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The Psychology of Altruism
Why altruism is not entirely altruistic and yet ultimately good for humanity…
In my discussion of ambition, I left out altruism, and in some ways the exclusion was intentional. Personal ambition would arise directly from a personal need, while altruism by definition goes beyond the self and goes beyond personal needs. Altruism as coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century literally means ‘for others’. Thus, altruism is putting the needs of others before one’s own, and thus characterized by selfless behavior, altruism would not in principle be a cause for ambition. If altruism is placed with personal ambition, this would be a kind of oxymoron. However, how true is this? This also requires a psychological examination.
The needs of others can definitely drive us to do something and that would be more of a cause or mission than ambition. A mission is stronger than personal ambition, and a person with a mission is usually driven by a conviction that he or she has been chosen to do something and no one else can take on the task. Usually a mission is about a higher purpose like helping a certain group of individuals or spreading a message or simply imparting knowledge or eradicating suffering. A mission in life is very similar to a psychological deception and a person fired with a mission just like a deceived individual feels that he is chosen or simply unique and must complete his true purpose in life. However, missions are real and cannot be fully explained by existing psychological theories. Mission is undoubtedly the strongest psychological trait and a person with a mission cannot be changed in any way and that is why all leaders are very strong in their approach to what they simply have to do. Although evolutionary psychology like evolutionary biology has penetrated the deepest secrets of altruistic behavior in humans, the development of mission has not been adequately explained by psychology.
So, altruism can be of two types – general altruistic behavior as manifested through simple philanthropy or helping others in everyday life and specific altruistic behavior as manifested by having a particular cause or purpose or mission in life.
The first type of altruism is seen in almost all of us, we all believe in the philosophy of giving, in helping people in need and this is reflected in all spheres of life, starting from donating a small amount online or giving a significant portion of your salary to charity or simply to help a frail old woman cross the road when you are in a hurry.
The second type of altruism would be the mission or purpose I’ve been talking about. It is specific and the individual is driven to fulfill the ultimate goal of his/her life. The first type of altruism is found in all of us, the second type is found only in some of us. It is possible to derive a psychology for both these types of altruistic manifestations.
Biologically, altruism is the sacrifice of the reproductive capacity or genetic transmission of one species to aid the growth of another. This would be completely contrary to Darwinian evolution, since biological altruism rather than helping one’s own species is about helping the growth and survival of other species. So this kind of behavior puts animals at a reproductive disadvantage and reduces the chances of producing a larger number of offspring. There are many examples of altruistic behavior among animals such as vervet monkeys sounding alarms whenever they feel the appearance of predators, although in doing so they risk their own lives, among birds there are many helper birds that protect the young of a different species and in colonies of insects such as bees, worker bees remain sterile to aid the reproductive process of the queen bee. One way that altruistic motives can be dismissed is by suggesting that howler monkeys are merely reflexive and show spontaneous fear behavior by giving alarm calls or that birds and bees simply maintain their interest by showing outwardly altruistic behavior. This kind of explanation would be controversial at least when we try to extrapolate and suggest that people are also philanthropic and altruistic in general because inwardly they want something in return and that they are ultimately or ultimately looking out for their own self-interest. Is there any absolutely selfless behavior? Do parents attend and care for their little ones in the hope that one day when they are very old their children will care for them too? Do people give their money to charity hoping to be honored? Of course, many individuals these days donate anonymously, and many would follow a cause without ever revealing their identity, do they have a reason that would be akin to self-interest or is there such a thing as absolutely selfless behavior? An anonymous donor would one day want people to know that he was the real donor. But then selfless behavior for the good of others can be explained, and we all have a part in us that is selfless and wants to go beyond the limits of our existence. Why?
So selflessness is just that, we want to be bigger than what we are, we want to be philanthropic because we want to move beyond the trappings of material wealth. The same sense of selflessness that is found in all of us to a certain degree is also found in missionaries, spiritual leaders or even political leaders to a greater extent, because selflessness is a defense against our insignificance and mortality determined by material existence. Of course, here I will not go into philosophy and stick to psychology, altruism is about the desire to be loved by others and a stage in which there is empathy. In strictly psychoanalytic terms ‘transference’ and ‘counter-transference’ are terms that define the relationship between patient and psychotherapist when one understands the feelings of the other. Although the psychoanalyst Jung focused on a possible altruistic behavior in spirituality, he still suggested that the search for self may be present, however according to Jung we seek a balance in energy systems. Considering this a little further, altruism, philanthropy or kindness may be our unconscious desire to seek balance in ourselves and in the world.
Psychoanalysis would generally consider altruism to be self-fulfilling behavior, although motivational psychology, as discussed in The Psychology of Ambition, would suggest that altruism would be more compatible with the self-actualization stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. To recap briefly, Abraham Maslow developed his theory of the hierarchy of needs in which he suggested that the highest human needs would be the self-actualization needs that are present in all of us and that adequately explain altruism.
However, whether it is the need of a leader fired from a mission to help society or the need of a young person to participate in volunteering, altruism can still be rooted in our unconscious needs to live in a better world. well, to find and develop a balanced one. society, to expand and expand ourselves into something greater than our small existence. Altruism is still defined by our needs for a greater or higher purpose in life. Then all of this ultimately suggests that we help others for our own evolutionary advantage, so even if altruism seems altruistic, there may be deeper, unconscious selfish truths that we cannot ignore. When we help and protect others, we ultimately feel protected. There can be no such thing as absolute selflessness, and even if such a thing existed, it would ultimately be good for no one.
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