Exploring altruism: What makes people help others?

Rescuers during Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Passengers on Flight 93 who crashed a plane into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Neighbors who hid Jews during the Holocaust. A number of scientific studies, articles, books and conferences have explored altruism – the quality that inspires some of these people to act selflessly to help others.


Experts from a broad range of disciplines – sociobiology, psychology, theology, philosophy, genetics and biology – are studying questions such as: Why are some people willing to help others even at their own expense? If the urge to help others is universal, as some believe, then why do some feel its pull more strongly than others? Can altruism be promoted or learned, or is it innate? Is there some degree of self-interest involved in any altruistic act?

The findings can help journalists report on the altruistic actions of individuals, whether they take place because of natural disasters, terrorism, crime or in the course everyday life.


  • A team of Israeli psychologists recently said that it discovered an “altruism gene.” The psychologists found that two-thirds of a group of individuals who displayed selfless behavior had a certain variant of the dopamine receptor gene, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. This corresponds to earlier U.S. studies that found that people who help others often experience a “helper’s high.”
  • A number of studies have found a correlation between helping others and good health, a sense of well-being and longevity.
  • Evolutionary biologists are debating how to explain altruistic behavior in animals and humans. Does acting to benefit others at one’s own expense contradict the theory of natural selection? Some say no, explaining that acting to benefit the group, rather than one’s self, helps the group survive, even though it endangers the individual.
  • Scientists are studying whether animals, like people, act altruistically. One study said yes by studying birds who warn the flock of an approaching hawk while drawing unwanted attention to themselves. A study from UCLA disagreed, showing that chimpanzees do not act altruistically.

Why it matters

Sacrificing one’s own interests for the good of another is an ideal held in common by most world religions. Altruism, from the Latin “alter,” or “other,” describes actions performed in a selfless manner for the benefit of another.

Questions for reporters

  • How do religion and spirituality shape people’s attitudes about altruism?
  • What do people say about how altruistic behavior impacts health and well-being?
  • Talk to experts in different disciplines and compare what they say about what makes people act altruistically.
  • People always admire those who act altruistically in a crisis. Do they also admire those who act altruistically in everyday life in the same way?


International sources

  • Richard Ebstein

    Psychology professor Richard Ebstein at National University of Singapore was senior author of the altruism gene study, which showed that the dopamine gene plays a role in prosocial behavior. The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry in January 2005.

  • Keishin Inaba

    Keishin Inaba, associate professor of human sciences at Osaka University in Japan, has a website on altruism. He is author of Altruism in New Religious Movements: The Jesus Army and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Britain, which examines whether Christianity and Buddhism change people’s attitudes and behavior towards altruism. He also edited The Practice of Altruism: Caring and Religion in a Global Perspective.

National sources

  • Stephen Post

    Stephen Post is Professor of Preventive Medicine and Bioethics and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York. His many articles and books on altruism include, as co-editor, Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2002).

  • Jeffrey Schloss

    Jeffrey Schloss is professor of biology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and evolutionary research consultant for the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He is interested in the relationship between evolutionary and theological understandings of altruism. Schloss co-edited Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (Eerdmans, 2005).

  • Stephen Pope

    Stephen Pope is a professor of theology at Boston College and a frequent commentator on church affairs and the papacy. He is author of The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love and writes about different forms of love in Christian thought, Christian ethics, justice, and charity, and evolutionary theory.

  • Jacob Neusner

    Jacob Neusner, professor of theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., co-edited Altruism in World Religions. He is the author of scores of books on Rabbinic Judaism and has encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Judaism and its texts. Neusner says altruism is best studied as a religious, not a secular, impulse. He is the editor of Evil and Suffering.

  • Brad Hirschfield

    Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, an interdenominational think tank and training institute in New York City. He is co-author of Embracing Life & Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care (CLAL, 2003) and is completing a book on the challenge of Holocaust memory in the 21st century.

  • Feisal Abdul Rauf

    Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative at the American Society for Muslim Advancement. The multifaith effort, based in New York City, seeks to increase intercultural communication and tolerance, stimulate new approaches to achieving peace and heal the relationship between Islam and America. Listen to a video posted at Beliefnet in which he discusses divine love.

  • Robert Thurman

    Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University in New York, wrote “Human Rights and Responsibilities: Buddhist Views on Individualism and Altruism” in Religious Diversity and Human Rights. Thurman is also the author of The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism.

  • B. Alan Wallace

    B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies in California, trained as a monk in Buddhist monasteries. He teaches Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and the United States and has served as interpreter for numerous Tibetan scholars. His academic training is in religious studies, physics and philosophy of science. He can be contacted here.

  • V.V. Raman

    V.V. Raman, emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., writes and speaks about Hinduism, ethics and altruism.

  • Subhash Kak

    Subhash Kak is Regents Professor and Head of Computer Science Department at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. He studies and has written extensively on Hinduism, and his research interests include computational intelligence, archaeology of the mind and the history of science.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • David Sloan Wilson

    David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University of the State University of New York who has written and spoken extensively about evolution and human behaviors, including altruism, gossip and decision-making in groups. He co-wrote Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. He has written several books on evolution, including Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

  • Eva Fogelman

    Eva Fogelman is a social psychologist, psychotherapist and author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (Anchor Doubleday, 1994), a Pulitzer Prize nominee. The book is based on the Rescuer Project, commissioned by the American Jewish Committee to determine whether altruism is the opposite of the authoritarian personality. Fogelman approaches altruism as a behavior that is influenced by the convergence of an individual’s personality, socialization and situation. She is the founding director of Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which aids 1,600 rescuers in more than 26 countries who risked their lives to save Jews without financial or other reward. She has organized national and international conferences on rescuers of Jews.

  • Allan Luks

    Allan Luks is former executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters in New York City and former director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health. He is an author of The Healing Power of Doing Good (Fawcett Columbine, 1992) and coined the phrase “helper’s high” in Psychology Today to describe feelings of well-being reported by individuals doing good for others.

In the South

  • Timothy Jackson

    Timothy Jackson, professor of Christian ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, focuses on moral philosophy and theology, especially the relationship between secular and Christian conceptions of goodness, justice and mercy. He has written about altruism.

  • David Schroeder

    David Schroeder is a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock who has explored whether the motivations for helping other are egoistic or altruistic. He co-wrote The Psychology of Helping and Altruism: Problems and Puzzles (McGraw Hill, 1995).

  • Gregory Berns

    Gregory Berns, Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics and Director of the Center for Neuropolicy Professor in Economics Department at Emory University, published results of a brain imaging study that indicated that altruistic behavior has a biological basis. Published in the journal Neuron in July 2002, the study shows that social cooperation activates parts of the brain related to reward and dopamine release.

  • Stephen Jacobs

    Stephen Jacobs is professor of religious studies and chairman of Judaic studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He can comment on altruism as a scholar of modern Jewish thought and from a post-Holocaust perspective.

  • William Scott Green

    William Scott Green is senior vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the University of Miami and former professor of religion and dean at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y. Green says that altruism is a secular, not religious, impulse.

  • Ruben Habito

    Ruben Habito is a professor of world religions and spirituality at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is co-editor of The Practice of Altruism: Caring and Religion in a Global Perspective. He specializes in Buddhism and wrote a chapter in Altruism in World Religions.

In the Midwest

  • Lynn Underwood

    Lynn Underwood has taught philosophy at Western Michigan University and is former vice president for health research at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich., where she led research initiatives in altruism and compassionate love. She co-edited Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2002). She has done research on compassionate love, and works with the World Health Organization examining the contribution of altruism to quality of life across cultures.

  • Dan Batson

    Dan Batson is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He has studied empathy as a possible source of altruistic motivation and the psychological implications of the egoism-altruism relationship. He has also researched other sources of positive social motivation, such as collectivism and principalism. He wrote The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer (Erlbaum, 1991) and “Addressing the Altruism Question Experimentally” in Altruism and Altruistic Love (Oxford University Press, 2002).

In the West

  • Andrew Flescher

    Andrew Flescher, religion professor at California State University, Chico, has taught a course on religion and film that looks at religion and self in contemporary American society; religion, redemption and recovery; and religion and ethnicity. He also directs the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics, where he focuses on religion, ethics and society. He is the author of The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence.

  • Joan Silk

    University of California at Los Angeles anthropology professor Joan Silk published a study of chimpanzees in the Oct. 27, 2005, Nature that showed that the chimps were motivated to obtain rewards for themselves but not to provide rewards for other group members. In other words, they did not show altruistic behavior, contrary to expectations raised by the fact that they participate in collective activities such as food sharing and hunting.

  • Samuel Oliner

    Samuel Oliner is emeritus professor of sociology and director of the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. Oliner co-founded the institute in 1982 to study altruism and seek ways to enhance altruism and prosocial behavior in society. A native of Poland, Oliner was rescued by a non-Jewish family at age 12 and has made a lifelong study of altruism. The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (Free Press) was published in 1988. Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts of Ordinary People (Westview Press, 2004) explores what gives an individual a sense of responsibility, what leads to the development of care and compassion, and what it means to put the welfare of others ahead of one’s own.

  • Thomas Jay Oord

    Thomas Jay Oord is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, and works with the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. He wrote Science of Love: The Wisdom of Well-Being (Templeton Press, 2004).

  • William Hurlbut

    William Hurlbut is a physician and professor of human biology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., whose training in medical ethics and theology informs his work on the biological basis of moral awareness, and the integration of theology and philosophy of biology. He edited  Becoming Human: Evolutionary Origins of Spiritual, Religious and Moral Awareness. His chapter, “Empathy, Evolution and Altruism,” appears in the book he co-edited, Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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