Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


A random irrelevant remark on a recent review I got led me to a 1991 review article on the nature of motivations for helping behaviors. From a work point of view the article was dealt with quite easily, but the questions it raises are sticking with me. The basic question is -- why do people help others? The two competing positions are -- egoism and altruism.

The egoism camp says (simplifying greatly), people help because it benefits them in some way, the simplest being that helping makes them feel good about themselves. The altruism camp goes no, it isn't that simple, people help because they feel empathy towards others. From the little I have chased the thread, it seems that the debate is still open. Rather, they seem to be converging to the opinion that most of helping is due to egoism, with a small but significant part being explained by altruism. Without going into the literature in more depth than I have the time (or inclination) for, really, the question that I'm left with is - which is it that causes *us* (not people in general, us, me) to help someone else?

When someone pops up on messenger and asks - "got a minute?" what makes us stop and say okay? Is it empathy? Is it a boost to the self-concept? Or is it a simple expectation of reciprocity? What, at other times, makes us say no I'm busy?

Are these the same things that make us sit down and write out checks to United Way and CRY? What determines what numbers we put on those checks? Egoism?

What makes some people more likely to help others and other people less so?

Thorny, thorny. No answers this time, but a previous post on altruism here.


Blogger Space Bar said...

sometimes - and this probably falls in the egoism category - you help others because you want them to like you and refusing might make them not-like you.

god. that sounds pathologically insecure.

libbotmw: lobotomising oneself in the interests of (self) liberation?

10/24/2007 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, you help others in the hope that when your family needs help in similar situations, someone will do the same for them.

Both egoism and altruism?


10/24/2007 2:23 PM  
Blogger Goody2Shoes said...

Please do enlighten the confused-check-writers like moi when you find the answer. Many a times I have naively fought for altruism. But in retrospect I see that it was all about the ego-boost.

10/24/2007 2:26 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

I'm with anon. I think it's a bit of both. As for the have you got a minute question - maybe plain truthfulness?

10/24/2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

You talked about this once before and if you are curious about some thing, I am sure that you would have already learnt a lot more about it than me. Any way, I remember some reports of research on 'altruism gene' both in humans (by some Israeli scientists) and at a very primitive cell level by others in the past two years. On the face of it, they seem to contradict 'selfish gene' theory of evolution but that is supposed to be only of the aspects evolution according to "Evolution in Four Dimensions". It seems that some of our organs as well as characteristics which developed for one purpose may develop other useful functions. It is possible that altruism to kin might have developed in to more general altruism. Finally it may be be some sort of selfishness even if genes are involved since what all they seem to do is to produce some chemical which makes you feel better or worse. I would think that there is a lot of variation as the trauma responses ( there are some recent studies of how different groups in Africa fared in genocides). But I must say that apart from trying to get a overall picture, I did not really try to learn about it with any precision.

10/24/2007 7:50 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

It's all egoism.
Altruism is a romantic, but fictitious concept to explain away a much more complex, rational decision making process.
Every action that any living creature takes is in the perceived maximization of self interest at that moment.
Essentially, what we popularly call altruism is a sub-component of the larger machine of ego fulfillment. We help others because
a) It makes us feel better about ourselves
b) We believe it makes others think better of us
c) We expect something in return
d) It's part of some hard-wired "survival of the species" instinct that we are unable to over-ride
e) We are too lazy/wimpy to say no.

Have you noticed that people with low self-worth or inferiority issues are often the most polite and helpful?

10/24/2007 9:02 PM  
Blogger Abi said...

"Rather, they seem to be converging to the opinion that most of helping is due to egoism, with a small but significant part being explained by altruism." Citations, please?

Just curious: isn't it true that experimental games show that people choose cooperation over selfishness? Even when they play with total strangers?

Let me take the easy way out and quote someone else on a matter not entirely unconnected to this one. Here's Matthew Yglesias: "When I was learning economics, I learned that people are utility-maximers and that whenever you see some behavior that doesn't seem explicable in purely financial terms that must be because people are deriving utility from the foregone financial advantage. Thus, as any economist could tell you, people tip because of the utility they derive from the tipping in much the way that economists can explain all aspects of human life."

And he goes on to add, "Have I ever mentioned that philosophers tend to think that economics is vacuous?"

10/24/2007 9:54 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Related quote from George Monbiot yesterday:

Like Ridley [former Northern Rock chairman], I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another.) If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You'll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Personally I think helping others is (usually) altruism (it could sometimes be masochism), but learned, not innate. After all, we are a species that can learn and have long-term memory.

Abi - here's a similar quote, related to the "traveler's dilemma" that you have blogged about:

When one of us recently described this dilemma to an audience of physicists, someone asked incredulously, "Is that what economists think the equilibrium is? If so, all economics departments should be shut down.

10/24/2007 10:32 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Personally, I think the more interesting question is which is easier to induce - in other words, are appeals to egoism more successful than appeals to altruism. After all, if the point of understanding motivation is to help us encourage helping behavior, that's what really matters, no?

What 'really' motivates people to help is, I suspect a semantic question, since I'm not sure it's possible to separate altruism from egoism. Isn't satisfaction of empathy a form of egoism? If I help someone I care about, surely that makes me feel better, and therefore 'benefits' me.

Also, "What makes some people more likely to help others and other people less so?" - surely you're not assuming that helping is purely trait. There's always the question of "In what situations are people more likely to help others?" Remember Darley and Batson?

10/25/2007 2:43 AM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

An economist Paul Seabright struggles with these questions in "The Company of Strangers", but the book was before the Israeli research. I did not find the book entirely convincing but there are some very nice chapters like "Who is in charge?". Seabright dis some field work in Tamilnadu.

10/25/2007 6:55 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

space bar:
valid point, and i don't think there's anything pathological about it :-) (although MT may disagree haha).

an example that comes to mind is walter raleigh spreading his cloak...

that's the rational exchange / reciprocity pov.

it's both, my friend, both.

nope, people have minutes even when they don't, and vice versa. truth is an artifact.

as i said, i haven't thought at all about this until a few days ago when that paper came into my orbit. that said, i am quite suspicious of the whole selfish gene hypothesis. it sounds more like a catch-phrase to me; one that's designed to transmit a little "science" to the masses, and does more harm than good in doing so.

and thanks for the book reference!

i should post Table 1 from that Batson and Shaw article - delineates the parallels between altruism and egoism very simply and clearly. problem is, once i do that i'll be tempted to type out the eight "observations" that follow immediately afterwards.

in my impression it's the people who are the most secure who are the nicest and most helpful. (i certainly like to think of myself that way hahahaha).

love that last quote (you knew i would). i don't have too much patience for ultimatum games as predictors of larger human behavior, because first, the evidence as to what people tend to do is so much and so mixed depending on the terms of how the game is played, and also because i don't think it represents any human endeavor except for an interesting puzzle. i think you and i are pretty much on the same page there, right?

i don't quite remember where i picked up that fragment of a 'conclusion' regarding the relative weights of empathy and altruism, sorry, but it might have been here.

no prizes for guessing you're a physicist.

that's no scientist, man. the whole point of understanding human behavior is to understand human behavior. once we do that, we can encourage or discourage what we will -- there's a million ways to stimulate motivations apart from appeals to various parts of the self and what questions are interesting and what are not is secondary, and just a matter of taste.

re: your second point, altruism can be viewed as having a negative pay-off to the self (ref the older post), and so there's a clear distinction between the two constructs there. actually the batson and shaw article has a far more rigorous discussion of the difference, maybe i should post that after all.

the third point about state is well taken. loose writing on my part. that said, i'm in the person-situation interaction camp, as a corollary of which i do believe there are some stable individual differences (that are conceptually different from traits).

10/25/2007 12:38 PM  
Blogger km said...

I am nothing if not a broken record. So pardon me if I've said this all before.

When Shakyamuni woke up under that big ol' tree, his vow wasn't "I will feed everyone". His vow was to save all sentient beings.

But according to him (or at least according to the few texts I've read), that vow is not a desire nor not a desire; it is neither eogism nor altruism. ("Not this, not that")

May I suggest we all get together one winter evening, fix ourselves a stiff one and examine the matter in greater detail? Pure altruism there, btw.

10/26/2007 12:02 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

TR: Huh? Surely understanding what stimuli trigger helping responses in human beings under what conditions is "understanding human behavior". How is that not scientific?

Sure, you can define a construct called 'altruism' as actions undertaken even though they have a negative pay-off to the agent, but you then have the problem of proving that such a construct exists and isn't just a figment of the researcher's imagination - and I don't know how you can do that (i really should read the Batson and Shaw article, shouldn't I) - there's always the possibility that there's a positive psychic pay-off that you're not measuring / the agent is not reporting (the agent may not even be consciously aware of it). So what you've got is an unsolvable debate because you made up a construct that you can't measure. Maybe it's just a matter of taste, but that certainly sounds like a waste of time to me.

My personal (admittedly unscientific) theory involves a different construct (okay, okay, so I'm adding a new construct - but that's what psych researchers do, isn't it?), let's call it 'almpathy', which is the experience of positive emotion from observing the happiness of others - sort of the opposite of schadenfreude. In certain person-situation configurations (and I'm with you on person-situation interaction / stable individual differences bit) the agent will undertake helping behavior because the negative cost to her of undertaking the action is outweighed by the almpathetic benefit of the happiness she receives from seeing other people benefit. Is this an altruistic or egoistic act? Could it be both?

10/26/2007 1:37 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Falstaff -- I think the problem is you are talking of a positive payoff in terms of the "buzz" you get in your brain, via elevated serotonin or whatever, from helping someone. The problem is it's not measurable and, to an economist, doesn't exist. So what TR calls "altruism" or "negative payoff" may well be "egotism" or "positive payoff" to you -- I lost a few bucks but gained the buzz.

Viewed in those terms, there probably isn't any such thing as altruism: why would you help somebody if you didn't feel good about it? So the economist viewpoint isn't so unfair.

I think the key point is we are happier when others around us are happy. This is true of infants, dogs, etc too. What is unique to (non-infant) humans is probably that we can predict that we will be happier if we help someone (because we will share the other's happiness), even if the payoff in other ways is negative. So we do that. Whether it's altruism is perhaps a matter of semantics.

10/26/2007 2:03 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

rahul: Yes, exactly. But that's been my point all along - that the difference is purely semantic, (and therefore, to me, uninteresting).

(In the interests of disclosure, I should say that, as usual, I'm on the side of the economists. In the choice between two theories, both of which are almost certainly wrong, I prefer the one that's simpler over the one that's more amusing).

10/26/2007 4:36 AM  
Blogger ??! said...

I'm with the "its-a-matter-of-semantics", and "its-not-really-differentiable" camp here.

More so, because what really matters is that you help. Not why. The fact that you give some lost directions to their destination, is more important than why you did it. At least, it is to me.

The rest is just quibbling - but its fun to see the academics splitting hairs.

10/26/2007 5:45 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Gah! Late to the party again. I remember the previous post. As usual (you non-biologists) are not looking deep enough (though Falstaff came close, I think). Altruism and egoism are definitely not two viable alternate theories. Altruism exists only in correlation with egoism. That is why you guys' definition of altruism is extremely vague and rather misleading (again only in terms of psychologists - biologists have it defined perfectly well). It isn't a person/situation specific answer. And there is no altruism gene. But there is hard wiring to do the right thing as long as one feels that one is being observed by other humans. The important question I think is how long the current trend towards cooperation/"altruism" will continue? Cooperation between humans will probably decrease (is decreasing) as we feel more secure in our place on earth (less threatened by possible tangible adversaries). No?

10/28/2007 1:31 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

back after a few days and it's been an exhausting conference so i can't do a point-by-point right now, but falsie, really, do try and think before you type sometimes. a quasi-economist channeling virginia woolf to answer a question in psychological theory is not a pretty picture. batson and shaw have plenty of valid criticisms; i'm afraid yours isn't one of them.

great idea.

you call it splitting hairs, i call it science, celebrate the difference.

and now you're channeling falsie. crikey, what a can of worms.

10/29/2007 8:26 AM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

I am also guilty of posting infifferent comments, but it is all a process of learning for me. But, you have been handling them with charm and gracs. As the Australians say "Good on you"

10/29/2007 9:32 AM  
Blogger ??! said...

dude, no-one's denying there must be an underlying motive. but the splitting hairs comes when people try to nuance something that may quite possibly be inherently indifferentiable.

So in short, altriusm - partly, ego - partly. Want detailed reasoning?

10/29/2007 9:30 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Tsk. I so do not channel anyone (and *definitely* not falsie. or ??!. she's saying about the same. why couldn't I be channeling her?). It's just he came the closest to it. The problem with economists (and pliss to not all jump on my head but to consider what I'm saying practically) is that their understanding is too narrow. Altruism-egotism is a very very broad issue. Think big picture. If you thought of it only in terms of fiscal benefit you would never get an actually meaningful answer. And sides, it's like the nature-nurture thing. We've got an answer to the altruism-egotism question. The question is what is the next question to answer.

10/29/2007 9:56 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

TR: Oh, very convincing.

10/29/2007 10:14 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Duly chastised by the fessor, let me substantiate. Biologically, altruism would be defined as the doing of good deeds at personal risk for no foreseeable short term self-reward. I think defined as such, everyone could agree that altruism and egotism are two different things. But defined in the broader sense of the word (as including all possible self rewards from performing any task), I think we would all also agree that they are inextricably linked.

I still think that the question about how long cooperation will last without a Big Fear (social conditioning imposed on people like hell or jail) to unify us is a lot more interesting. Cos all cooperation in the end is caused by some sort of reward, right? Long term or short term.

And to answer that question, motivations need to be understood (as the fessor pointed out). Which I totally champion. I just hold that motivations are normally always self-rewarding (which does not necessarily make them egotistical).

10/29/2007 11:06 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

TR - you call it splitting hairs, i call it science

You're talking about psychology?

10/30/2007 2:02 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thank you :-)

may quite possibly
exactly my point. you think it may quite possibly be one thing, someone else thinks it may quite possibly be the other. i'll believe it's not differentiable when i see the data.

your definition of "all possible self-rewards" makes your definition of motivation circular. and your proposition untestable.

it is. think about it.

i'm talking about ??!'s comment of october 26.

10/30/2007 10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually like the mundane altruism bit - the "got a minute? yes" idea. Seems like altruistic behavior (well at least some sort of cooperative behavior) to me. But there it could be the same idea of fairness and reciprocity that comes from the thought of repeated games, no? Same as those dictator games where people choose to divide the pie closer to equality than to the "rational' outcome?

The United Way/CRY idea is more of the classic altruistic behavior idea (though fairness/reciprocitiy - the kin selection might play a role here as well).

It might be interesting to see if there is a threshold to the empathetic response/golden glow response. e.g. empathy might drive me to donate but not affect how much I donate (scope insensitivity of emotions - the Hsee & Rottenstreich work or the Kahneman & Frederick work). I'm not sure what factors drive the amount of donation.

Sorry for the incoherent thoughts. I know very little of this literature and might be making some gross simplifications here. But I found the question of small, mundane, habitual (I hestiate to use the word automatic) altruistic behaviors vs deliberate, large altruistic behaviors and motivations thereof interesting.


10/31/2007 5:07 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

you're right, it could be an interesting distinction (stripped of the repeated game / reciprocity angle). the other question about donation intent vs amount is also intriguing - i've found similar patterns on both dvs but that is at the aggregate level. i'm not sure what predicts donation amount conditional on intent. hmm.

it would be nice to undergo mitosis in order to follow up on some of these things.

10/31/2007 12:28 PM  

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