Altruism: Why We Gift & How To Do It Meaningful

As Christmas approaches, and we’re bombarded with online and offline content about buying gifts for one another, it’s easy to become cynical about the consumerist nature of the holiday season. Gift-giving can quickly feel like a stressful, expensive obligation rather than a generous action. So why do we do it?

Looking at the concept of 'altruism' from a psychological approach, we can determine how to best respond to the pressures of the holiday season. By definition, ALTRUIS’ involves behaving in a selfless way and benefitting others at one’s own expense. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, you might be surprised that altruism persists within both human and animal behaviour since altruistic beings lose resources with no apparent benefit for themselves.

Altruism seems to oppose the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’. In other words, the animals behaving less altruistically would have a higher chance of reproducing and passing on their genes than the animals that behave more altruistically. Some researchers explain this phenomenon by claiming that ‘pure’ altruism is rare, and much of what we believe is altruism is ultimately a 'self-serving action' which is very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology. For instance, when we act altruistically towards relatives who share a proportion of our genes, it is beneficial to us because in essence we are promoting the reproduction of our own genes. Since this is ultimately a self-serving action, it may not be considered to be true altruism.

Impure Altruism 

Another way in which we could say altruism is ‘impure’ is when altruistic acts involve an expectation of reciprocity. Most forms of altruism, or gifting, have a reciprocal expectation. If a person shares their snacks with another person, they expect that person will share their snack with them next time they’re hungry. Or, if someone gives a friend an expensive gift for their birthday, they expect to receive one in return on their special day. This can promote reproductive fitness through providing an insurance policy in case of future need – but it also risks that the future expectation of reciprocity will not be met. For example, when a significant other fails to buy a gift of equal value, we tend to get upset.

In many cases where individual efforts fall short, we as social beings come together to cooperate and work together to achieve a goal – an act which we could define as reciprocal altruism that results in group-wide benefits for all members. But when some members in a group fail to contribute fairly, it can result in altruistic punishment.

Altruism is also used as a signal for one’s intentions or to establish a reputation of power and competence, drawing the allegiance of less powerful individuals. The person with more power or money ‘shows off’ by being generous, if you will.