Before he became a psychology professor, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s David Lishner didn’t have much faith in human nature. He believed that humans only helped each other if they had something to gain. After years of research on undergraduates at the University, his opinion has reversed.

“People ask me, ‘Does altruism exist?’ I say it does. I didn’t used to think so, but the data don’t lie,” Lishner said.

The data Lishner is referring to spring from studies demonstrating that humans default toward helpfulness — even at a great cost to themselves. In his research, Lishner discovered that unless participants were told to actively not think about what another person was feeling, they defaulted to feeling empathy. Out of that empathy sprang altruistic behavior.

According to Lishner, altruism is a clearly defined state. A behavior is only truly altruistic if the goal is to benefit another person as an end unto itself. If the person demonstrating the behavior is motivated by duty or guilt, for example, the action is no longer altruistic. In other words, altruism springs from empathic concern. When humans feel empathy for someone, they are more likely to take an action to help them.

While other mammals sometimes demonstrate helping behavior, Lishner theorizes that humanity evolved to be altruistic because children require a long period of nurturing.

“Why are we capable of feeling tenderness and compassion? It’s a generalized parental response,” Lishner said. “Children have a long period of care, and anyone with a teenager knows that parts of that period can be trying. By evolving with emotional triggers, we evolve to be nurturing and compassionate — in short, to feel empathy.

“The human ability to feel tenderness is much better than that of other mammals. We have it down to a science.”

Lishner points out that altruism is unrelated to morality. Motivated by empathic concern, an altruistic behavior may violate the values of fairness in favor of the person for which the concern is felt.

“I shy away from saying altruism is a good thing,” Lishner said. “It can be, but it can have unintended negative consequences.”

For example, a parent may appear to favor one child over another if one of the children appears more needy. This often results in sibling rivalry and hurt feelings.

The economics of altruism

Altruism, whether practiced domestically or abroad, has a major impact on the economy, says economics professor Kevin McGee. Unlike Lishner, who narrowly defines altruism, McGee sees any charitable giving as an altruistic endeavor.

“A fairly substantial part of the economy is driven by altruism,” McGee said. “Americans give about 3 or 4 percent of their incomes to charities and other nonprofits. When you add in corporate giving and volunteer programs, about 10–20 percent of the economy is driven by altruism.”

McGee adds that social insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, are also at least partially motivated by altruism. Billions of dollars fund these systems in the U.S. annually.  Meanwhile, major crises, such as the earthquake in Haiti, tend to highlight altruism at its most visible.

Psychologist Lishner, however, says that while domestic and international crises tend to reflect large acts of altruism, it’s the daily acts of kindness that make our species unique.

“We want to think of altruism as those heroic actions, like someone diving into a river to save someone they’ve never met,” Lishner said. “But that’s often instinct or duty, not true altruism. True altruism is under our noses all the time. It’s how we interact with our family, our friends, those people we value. It’s not always action. Sometimes it manifests as vigilance, concern or thinking about another person’s emotional needs.”

Altruism U

Infusing the University experience with opportunities for students to see and demonstrate altruistic behavior is an important component of a liberal education. Among the learning outcomes defined as being essential by the University is the notion of civic mindedness.

According to Carleen Vande Zande, assistant vice chancellor for curricular affairs and student academic achievement, learning more about “giving back” helps students see the world as a broader place — and that their role in a productive global society is essential.

“The notion of altruism fits in with so many of our essential learning outcomes, which is an exciting thing,” Vande Zande said. “We have so many ways for students to experience volunteering and giving back; we have a very giving campus community.”

One way students at UW Oshkosh have channeled their empathic concern is through myriad volunteer opportunities coordinated through Reeve Memorial Union. For the past two years, Mike Lueder has served as the University’s program adviser for volunteerism.
He provides students with a variety of resources to help them find opportunities to give back.

“Volunteering is a great opportunity for our students to practice what they are learning outside the classroom,” Lueder said. “It’s also a great way for them to connect to others, collaborate and really make a difference.”

For the past three years, Lueder has led a group of students on an Alternative Spring Break experience. In 2008 and 2009, 18 students traveled to Biloxi, Miss., to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, 15 students went to Washington, D.C., to experience the plight of homelessness first-hand. The students volunteered at a soup kitchen, a food bank and the Father McKenna Center. Lueder said the goal was to help students develop empathy for an often-misunderstood group.

“For many of us, we discovered that serving these people was not just about the volunteer experience. It was, for a series of fleeting but defining moments, about letting our guard down and extending a welcome and receiving warm kindness in return,” said senior Adam Dziewiontkoski, of West Allis.

In addition to University-wide alternative spring break programs, individual departments and colleges take students on eye-opening treks that give them an opportunity to volunteer. In March, 14 members of the UW Oshkosh chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) traveled to New Orleans to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

“It was an opportunity for students to be exposed to a different part of the country, specifically an area hit by crisis, and to see how a community bands together to deal with a crisis,” said Sarah DeArmond, faculty adviser for SHRM.

Within the classroom

Opportunities to demonstrate altruism also happen in the classroom. For College of Nursing students, the concept is wrapped in layers of meaning that can sometimes be hard to unravel. According to Shelly Lancaster, a nursing instructor, common perception is that nurses always work to heal their patients. However, those semantics aren’t necessarily correct.

“When we talk about altruism in the college, we talk about nurses being advocates for their patients,” Lancaster said. “Advocacy means that I take on the role of giving a patient a voice, and sometimes that means making a patient’s wishes heard, even if I disagree.”

For example, Lancaster cites having to speak up for a patient who has decided to discontinue a painful treatment for an illness, despite the likelihood that the treatment would prolong the patient’s life. Part of the college’s role is to prepare students by offering opportunities to work in situations where patients are likely to face such tough decisions.

While that advocacy can take a toll on a nurse, having an altruistic profession is extraordinarily rewarding, Lancaster said.

“I’ve never worked a shift where I didn’t feel like I made a difference,” she said. “It’s a rewarding profession.”

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