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A Research of Altruism in Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Old Age

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Altruism in infancy and childhood
  3. Altruism in adolescences
  4. Altruism in adulthood
  5. Altruism in old age
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


Altruism is defined as the voluntary manner intended to benefit a person(s) without expecting external rewards. Altruism in the simplest form can be explained as an action or behaviour that is aimed at benefiting another person .Its origin comes from the French word “ altruisme ” when translated to Latin “alteri “ means other people or somebody else where and August comte being the first to coin this term. However how does one exactly understand altruism?

Two of the earliest theories proposed by evolutionist to comprehend such behavior came from the theory of kin selection i.e. the act of protecting own genes for the next generation by helping relatives and reducing ones reproductive fitness (Hamilton, 1964) and the theory of reciprocity i.e. helping to the degree to which help from others is anticipated, the other being unrelated individuals which largely constitutes evolutionary altruism.

In addition, altruism in the field of psychology has attracted attention of many researchers thus leading to debates whether altruism in humans are true in nature i.e. psychological altruism. Closely associated is the term empathy (i.e. the emotional response to the perceived plight of another person) that has led to the empathy- altruism hypothesis which is concerned with psychological altruism.

This theory is the core to the value extension model that claims humans are capable of valuing more than their own welfare where the evolution of empathetic concern in mammals especially humans increases the likelihood of helping the other person. None the less, egotism (motive to pursue by placing oneself at the center and ignoring the concern of others), the polar opposite has been viewed to fuel some forms of altruist behavior (Wallach, 1983).

Egotism motivated altruism operate when helping person receives public praise or monetary reward for the good done, when avoiding social or personal punishment for failing to help and helping others in order to lessen one’s own sense of personal torment. However, in the words of Piliavin and Chang, 1990 the recent theories and data are compatible with the view of true altruism wherein acting with the goal of benefiting others exists as part of human nature and is an example of positive psychology in action. But does this mean altruism unfolds in the same manner in the various stages of life like childhood, adolescents, adulthood and old age to say so?

The following paper intends to study altruism in the temporal progression of life from beginning to end – the sequence of life stages. The following paper is organized as follows, section 1 being the study of altruism in children ranging from 0-12 years, section 2 reviewing studies of altruism in adolescence, section 3 investigating altruism in adulthood that spans till late fifties and section 4 explaining the prevalence of altruism in old age or late adulthood.

Altruism in infancy and childhood

The period from infancy to childhood can be categorized as the first stage in life where the child learns many important skills like walking, talking and also socializing. Altruism being a social behavior is not an exception to this and is evident in human children that falls under the term of prosocial behavior.

A study conducted by Simmer (1971) and later replicated by Sagi &Hoffman (1976) established that 2-3 day old infants cried to the recordings of cry of other infants than the synthetic cry with same acoustic properties that implicated a genuine altruistic behavior caused by distress in other infants. By the time of 18-24 months children are more aware of their emotions and environment and the frequency of helping others increases as they engage in activities like bringing things that they associate with comfort even if ineffective for the distressed person and this sequence has been observed in several studies.

A two year longitudinal study conducted by Zahn Waxer, Cummings, Mcknew, Radke-yarrow (1984) revealed that even a mentally ill parent did not increase the frequency of altruistic behavior in the child despite opportunities for empathetic arousal implied that whatever the innate tendency, a faulty attachment with the caregiver has adverse effects on the development of altruism. Studies have shown young children begin to discriminate in altruistic acts and by preschool they moderate altruistic acts according to social norms and rules. When asked to explain the motivation to help, share and comfort others, they reported that it was their own desire to help, their recipient’s needs and in some cases for citied friendship or desire for social acceptance.

Experiments conducted with 6-10 year olds in public goods experiment that was compared with the behavior of adults, was found that the contributions made by the young children in the experiment were viewed by them as investments with high returns whereas that of the older children like adults learned to free ride. It was concluded that children’s preferences for altruism were less well informed than of the adults and that empathetic concern only enhances as the child matures.

Altruism in adolescences

The second stage of the cycle is where the child grows into an adult and the main focus being exploration and self -discovery. Altruism studies in adolescents began in 1960’s and 1970’s and a number of essentials like empathy, sympathy, moral judgement and perceived competence was identified and increased throughout childhood which made researchers believe an increase in the levels of altruism as these predictors of altruism increased.

Studies showed that with increased strength, knowledge of the children, the caregivers expected more responsibilities to help or care for others especially in case on younger siblings at home (Hannah &Midlarsky, 1984). Parental attitudes and styles have an impact on the child’s pro social and altruistic nature he/she shows (Berk, 2000).

Studies have concluded that parents are important for prosocial behavior and parental warmth, sympathy and moral reasoning were predictors. It was found that children are prosocial with more secure attachment relationships with their parents; where parents avoid punitive and strict discipline; when they use reasoning and provide explanations; where they are sensitive to their children’s needs and where they support their children’s experience and regulation of emotions (Hastings et al., 2000).

On the other hand, punishments and punitive caregiving are found to be negatively correlated with pro-social behavior of adolescents. A study conducted by Green &Scheinder, 1974 found that the altruistic activity of elementary children increased, as they were more willing to share candy with age (especially from 14-16).

A study conducted by Dr Arun kumar studied altruism in senior secondary class students with the help of experiments and found out that it is a function of gender where female students have higher levels of altruism than male students. Another study conducted with 1105 Chinese students from 20 high schools in Hong Kong studied age related effects and gender related differences in adolescents altruistic behavior.

The results obtained were consistent with Berndt (1985), Collins &Getz (1975) that indicates a positive age effect of altruistic behavior. However, significant gender differences were not found that were in line with Ma &Leung, 1992 study on Chinese students. In addition to these, it was also found that educational levels of the students were associated with the participation in volunteering activities and adolescents who joined volunteering activities sequentially reported more altruistic behavior (Chou &KL, 1998).

Altruism in adulthood

The third stage plays a significant role in an individual’s life and is faced with challenges, social & financial pressures and where he/she wishes to settle in life by having children of their own. A study was conducted to study competitive altruism that was studied using partner choice with the help of a dyadic task similar to prisoner’s dilemma and was studied with 31 females & 23 males of Cornell University.

It was found that participants in the task were more generous when competition to be choose, was for social partners and it differed for the 3 groups and was further supported by the partner choice incentive, thus indicating partner choice as a way for competitive altruism in adults. Parenting, education, occupation and engaging in varied helping roles tends to increase empathy, altruistic motivation and in turn altruistic behavior in adults (Wundheiler, 1985-1986).

With such experiences, maturity or ego development are bound to take place to the extend where an individual is capable of making voluntary choices void of constraints imposed by social roles that leads to genuine altruism. Both Erik Erikson’s (1950) & Loevinger’s (1976) conceptualization of ego development postulates that adults move through stages resolving conflicts of the self and life crisis that liberates the individual from constraints and thereby navigating the direction to the concern of others i.e. altruism.

It is seen that progression from adults to later life individuals make use of more mature defenses like altruism and this can be closely related to Alderian’s construct of social interest. A study by Rushton, Fuller, Neale, Nias & Eysenck, 1986 established that altruism was found to increase and decrease in aggression with the help of well- standardized self -report measures.

Altruism in old age

This is the stage where the individual has reached wisdom and benevolence and this stage marks a beginning of departure to the human’s life cycle. Evidence of altruistic activity comes from naturalistic observation and one such example is the study done by Midlarsky & Hannah, 1989 that examines the relationship between age and generosity from childhood to old age in shopping malls and parks frequently visited by the diverse ages.

It was found that the frequency of donations from the elder population i.e. 65 years and above was more which was followed by the youngest ages and then the middle adults. In addition it was found that when the donations were not monetary and were of time and efforts the older people were not only the most frequent donors but also donated generously than any other age group. Another research conducted studied the rescue behavior using announcement aids and thorough CPR sessions and it was found that middle aged (34-64) & old people (64 and above) were likely to sign up than young adults (18-34) with older people having altruist reasons for doing so.

In addition older people were most competent helpers and motivated individuals. Altruism also can be seen in the context of voting i.e the altruistic model, where it talks about the interaction effect the citizen takes into account that benefits others and at the same time the perceived benefit from the preferred outcome. A study conducted by Triamakas and Nicolay, 1974 suggest a positive relationship between higher self –concept and altruistic behavior that was evident in older people. Positive and no social influence in interaction with high self -concept scores determined the altruistic behavior where negative social influence froze the behavior of individuals despite their standing on the self-concept scores.


The definition of altruism cannot be generalized. The above paper discusses how altruism operates through the course of our life span here being from infancy to old age. Altruism exhibited at every stage of life is affected by social relations, parental attachment, inherent capability, age, gender, growth and development of the individual to name a few. It can be seen that despite the dependency on the caregivers both infants and older adults elicit empathy and concern for others through their altruistic acts regardless of the causes.

Whereas, Adolescents and young adults are resolving their life crisis and inner conflicts and then shift their attention to the concern of others. The above conceptual framework indicates that altruism shares a positive relation with age developing and enhancing from childhood to old age. It gives a brief introduction on the various studies on altruism with respect to the development stages.


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