The Development and Manifestation of Altruistic Caring: A Qualitative Inquiry

By Curry, Jennifer R.; Smith, Heather L. et al. | Counseling and Values, October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Development and Manifestation of Altruistic Caring: A Qualitative Inquiry


Curry, Jennifer R., Smith, Heather L., Robinson, Edward H.,, III, Counseling and Values


Qualitative, phenomenological research provides rich information about the constructive, life span perspectives of the manifestation and development of altruism, Using an interpretive phenomenological approach, this study investigated altruism as described by 34 older persons in a continuing care retirement community. The findings identified 13 overarching, common, emergent themes related to this construct, Implications are provided for helping professionals.

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Altruism may be defined as unselfishly giving to others without expectation of personal gain (Eisenberg et al., 1999). Furthermore, according to Robinson and Curry (2005), altruism is the purest form of caring--selfless and non-contingent upon reward--and thus a predecessor of pro-social cognitions and behaviors" (p. 68). Although the construct of altruism holds much promise for understanding, conceptualizing, and promoting non-reward-contingent and caring behavior, there is a lack of empirical support to evidence the development and manifestation of the construct throughout the life span. Specifically, many of the references found during the literature review for this study were from older or outdated sources. Moreover, although there are a few hypotheses about the origins and processes that contribute to altruism, there is still debate over whether altruism actually exists (Dovidio, 1991).

Much of the initial research focus on altruism was stimulated by the murder of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was stabbed to death in front of a recorded 38 eyewitnesses, yet none of them intervened to save her (Dovidio, 1991; Robinson & Curry, 2005). This event prompted researchers to explore both the bystander effect (created by the social diffusion of responsibility; Dovidio, 1991) and acts of prosocial interest versus self-interest. From these early investigations, three main hypotheses about the development of altruistic behavior emerged.

The first hypothesis comes from the field of biology, wherein evidence for the existence of altruism has been gathered through animal behavior studies, parental altruism research, monozygotic and dizygotic twin studies (Eisenberg et al., 1999), infant distress studies (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, Wagner, & Chapman, 1992), and the notion of kin selection. Kin selection is the concept that in a crisis, people are more likely to aid relatives than nonrelatives because of the instinct for preservation and propagation of one's genes in the gene pool (Okasha, 2003). One idea is that altruistic tendencies are biological in that self-sacrificing behavior may be performed with the unconscious idea that this behavior will be reciprocated for the helper's benefit in the future. Another biology-based position is that prosocial behavior is related to a personality type and is therefore more inherent for some people than for others. Evidence for this idea is found in longitudinal studies that show stability in this trait over time (Eisenberg et al., 1999; Eisenberg, Miller, Shell, McNalley, & Shea, 1991; Zeldin, Savin-Williams, & Small, 1984).

The second hypothesis explaining the development of altruism comes from cognitive theory work. Empirical support for this perspective was provided by McGuire (2003), who found that persons high in empathic orientation cognitively downplayed the self-cost for helping others and held an increased perception of the benefit to the recipient of help. McGuire labeled this cognitive bias phenomenon a "modesty bias" (p. 370), and it seems to perpetuate and reinforce helping behavior in persons displaying altruistic tendencies. In addition, there is a correlation between the process of chronological development and increased perspective-taking ability that promotes empathic orientation, and thus increases altruistic behavior (Eisenberg et al., 1991). On the basis of this developmental perspective, Fry (1976) asserted that children who are inclined to higher empathic orientation or social sensitivity may more readily integrate more helping behavior as an internalized value structure, thus prompting altruistic behavior. …

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