Psychological Patterns of Human Altruism

Published by Irfan Bashir on

On May 19th, 2020, a 12-hour gunfight raged between the Indian security forces and two militants in the NawaKadal area of Srinagar in Kashmir. Two militants were killed while three CRPF personnel and a policeman were injured during the encounter. Within a few hours, twenty-one houses were destroyed in the blaze that erupted after a series of blasts, reducing a vibrant locality to rubble. Among those rendered homeless was Musaib Nazir, a sixth standard student, whose heartbreaking image with tears rolling down his cheeks summed up the traumatizing repercussions of the encounter. 

The local Mosque committee opened an account in a bank and appealed to the Kashmiri people to contribute generously to rehabilitate the people whose houses were damaged. After the account details were shared on social media, netizens, comprising mostly the locals, donated generoulsy to raise funds for the reconstruction process of the destroyed houses. Rising to the occasion, the Kashmiri people donated approximately Rs 3 crores (30 million) in 12 days to help the victims rebuild their houses. The local Mosque committee distributed Rs 33 lakhs (3.3 million) among three families whose family members were killed when the house collapsed after the encounter. The rest of the money was either distributed to provide monetary relief to mitigate the victims’ sufferings or help the families rebuild or repair their houses.

In Kashmir, local mosques often appeal to the generosity of the masses to help those in need. Every Friday, before the congregational prayers take place, the Imam uses a loudspeaker to make donation appeals on behalf of those in dire need of funds. Often people who require money approach the Imam a few days before the Friday prayers and request him to appeal to the public on their behalf. Money is usually raised for older people, orphans, charities, disaster relief efforts, and personal emergencies. The Imam thus leverages his position and platform to raise money for the needy.

A Larger Pattern in Human Behaviour

Such practices are common in Islam and across all the other major religions of the world. Across India, temples have raised funds to help people during their time of distress. Churches and Synagogues have done the same. For several reasons, people tend to be more generous when it comes to donating to those who belong to the same religion or community as them.

For example, if we look at the charitable giving data for 2019 in the US, we find that the American people donated a total of  $449.64 billion for charitable purposes. Of the $449.64 billion donated, $128.17 billion (29%) was donated to religious organizations or purposes.

Religion has consistently been the top category for charitable giving in the United States, receiving $119.3 billion (32% of overall donations) in 2015, $122.94 billion (out of $390 billion) in 2016, $127.37 billion (31% of total contributions) in 2017,  $124.52 billion (29%) in 2018, and $128.17 billion in 2019. Religion has consistently outperformed other categories like education, human services, the environment, and health in the United States.

The reason for this disproportionate share of charitable giving can be attributed to our sense of identity. Since peoples’ religion forms the core component of their identity, they are more likely to donate to religious causes.

Data about factors that contributes to higher donations

Fig-1 Giving USA: Categories that fetched the highest donations in 2019.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have coexisted in groups. These groups have extended across multiple levels of socio-cultural hierarchies ranging from family-based ties to groups bound by shared socio-cultural identities such as nationality, religion, favourite sports teams, political leanings, caste, and language.

As individuals who tend to have a reflected sense of self, we see ourselves often through the eyes of others. Therefore, there seems to be an inherent tendency in us to be a part of a group and connect with groups. Research shows that across many different contexts, people act more prosocially towards members of their own group relative to those outside their group.

For example, in a study published by researchers Matthew R. Sisco and Elke U. Weber in Nature (the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal), a dataset of more than $44 million in online donations on GoFundMe was analyzed to evaluate the extent to which kin altruism is at play in real charitable contributions. The study aimed to do so by quantifying the extent to which donation amounts increase when the recipient is likely to be related to the donor (i.e., when the donor and recipient share the same last name). The researchers found that when the recipient had the same last name as the donor, the average donation size increased by $29.27.

Ingroup favoritism or bias in favor of one’s social circles has also been confirmed in multiple surveys. For example, a study conducted by Pew Research reported that 68% of American crowdfunding users contributed to a project to help an individual facing some sort of hardship or financial challenge. Among those who contributed, 63% said they donated to help a friend of a friend or an acquaintance, while 62% said they contributed to help a close friend or family member. In contrast, only 28% donated to help someone who was not a public figure and whom they did not know personally. 

From a broader perspective, one may ask what drives our altruistic behaviour towards others? Why are some people generous and some people stingy? Better still, why are people generous towards some people and stingy towards others? Why do people donate, and what drives their donation preferences?

Answering these questions requires that we review the concepts of individual identity and social identity. Before we can understand altruistic behaviour, we must as a prerequisite understand the idea of individual identity and social identity.

The Core of Identity

So, what is identity? Identity is what creates our sense of self, a steady and often continuous sense of who we are over time. It’s an amalgamation that encompasses our memories, experiences, relationships, and values. Identity includes the myriad roles people play—such as the role of a mother, a wife, a teacher, a friend, a man, a citizen, a Christian— and each part is central to who we are as a person, and therefore, internalized into our identity.

Some characteristics of our identity are well within our control and are socially constructed. We are free to choose our religion, our favourite sports team, and our other in-group memberships. But some characteristics such as our height or race are beyond our control. Identity also encompasses political opinions, moral attitudes, and religious beliefs, all of which guide one’s daily choices. Throughout our life, our identity continues to evolve, undergoing subtle and sometimes dramatic changes.

Since human beings exist as part of communities, how we view ourselves is not just confined to our points of view, we are also capable of seeing ourselves from a societal perspective. This is the central belief of the ‘Social Identity Theory.’ According to this theory, individuals define their identities along social and personal dimensions. The social dimension constitutes our memberships in groups and the personal dimension relates to the attributes of our individuality that distinguish us from other people.
Social identity theory refers to our identification in relation to the collective ‘we’. When we refer to ourselves as a group, we do so as a ‘member’ of a certain group. Our individual identity, on the other hand, refers to the unique attributes through which we define ourselves— the components that form personal ‘I’.

Depending on the social context, either one’s individual or social identity may be more dominant. An example of personal identity is when a person is alone, her individual identity will more likely be dominant, i.e., she will behave in accordance with how she sees herself from an individual point of view.

However, when sitting with a group of friends, it’s more likely that she will behave more in line with her social image, i.e., her social identity will be dominant. We can also say that her reflected sense of self will be dominant when she is engaging with a group. Within different group contexts, we tend to behave differently. This is a perfect portrayal of the social identity theory.

Moreover, how we behave in front of our family or other social scenarios may be drastically different in comparison to how we behave in front of our friends. How we behave in front of our romantic partner may differ from how we behave when alone. We contain a multitude of behavioural tendencies that manifest in different situations, under different social contexts. All of these tendencies form a part of the social identity theory.

Social identity theory was proposed by the social psychologist Henri Tajfel and his colleagues. Social identity refers to how people’s sense of self is based on their membership in social groups. The social groups can be a person’s favourite sports team, the religion they follow, their nationality, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, collective humanity, etc.

Social identity theory states that the more attached a person is to their membership in a particular group, the more influence it will exercise over the person’s sense of self. Affiliation with a group also confers self-esteem, security, and a sense of belonging, which in turn helps to sustain the social identity.

Often, we tend to be biased by favouring the social group with which we identify ourselves since the group confers us with a positive reflected sense of self. According to the social identity theory, a person belonging to a group with people of similar characteristics tends to have a strong sense of belongingness in them.

In other words, the impact of social identity theory is pervasive and it governs the behaviour of individuals belonging to a community. We also conform to the group’s norms since we see the group as part of our social identity. Our innate tendency to identify with a group can also influence our altruistic choices, including our donation preferences this is another implication of the social identity theory.

Even assignment to random groups can be sufficient to engender a relevant intergroup context in which positive bias towards the intergroup is observed. Tajfel conducted pioneering research on ingroup favouritism revealing that people favour those in their groups, even when the designation of groups happens randomly.

Such a paradigm can also be witnessed in everyday life. Membership in a randomly assigned group is enough to induce a bias in favour of the group. This can be witnessed in sports, board games, or even something as trivial as brand preference. Once a ‘common ground’ is established, even if based on randomness, it is enough for social bonding to take place and for in-group bias to develop. In other words, when individuals categorize themselves as group members, the ingroup becomes integrated with their sense of ‘social-self’. 

Role of Empathy in impacting Human Behaviour

Our social and individual identity is deeply tied to how we exercise our altruistic choices. Behaviour is typically described as altruistic when it benefits someone other than oneself, even if it results in a disadvantage for oneself. The behaviour to do good to someone is preceded by the desire to do the same.

As humans, we can be altruistic, but our altruistic choices, rather than being blind and impartial, are often tethered to our sentiments. Our altruism is appended to our ability to empathize with people or the objects in our environment. Our ability to empathize with someone’s story is one of the primary motivators that stimulates us to donate. In this context, empathy pertains to the compassion that a person feels for the particular recipient or beneficiary of the campaign.

Whom we empathize with is dependent on our individual and social identity. Since we derive our reflected sense of self from the people who are a part of our ingroups, we also tend to empathize with them the most. Similarly, we also tend to sympathize with causes that are tied to our sentiments, ideologies, and values.

Consider the example of a son who donates to a cancer society because he lost his mother to cancer. In this case, his sentiments, which are part of his identity, influence the altruistic choices he makes. Another example would be a woman who donates to an animal welfare organization because she is an animal lover. In her case, being an animal lover is part of her identity and therefore drives her altruistic choices.

Even though people can show universal empathy, their altruistic decisions are often unconsciously rooted in their sense of identity and, thus, susceptible to bias. Regrettably, attachment to the ingroup also hinders the extension of our empathy as we tend to develop biases in favor of the ingroup, making it difficult to extend our empathy to members of the outgroup. That is to say, our donation preferences are firmly ingrained in our ideological leanings, including political, socio-cultural, religious, and moral values.

Even so, our social encounters are infinitely complex and involve multiple layers of interactions between us and other people. In everyday life, our multiple individual and social identities are triggered in response to both imaginary and physical cues.

A memory of our grandmother from childhood can alter our emotional state for the rest of the day. An unexpected encounter with a friend can put us in a good mood for hours. All these factors are capable of modulating our emotional responses— sensitizing or desensitizing our empathetic response, and therefore, our altruistic choices. Put another way, our empathetic abilities are complex, and human beings tend to extend their empathy to both ingroups and outgroups. Nonetheless, we do remain biased in favour of our ingroup.

Altruism is also appended to emotions such as guilt and moral outrage. Partaking in altruistic activities evokes feelings of satisfaction, pride, peace, or even elation. Failing to do so, especially within an ingroup context, is often a source of shame or guilt. Here again, empathy serves as a precursor in triggering the guilt process.

Too often NGOs use images of children in their fundraising campaigns to induce sympathy in the potential donor. A statement that highlights the condition of the child in need is enough to provoke a guilt response in the potential donor. That’s why in the majority of the NGO campaigns, the picture is usually emotionally charged, often conveying the sufferings in developing countries.

Images portraying the suffering of children are a call to our basic instincts to protect children because of their innate innocence and vulnerability. In September 2015, the infamous photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi had surfaced on the internet. The child, along with his mother and brother, was trying to reach Canada due to the refugee crisis but drowned before they could reach their destination.

The photo showed Alan’s body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, wearing a red T-shirt and blue shorts, with his face only partially visible. As soon as the photo was published, it went viral- leading to a worldwide debate on the international refugee crisis. The heartbreaking photo of the toddler’s body washed ashore in Turkey made global headlines, prompting international responses and sparking a flurry of donations for asylum seekers. 

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor, who researched the impact of Alan’s photo on charitable donations for refugees worldwide, said in an interview with NPR, “In my opinion, there are a number of things going on. One is that the child is very young, nicely dressed and looks like he could have been one of our own kids. Another is the situation: He is coming with his family seeking a new life, and they were so close yet not quite making it. That adds to the special story. Another element is that we don’t quite see his face, you see the side of his face, so you can project onto him the face of someone you know. You cannot distance yourself as easily.”

Quantitative data regarding the search volume of the term "refugees"

Fig- Google search trends for the term ‘refugees’ between Aug 01, 2015 to November 01, 2015.

After the photo surfaced, there was a spike in the interest for the term ‘refugees’ worldwide, as can be seen from google search trends from the above graph. Alan’s photo and the guilt-inducing news coverage that followed demonstrate the importance of empathy in attempts to induce guilt in charity appeals.

Since society stresses great value to the social norm of helping the underprivileged and needy, failing to do so can make one feel guilty as a result. The reason is our tendency to see ourselves through the eyes of society. Our empathetic tendencies thus are capable of being stimulated through guilt.

Identifiable Victim

When it comes to donating to charitable causes, people also don’t value lives consistently. Charitable contributions are often concentrated to a particular campaign or a single victim even though more people would be helped if donations were spent evenly than be concentrated to a select few campaigns.

Nonprofits struggle to raise money to help thousands of needy people. They are sometimes unable to get even a few donations for certain campaigns that would benefit many. Yet, we come across campaigns where people donate disproportionately to identifiable victims. When deciding to donate money toward a cause, most people don’t calculate the tangible benefits of their donations. Instead, their altruistic choices are made impulsively depending on the tendency of a particular campaign to invoke emotions in them.

This bias in donation preferences is known as the ‘identifiable victim effect’ wherein individuals tend to give more to help an identifiable victim than to statistical victims, who are anonymous and are hard to empathize with. More often than not, people use emotions rather than rationality to exercise their generosity. A donation appeal that reduces people to numbers does not invoke sympathy in donors since they cannot empathize with statistical victims.

On the other hand, when the donation appeal consists of an image or a vivid description, donors are better able to identify with the victims. As mother Teressa once said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Knowingly or unknowingly, people are inconsistent and non-utilitarian when exercising their generosity. 

Other Factors 

From an economic point of view, altruism yields communal benefits wherein exercising it may be costly for the individual, but it provides benefits to the social group outweighing individual costs. Since there is a desire in us to be consistent with our sense of identity, our altruistic choices must also be in coherence with our identity— of which the ingroups are an integral part. Our social identity is an important psychological construct for us, and we tend to favor that identity even at personal costs. criticism of social identity theory 

Sometimes, expectations of reciprocity in one form or another (reciprocal altruism) can also motivate a person to be altruistic. Other times, what may seem as altruistic behaviour may well be motivated by a desire to win prestige, respect, group membership, friendship, and other social objectives.

People may also experience a sense of joy and satisfaction for ‘doing their part’ to help others. This satisfaction or ‘warm glow’ represents the selfish pleasure derived from ‘doing good’ or something along the lines of ‘having done their thing’, regardless of the actual impact of one’s generosity. Within the warm-glow framework, people may be ‘impurely altruistic’, meaning they simultaneously maintain both altruistic and selfish motivations when it comes to giving. So, even if our donations don’t maximize utility and seem inconsistent, we derive sentimental value from them.  

Altruism, it would seem, has deep roots in the humanities, theology, and the social sciences. But it’s also a tendency towards which we are genetically inclined. Evolutionary theories suggest that altruism is a biological impulse that exists to ensure genetic survival of the collective species. Furthermore, theories of sexual selection suggest that people, especially men, may act altruistically to signal their fitness as a mate to the other gender.  Biological altruism proposes that acting altruistically can increase an individual’s reproductive prospects by increasing their attractiveness to potential mates. This is because altruism requires expendable resources and can therefore serve as a signal of (financial) fitness to potential mates. The GoFundMe research by Cisco and Weber found evidence for the same. They found that men gave more when the visible presence of past female contributors was greater at the time of men’s donation decisions. Women similarly gave more on average when the visible presence of past male donors was greater on the crowdfunding platform. Sisco and Weber expect these donation patterns to be subconscious inclinations rather than conscious decisions to strategically attract mates by donating more when more members of the opposite sex were visible.

Furthermore, our altruism may also be influenced by proximity since it is often confined within the sphere of our influence, i.e., the echo chambers that we inhabit. Our awareness of others’ needs is usually limited to our country, state, city, neighborhood, church, family, or close friends. Therefore, our altruistic actions are limited to the domains that we are aware of. For example, an Indian citizen is more likely to donate to an Indian NGO, or an Indian household. The proximity can be virtual too. Our friends on social media, even though geographically distant, are always virtually accessible and a click away. As discussed in the previous chapter, social media has played a significant role in transcending geographical boundaries. But even though we are more interconnected than ever, we still inhabit eco-chambers that influence our altruistic choices.

Giving: A Need

In conclusion, giving seems to be a central need and desire in human beings; it is something we must do to survive and thrive. It’s a part of being human, a way for us to touch someone’s life and inspire others to do the same. Our reflected sense of self, which allows us to see ourselves from someone else’s eyes, acts as a core motivator that drives us to practice altruism. We may not be consistent, utilitarian, or even unbiased when it comes to giving, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that giving does make a difference. Giving helps us make incremental contributions in creating a better tomorrow and sometimes, by helping others, we unknowingly help ourselves. 

As Eric Fromm, a renowned psychologist said in his book, ‘The Art of Loving’, “Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.


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