhilaration of the conquest, yet it is nothing compared with the surge of pleasure and the bonds of closeness that altruism gives me.

In my work as a chaplain, I experience many moments when meeting with a patient fills me with a warm and comforting sense of love. It could be all the oxytocin and dopamine my body’s pumping out. If so, then I am grateful for those chemicals and for my capacity to produce them. Evolution has wisely given us brains that lean toward altruism, and these neurochemicals are part of that. According to Donald W. Pfaff, “complex human societies could not have evolved but for the brain’s extraordinary wiring that favors benevolence.” [2]

A girl altruistically helps a boy get up from a log

Why Do People Help?

Not everyone, though, responds to the pain of others with generous and salvific impulses. Why do some help while others withdraw? Clearly some brains are broken, some hearts numb. Yet what else do we know about those who tend toward altruism and those who don’t?

The response of bystanders to the rounding up and murder of Jews during the Nazi period has been well studied. For instance, in the 1980s, Samuel and Pearl Oliner interviewed seven hundred Europeans who had lived through the Holocaust. A little over half the study participants had, in one way or another, helped Jews survive. From their interviews, the Oliners discovered some external and internal elements that distinguished these rescuers from more passive bystanders. [3]

One of these was resources. Rescuers needed space to hide people, contacts to help them get Jews out of the country, or money to buy supplies and food. They also needed to be willing to act in spite of the risk to themselves and their families. Additionally, most of them, about two-thirds, had to be asked to provide help, whether by the victims or by others.

Even so, one-third did not wait. They took it upon themselves to find ways to protect those who were being targeted. Why?

Seeing the Person in the Stranger

Part of it was who their personalities. Some people are confident, internally motivated, and courageous. Others aren’t. Yet the Oliners discovered that, unlike other citizens, the rescuers felt compassion and empathy for the Jews. It wasn’t that they knew more about what was happening than the nonrescuers did. They all saw the same facts. At some point, though, “the rescuers began to perceive [those facts] in a personal way.” [4] They saw the individuals who were being harmed as people, real human beings with feelings and lives. In all ways that mattered, the Jews were just like them.

When we clearly see the person in front of us, and when we recognize our common humanity, our compassion is roused. If that person is hurting, we want to ease her suffering. In such a situation, unless we are terrified, or unless we really have nothing to give, we will to help.

Yet if we are not brave, and if we do not know how to care, can we learn?

Of Rhesus and Stump-Tails

Frans de Waal, a primatologist, tells a tale of two species of monkey. [5] The rhesus monkeys are hierarchical, and they respond to aggression with more aggression. Stump-tailed macaques, on the other hand, are easy-going and tolerant. They have a rich repertoire of gestures to appease and reassure.

Wondering if the more combative primates could be trained to respond with gentleness, de Waal housed the two species together for five months, a significant period of time in their short lifespan. To ensure that the stump-tailed monkeys did the teaching, he chose ones who were half a year older than their rhesus cousins. This would make them more dominant.

At first, the rhesus huddled together near the ceiling while the stump-tails inspected their new home. After a while, though, the younger monkeys began to grunt and threaten the stump-tails. The response was not what they expected. The larger, calmer monkeys ignored them. Perhaps because they were confident in their place, the stump-tails felt no need to use force to maintain their position. Over and over, the rhesus did what they had learned as youngsters, but the stump-tails didn’t even look at them.

Learning to Get Along

Then something shifted. While the monkeys could be verbally aggressive, they stopped getting into fights. They began to play more and get along.

By the end of the experiment, the two groups were grooming one another and sleeping together. From the stump-tails, the rhesus learned to reconcile differences. They enjoyed social activities and became more calm. Even after the two species separated, these rhesus continued their “newly acquired pacifism.” [6] It wasn’t that the monkeys copied the behavior of the stump-tails. They maintained their own species-specific mannerisms. They just did so in a friendlier way. De Waal postulated that the more lenient and gentle personality of the stump-tails allowed the younger monkeys to focus on getting along rather than on maintaining the rigid hierarchy that is typical of their kind.

If monkeys raised in aggressive and hierarchical communities can learn to cooperate and be kind, shouldn’t we humans be able to change our ways, as well? The fact that, once the rhesus were on their own, they did not revert to their old behaviors, indicates to me that this more gentle way of being appealed to them. They preferred to get along.

I think cooperation also appeals to us. If it doesn’t come naturally, we can learn to be kind and caring. Once we do, we don’t want to go back to being distrustful, selfish, and violent.

Realizing Love Is Possible

The dominant primate might prefer to stay on top, though I suspect the stress of maintaining one’s position gets old, as does the stress of being a sociopath. It’s lonely at the top, at least if you can’t bear for anyone else to be there with you.

On the other hand, some people feel safe in rigid systems. They like to know their place in a hierarchy. Making a change like the rhesus did could feel threatening to them.

It can also be hard to escape a torturous childhood. Such upbringings tend to make people emotionally volatile. At the same time, they don’t learn to identify pain in others. Sometimes, they forget how to care. This apathy, paired with their own intense feelings, means that during times of stress, these wounded children and adults will focus on their own needs at the expense of others. They won’t try to help anyone else, nor will they know how to get along. Teaching emotion regulation, providing examples of care and compassion, can encourage altruism. [7]

We can all learn, but not without help. Like the rhesus needed the stump-tailed macaques, so we need our tolerant and mild-mannered human mentors.

In Giving, We Receive

Cruelty and danger exist in every human society. Sociopaths, braggarts, and despots control and destroy entire populations. Yet altruism, as Pfaff has found, is natural to us. Religions encourage it and parents teach it. When we see someone hurting, we rush to save them. While out walking a few years ago, I saw a car strike a low-flying crow, a blow that sent the bird spiraling to the street. Without a thought, I dashed between the oncoming cars, waved them to stop, then scooped up the creature and carried it to safety.

Yes, we can be taught to fear, to ignore, to hate, but that is not our instinctive way. Once we learn, instead, to care for and comfort one another, to play with and rest with one another, we don’t want to go back to the cruel and bitter life we lived before.

Stephen G. Post wrote, that “[t]he best way to achieve a sense of self-worth is through genuinely loving and serving others.” [8] Altruism feels good, and it turns us into good people. We evolved to live in community, with bonds enhanced by oxytocin and compassionate actions encouraged by dopamine. Aggression is part of our lives, as well. Anger and fear have their place. Yet our work with one another is to love. This love, that arises out of empathy, spurs us to take care of one other. In giving, we do indeed receive.

In faith and fondness,



  1. “Altruism: A Remedy for Stress,” HeartMath, https://www.heartmath.com/blog/articles/altruism-a-remedy-for-stress__trashed/, accessed 7/6/19.
  2. Pfaff, Donald W., The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 18.
  3. Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner, “Saving Others: Was It Opportunity or Character?,”The Altruism Reader : Selections from Writings on Love, Religion, and Science, edited by Thomas Jay Oord, Templeton Press, 2007, 348-368.
  4. Ibid 355.
  5. de Waal, Frans, “Getting Along,” The Altruism Reader : Selections from Writings on Love, Religion, and Science, edited by Thomas Jay Oord, Templeton Press, 2007, 242-262, 255-256.
  6. Ibid 256.
  7. Eisenber, Nancy, Sandra Losoya, and Tracy Spinard, “Affect and Prosocial Responding,” The Altruism Reader : Selections from Writings on Love, Religion, and Science, edited by Thomas Jay Oord, Templeton Press, 2007, 285-312, 301.
  8. Post, Stephen G., “The Core Meaning of Love,” The Altruism Reader : Selections from Writings on Love, Religion, and Science, edited by Thomas Jay Oord, Templeton Press, 2007, 3- 9, 5.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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