I vividly remember the first time I came across this concept. Infact till then, I hadn’t even thought of it as an idea that could have a word. That’s how much I took it for granted. We were in the second year of our degree college when one of our sociology professor spoke about a symposium she would be attending in our college. It was meant for teachers but quite a bit of us showed enthusiasm and hence she asked us to turn up for it and promised to try to sneak us in. Luckily I found three others willing to come along and thankfully our teacher got us in (for free J).
What started off as a boring series of people reading out their research papers with one guy really pissed about being invited last minute and hence reading out his paper angrily (I know he was upset cause he explicitly stated that he was disappointed that he was invited only after another researcher backed out the night before), soon turned into hot discussion and debates over whose perspective was right. We had a researcher who was comparing altruistic behaviour as shown by people in US versus people in India. Most of them expected, as did I, that Indians would show less of this trait. Her research however, proved that Mumbaikars scored extremely high on altruism. A huge debate raged on how this could be wrong. While some sat and scratched their heads looking for possible explanation. Since this was just an initial result to a questionnaire on altruism, I suppose the researcher has not yet explored possible explanations for her survey. After a lot of argument, some of the most reasonable explanations that came forth were- people in Mumbai had shared experiences such as the flooding on 26th july, train bombings etc which bring them closer. Another conclusion was that we being assisted less effectively by the government could be one of the reasons why we end up doing it for each other. While the reverse was true for western countries. This was the moment, when I was imprinted by this term ‘Altruism’. The idea that we would develop a quality to make up for lack of efficient government astounded me.
Of course I never pursued it academically or otherwise, but I couldn’t help but watch how people were amazed with selfless acts of devotion, service and thought. I never got a great feeling when someone thought it was awesome that I helped someone or that I was kind natured. It always bothered me that I couldn’t quite explain why it made me uncomfortable till now.
Everything that looks altruistic on the outset, almost always has a good reason or expectation behind it. Most often people carry out altruistic acts because it makes them ‘feel good about themselves’. Isn’t that a case of selfishness? Isn’t helping others, becoming a doctor, saving lives, sharing, caring for that matter selfish too? If you look from evolutionary perspective, working together and cohabitation had a seemingly evolutionary advantage.
One of the earlier examples I has come across was that of Meerkat. These mammals survive in groups ranging from 2 to 30 individuals. Among many activities that they carry out for the sake of groups, one that has been widely researched and studied is that of raised guarding. Since they need to dig underground and forage, it is hard for them to keep track of predators. So you often have one of them who stands on an elevated position on the ground and keeps an eye out for predators and signals others in case he spots one. There are many theories of altruism surrounding this single incident. Ideally, the guarding Meerkat would be the first to spot a predator. But since he doesn’t have his stomach full and hence lacks strength, he might be the first person to be hunted down. Hence being altruistic does not necessarily act in your favour, you die out and don’t pass on your genes. Another observation was, that the Meerkat who guards others finishes his meal first. Thereby allowing him to make a run the moment he sees a predator. This means he will survive and pass on ‘selfish genes’ as well as his strength.
Much debate has been raged about the evolutionary advantage of altruistic behaviours. The earlier stance on altruism surviving on a group level has quickly moved to altruism surviving more on an individual level. Meerkat is just one such example. If you look around you will often find people who ruthlessly move up the ladder in their profession by stamping all over others and those who go out of their way, are happy and content, but also in the same place forever. Even acts of kindness in desperate times are called on as favours later on. Most of those who ‘help’ also make sure they put you under their obligation financially, socially or worse emotionally. On the other hand, when I see people who genuinely want to help, help out, but with a disclaimer that the consequence is something which is beyond their control. So much fear has been instilled in people about things going wrong that they refrain rather than aid, because no one wants to be on the wrong side of someone.
We do have instances of collaboration, unity and loyalty, but those incidents are rare and almost always have a common obstacle as a motivation. One such famous Robbers Cave experiment by Sherif et al showed exactly this phenomena. They had two groups in a camp fighting it out with each other trying to exert their dominance. The situation improved only after they had common goals, more like hurdles that required them to cooperate and pool in resources from both groups.
My question, is and will always be, do I help others? Is it of any advantage to me? Or do I just take care of myself, since by doing so I will be less of a burden to others. Another question that pops in my head is, do we even bother about world peace or unity or just wait it out for a common threat such as an alien attack or global warming to automatically bring that about?