Are there effective altruists from Africa

Altruism: Why there is also egoism behind it

by Helmut Stapel
Is altruism a natural charity or is it just calculated self-interest? And what influence do gender, time and mood have on our willingness to help? Researchers have been interested in the selfless actions of individuals for society for centuries

The ability to selflessly give more than one gets is not only human. Where does the willingness to help others come from and whether it is always healthy, This is what philosophers and sociologists argue about to this day.

This is already evident from the period of discussion with all forms of altruism. It is true that the French philosopher and mathematician Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) first coined the term in his work “Système de politique postive” in 1851. The word base for altruism from Latin ("old" - one, the other) but it is more or less representative of the long time span of the approaches to thinking and defining the counter-term to egoism.

Behavior as a philanthropist

Greek philosophers like Socrates thought about the phenomenon of philanthropy and gave behavior a name: Philanthropos - today's philanthropist. He is altruistic and a philanthropist.

Altruism goes one step further: An altruist takesby definition by August Comte that he will suffer a loss through his commitment to others, so has a disadvantage.

The Titan Prometheus in the Greek tragedy "Prometheus Fettered" is practically the philanthropist from the very beginning. In the 5th century BC, the contemporary poet Aristophanes referred to him as "Philanthropos". After all, Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to give it to humans.

The fact that he was condemned to the Greek realm of the dead with thunder and lightning at the end of the tragedy actually makes him an altruist. After all, with his place in the gruesome Hades, Prometheus isn't exactly the winner in history.

Why do people act altruistically at all?

But: Altruists are people who selflessly stand up for other people. Prometheus, on the other hand, was a Titan, that is, from a family of gods and therefore not human.

But why do people help other people without asking for anything? Instead, they give or sacrifice something - sometimes even themselves.

The motives for acting altruistically can be varied:

  • justice: helping other people who are being treated unfairly
  • moral: Helping people because society expects it
  • religion: Helpfulness and charity can be part of faith
  • Self-actualization: doing something for society by volunteering
  • Benevolence towards other people
  • pity as a trigger for help
  • affection
  • gratitude

The list shows how many triggers and at the same time types of altruism there are. Which raises the question of whether or not pure altruism is even possible a benefit of one's own egoistically plays into the selfless behavior.

The Chilean biologist and philosopher Humberto Maturana, for example, comes to the conclusion in his theory of autopoiesis that altruistic action exists - but in the end the benefit of the agent becomes greater than the effort made.

Altruism: Selfish with a sense of wellbeing

As proof that altruism is somewhat selfish, sociologists and psychologists cite their own sense of wellbeing. If we do something good for other people, we feel good about ourselves. The Greek philosopher Aristotle put it this way:

"The ideal person feels joy when he can render a service to others."

In fact, there is a biological reason for this as well. In 2010, the Bonn psychology professor Martin Reuter established a connection between genetic makeup and altruism. He rewarded around 100 students for the results in a mark test with five euros. They could then donate any amount of the money to a charitable cause.

Before the experiment, Reuter had taken skin cells from the students and looked at the COMT gene concentrated. This gene is available in two variants: COMT-Val and COMT-Met. His experiment showed that the subjects with the COMT-Val gene donated twice as much money, like the test participants with the COMT-Met variant.

The willingness to help grows with higher dopamine levels

The reason for this is simple and biochemical in nature. The COMT-Val gene contains the building instructions for a messenger substance that is produced in our brain: dopamine, also known as the "happiness hormone". In people with the COMT-Val gene, the associated enzyme works up to four times more effective and thus ensures a correspondingly stronger release of dopamine in the brain. The result: wellbeing.

This feeling is also called "The warm glow" denotes - the warm feeling in the stomach when you have done something good for others. The term was coined by the American economist James Andreoni in the 1980s. The cross-connection from the biology of altruism to the economy also shows which aspects and driving mechanisms altruism can still contain: give and take.

Give and Take: Altruism in Business

This structure is referred to as "Reciprocal Altruism". This term originates from biology and evolution. Reflected in the economy, this means, for example, an altruistic interweaving of company management, customers and employees, which takes place on different levels and in different forms.

For example, an employee takes on the role of giver by swapping his early shift with a colleague for the late shift - but receives no direct consideration in return. The company's production flow is not disrupted. The goods can be delivered to the customer as ordered. If the giving employee needs help from his colleagues and receives it, then he is in the position of the recipient: reciprocal altruism, the principle of reciprocity.

Acting altruistically for productivity

We're talking about more human interaction in economic systemsto strengthen the structure of a company. In view of the profit idea in capitalism, the egoistic motive is at first sight a contradiction. The scientific and economic policy approaches, however, paint a different picture of the future.

Tania Singer, Professor of Psychology and Group Leader for Social Neurosciences at the Max Planck Society, speaks of “Caring Economics” - an economic model that uses human interaction and well-being based on altruism as a productivity engine. Models of behavioral economics as so-called game theory also play a role here: Who behaves in which situation and for which motivation how, in order to achieve which result for themselves and for others?

Doing something for society despite making a profit

The inclusion of altruism in corporate culture in Germany has meanwhile also reached the political level. The Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative (CSR) of the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs aims at an economic structure in which "The profit of one is not based on the damage of the other." The employee-oriented personnel policy is a factor here.

Sociology, psychology, philosophy, biology, economics - altruism is a topic that runs through many disciplines and areas. What is something so fundamentally based on?

Do people come into the world as altruists?

Biologists now assume that altruism is causally used to create an advantage within a related human gene group in one's own family: the relatives selection. The British evolutionary biologist John Burdon Haldane spoke of it for the first time in 1957. This would strengthen and promote the genetic survival of the group - which in itself contains egoism.

The original theory of evolution supports this view in principle - even if Charles Darwin initially had a problem with the concept of altruism formulated by Auguste Comte. After all, Darwin assumes the survival of the fittest - individual selection.

Are there also types of altruism in the animal kingdom?

The decisive factor for this is the increase in one's own so-called "fitness" - that is, reproductive success - through one's own behavior. The goal: to pass on one's own genes as often as possible. Doing someone a favor and losing out - weakening your fitness - is not exactly Darwin's idea of ​​evolution and survival.

In other words, altruistic grebes, for example, would have died out after a short time. Darwin therefore integrated altruism into his theory of group selection in humans. Summarized:

  • A tribe has many members who have values ​​such as patriotism, obedience, loyalty, and courage.
  • They are therefore ready to help each other and, if necessary, to sacrifice themselves for the best.
  • That means victory over most of the other tribes.
  • The conditions for natural selection are met.

But what about animals? Is there altruism there? The answer is yes and no. Chimpanzees are an example of this. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have found the Adoption of orphaned pups in a chimpanzee group observed. The securing of one's own gene pool in this way also carries the factor of relative selection in itself - and thus also a part of egoism.

Help among chimpanzees only on request

On the other hand, researchers at the Japanese Kyoto University speak of the fact that chimpanzees can act altruistically - but only at the request of a fellow horde, for example when they need a tool to get food.

Biologists from the University of Manchester go one step further with the conclusion of a behavioral study in Uganda. According to the English researchers, chimpanzees do not care about the consequences of their actions.

Where altruism demonstrably exists in the animal kingdom, there are state-building peoples such as bees, ants or termites - although biology only uses the term altruism if the selfless behavior does not relate to its own offspring. In the case of state-building peoples, one speaks of eusocial behavior.

Even plants show some kind of altruism

That means: A worker bee does not develop functional ovaries, does without offspring, puts its life in the service of its colony and, in extreme cases, sacrifices its life to protect the queen if the beehive is attacked.

Why is she doing this? Through her behavior she ensures the best possible transmission of the genes and thus the preservation of the bee colony. There can therefore be no question of selfless behavior in the sense of altruism.

In fact, even plants show a kind of altruism - based on the definition that a self-induced limitation of one's own natural fitness can be assigned to this area. An experiment in 2014 showed that the cress wall changed the position of the leaves in relation to related plants in such a way that that the shading of the neighboring plant was as little as possible. At the same time, the possibility of photosynthesis for the cress and thus the own energy expenditure for growth decreased - that is, your own natural fitness.

Even bacteria act for the community

And even bacteria seem to know a kind of unselfish help, which in the end strengthens the survival of the group - that is, relatives selection in the sense of the theory of evolution. American biologists have found that out.

In a trial with an antibiotic, more resistant bacteria supported weaker bacteria. They ensured the production of a certain substance as part of an amino acid and thus improved the chances of survival of the entire bacterial population.

Living together in a group requires certain behavior. Altruism in human society is also part of it. Why people behave how in which situations and also like to give something away without benefiting directly from it - this is called prosocial behavior and is part of altruism research. Psychology professor Anne Böcker-Raettig investigates this phenomenon in her work “Why we share our cookies”.

In it she also deals with the question to what extent the current environment influences human behavior in terms of altruism.

Willingness to help shrinks under time pressure

There are already some examples of this in research. The "Good Samaritan Experiment“By the two social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson in 1973. They observed students who were on their way to a seminar and who were under different time pressures due to their tasks.

A helpless man lay in front of the university building as part of the experiment. The result: The students with the greatest time pressure were the least willing to help. The amazing thing: It was theology students who were supposed to give bogus lectures. One topic: "The Good Samaritan".

Also the Mood affects altruism. In an attempt in 1972, a coin was placed in the output compartment of a payphone. 84 percent of those who found the coin helped a man to collect his lost papers on the street - but only four percent of those who did not find a coin.

Those who feel observed are more likely to help

Those who are observed by other people are also more prone to altruism and helpfulness. Terms play a role here like ethics and especially morals play a major role. Who wants to appear as a bad person in terms of social values ​​and expose themselves to criticism from others - even though they would like to go further or have no time?

Apart from factors such as population density - overstimulation in large cities seems to lead to a loss of helpfulness (Urban overload hypothesis) - plays Gender also plays a role in prosocial behavior. The authors of a Swiss study come to the conclusion that lived generosity triggers greater neuronal reward activity in the brains of women. According to the study, however, men are more likely to react this way to selfish behavior. The study leaves open whether these reactions are innate or culturally conditioned.

Is the helper syndrome congenital?

Which at the same time raises the question: Are we born as altruists? Approaches to an answer are the aforementioned genetic predisposition and the dependent release of happiness hormones when doing good deeds. But what about the social impact of the environment? With regard to children and child development of prosocial behavior, there are different approaches in research with very different results.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences come to the conclusion in an experiment with six to 13-year-olds that brain development plays an essential role in the ability to share fairly. Measurements of brain activity showed that the lateral prefrontal cortex was more active in older children. This brain area is responsible for social decision-making processes and the development of the ego. The expression of the prenatal cortex is actually only completed after around 25 years of adulthood.

The psychologist Felix Warneken from the University of Michigan / USA, on the other hand, assumes that children are ready to help from birth. An attempt where age and a half willingly shared their food might prove him right.

The fact that both approaches could be correct is the result of work by the University of Passau. It shows both innate social behavior and increasing altruism with increasing age and the socialization of children. The behavior of the parents as a role model plays an important role in this.

Unprofitable behavior can be trained

On the one hand, altruism seems to be an inherited part of the human being and at the same time is learned during life. So can altruism also be trained? A study by the University of Würzburg comes to the conclusion that this is possible.

The key word: meditation as mental training. Over a period of three months, the participants built a 30-minute exercise into their daily routine to train traits such as compassion, gratitude and prosocial motivation.

As a result, the participants were more generous, more helpful and donated higher amounts to charitable organizations than two other groups of test persons. The conclusion of the researchers: The prosocial motivation and behavior of the people can be changed by simple, short and inexpensive mental practices.

A connection could be in the Reaction of the brain to meditation exercises and the structure of certain brain regions: The amygdala - the so-called almond kernel. The amygdala is also assigned the seat of empathy.

This area is laid out as a pair under the cerebral cortex in the temporal lobe and, in addition to controlling fear, is also responsible for emotions such as pleasure or arousal. Altruism researcher Abigail Marsh has shown that altruists have a larger amygdala than people who are less helpful.

It is assumed that altruists, for example, perceive concern or fear more strongly on the face of a counterpart. At the same time, Marsh also discovered that psychopaths have a smaller amygdala - that is, they don't respond as strongly to the fear on a person's face.

Meditation regenerates the central nervous system

Research by neuroscientist Britta Hölzel has shown that meditation strengthens the amygdala.

According to this, a daily 45-minute mental training over a period of eight weeks leads to a reduction in stress in the body. Associated with it As a whole, the gray matter regenerates in the brain as part of the central nervous system - also in the amygdala. The almond kernel has less to do with responding to stress and anxiety and can devote itself to other tasks.

But is altruism something fundamentally positive - both for the recipients of the good deed and for the doers? At least as far as the altruists are concerned, there is evidence. A large-scale study in the USA with around 13,000 participants showed that social engagement like volunteering with two hours a week for over 50-year-olds reduces the risk of death and improves physical fitness. At the same time, good deeds generally make the benefactors feel good and make social contacts.

Altruists suffer more from corona restrictions

But it is also a fact that people with strong altruism obviously have to act it out. The corona pandemic has shown that. Due to the social isolation, altruism in its previous form was no longer possible in many countries - including China.

A study there comes to the conclusion that People with pronounced altruism suffer more from anxiety and depression during the Corona period as people with no inclination to help.

Too strong a helper syndrome can make you sick

It becomes completely unhealthy when the urge to altruism becomes compulsive, the so-called Pathological altruism - also known as the helper syndrome. On the one hand, this compulsion can lead to exhaustion, depression, anxiety or feelings of guilt in the person who is constantly helping. On the other hand, can However, excessive altruism also causes damage to the "victims" of the relief operation.

A good and real example of this was recently provided by a woman in a major German city. She was standing at a red pedestrian light. When the traffic light turned green, she unceremoniously hooked an elderly lady standing by the arm and brought her safely to the other side of the street. The result of the good deed: an angry old lady and a frustrated helper, because the good woman didn't want to go through the pedestrian traffic lights.

Goethe as a lucky charm

Whether there is pure altruism or motives for human love are always selfish, will probably continue to be an essential part of the research, discussion and thought on it. Whatever the results - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put altruism in a nutshell, at least for himself:

"If you want to be happy in life, contribute to the happiness of others, because the joy we give returns to your own heart."