The Basic Idea

In 2007, something unexpected happened in a New York subway station. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey witnessed a young man suffer a seizure, stumble, and fall onto the train tracks. Autrey saw the lights of the next train coming around the corner and without a second thought dove onto the tracks to protect the young man. As there was little time, Autrey threw himself over the man’s body, pressing the man down into one of the drainage cracks, acting as a human shield to protect him from the train. Luckily, both men survived. When Autrey was asked what compelled him to do such a selfless act, he replied, “I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.” Autrey’s brave behavior is a classic example of altruism. Altruism the practice of making sacrifices for other people’s benefits due to our care for their well-being. The opposite of altruism is egoism: the sole concern for maximizing one’s own welfare, regardless of the needs of others.

If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.

– Albert Einstein

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Since it was first coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the 1830s, altruism has long been a perplexing stumbling block for academics attempting to understand human behavior. In some cases, entire academic perspectives couldn’t solve the altruism riddle. Charles Darwin acknowledged altruism as a potentially fatal flaw in his theory. In Darwinian evolutionary biology, organisms are supposed to survive and reproduce at all costs. In this view, altruistic behavior is rather confusing. After all, sacrificing one’s self, time, or resources for the benefit of a stranger doesn’t necessarily help you or your family survive and thrive. Despite a lack of explanation, Darwin acknowledged that altruism was a real phenomenon, especially prevalent in animals with sufficient mental capacities.

Another field that has been disrupted by altruism is neoclassical economics. Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, neoclassical economics is based on the fundamental assumption that human beings are rational actors who maximize their own well-being by pursuing their self-interest. This model was the dominant one in economics until other academics actually began to test these assumptions. They ended up finding that, in a variety of situations, individuals opted towards more fair, altruistic, and irrational outcomes than what was expected by neoclassical economic theory. One game that outlined this disparity was created by Daniel Kahneman, who had two participants take part in a “dictator game.” The game awards one player, the dictator, a certain sum of money. This player then gets to decide how much they would like to give to their partner. There is no way for the second player to negotiate or reciprocate the favor, leaving the dictator with the ability to keep much as they want without any repercussions. The rational actor – homo economicus – would simply take all the money for themselves, as that would maximize their own personal utility. However, a significant number of the dictators involved in the game ended up splitting the money, demonstrating that they had the benefit of the other player in mind, even at their own expense.

An alternative critique to the rational model is that anonymous charitable giving could not exist in this model, as there is no tangible benefit for the donator. This assessment runs counter to reality, as people anonymously donate to causes all the time. Furthermore, companies commonly keep on unnecessary or costly employees who aren’t providing significant profit or benefit. We can assume they do so in order to protect employees from unemployment, which is a far cry from the relentless drive for profits the traditional model prescribes. Evidently, humans show a preference towards altruism, causing the neoclassical model to come under closer examination. While there still remains multiple cross-disciplinary theories about altruism’s underlying motives and purpose, it is apparent that altruism is a staple of human behavior.


Altruism can be a real vehicle of action in our lives and the world. From charitable donations to social entrepreneurship, both individuals and businesses harness the power of altruism to aid in making the world a better place. Every year millions of people altruistically volunteer their time to causes they believe in, which helps us address, combat, and prevent many of the world’s injustices.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the recent uptake of altruistic behavior is the rise of the effective altruism movement. Effective altruism is a philosophical position and social movement which entails impartially examining all the options of behavior and choosing the one that maximizes the social good of the most other people. While many have subscribed to this belief system, effective altruism has been a key philosophy for many in the nonprofit sector. Proponents of the effective altruism movement state that it allows social enterprises to be more cost-effective, allocate resources better, and make an impact on generations to come.

On the individual level, integrating altruism into our daily lives can be very beneficial to our mental health and well-being. Studies have shown that engaging in altruistic behavior, such as volunteering, donating money, or working for businesses focused on the social good leads to better health benefits, better life satisfaction, and higher subjective well-being. In essence, helping others feels good.


The largest academic disagreement regarding altruism is why it exists. We know that it occurs, but its purpose still eludes many. Some postulate that pure altruism- the selfless altruistic behavior which yields no benefits for the self -, doesn’t exist. This is a hotly debated academic question; however, there are multiple compelling, cross-disciplinary theories to explain why we are altruistic, apart from pure moral decency.

Biology focuses on two competing theories of selfish altruism. The first is kin selection, which postulates that altruistic behavior occurs because we try to aid in the survival of our biological gene pool. For example, in a life or death situation, would you rather save your close friend or your sibling? Likely, you would rather save your sibling, as they share your genetic makeup. Furthermore, this idea can extend to people who have similar groups, interests, or characteristics to yourself. We are often more altruistic towards those who are more like us, as we inherently try to make our genes survive and carry into future generations.

A complimentary biological theory is reciprocal altruism, which claims that we engage in self-sacrifice for others with the assumption that they will help us out in future situations. This “tit-for-tat” approach allows us to help out people who aren’t our kin or our in-group, with the belief that should we face an emergency in the future, they will be there to ensure our survival.  However, this approach doesn’t acknowledge all the situations in which we help our people and never see them again. Donating to charity, holding the door open for a stranger, or buying somebody a bus ticket are all examples that conflict with the idea of reciprocal altruism. Therefore, theorists have moved outside of biology to answer these questions, although some theorists still hold tightly to these two theories of selfish altruism.

Other approaches believe that selfless altruism is possible. An interesting theory from psychology called the empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that while sometimes people are altruistic for selfish reasons, people are also capable of helping people out based on genuine, empathic concern. If a person has a sufficient amount of empathy for another person’s situation, they will help regardless of their potential gain. This approach vastly differs from the previous ones, suggesting that pure, selfless altruism may actually exist.

One of the most recent theories, which stems from economics, offers a middle ground approach. The warm glow giving theory claims that the joy and satisfaction we feel from helping others is our best reward. The largest implication of this is that altruism isn’t necessarily selfless or selfish. Helping somebody out is a result of both a genuine care for their well-being and the warm glow we feel afterward. This theory is notably the only one with neurobiological backing. Recent evidence has shown that indeed, certain pleasurable pathways activate when we engage in altruistic behavior.  While this perspective seems highly promising, it is clear that why we act altruistically, from the days of Darwin to the present, remains an important but controversial issue in academia.

Case Study

Eisai: Altruism in the Pharmaceutical Business:

Most corporations seek to maximize profits with little regard for the social ills they may create. This viewpoint is often seen as a necessary evil for business growth, as businesses are responsible for securing growth for their shareholders. Furthermore, shifting resources elsewhere would be wasteful. But what if this wasn’t the case? What if a corporation decided to not focus on profit, and instead the public good? What if this shift in priorities and values allowed them to profit even better than before? An excellent case study of a corporation integrating altruism into their business model is Eisai, one of the largest publicly traded pharmaceutical industries in Japan. Until recently, Eisai successfully followed the profit-maximizing model of traditional business. However, the company recently shifted its mission to instead focus on relieving the suffering of the sick and their families. It does this through its Human Health Care philosophy, which involves having each employee meet with their patients, hear out their concerns and difficulties, and doing everything in their power to address them. These considerations are made, typically, regardless of cost. Eisai has also engaged in multiple initiatives to help those in need, such as giving 2.2 billion free tablets of its elephantiasis drug to the World Health Organization. Since this decision, the company has not faltered, and has grown to become one of the top 20 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Elephantiasis is a painful, disfiguring disease that threatens 893 million people across the globe. By providing care for this disease and assistance to the World Health Organization Eisai made a name for itself in altruism-based business, and expanded its own profits exponentially.

Related TDL Content

Selfish Altruism: A Win-Win?

In this article, contributor Jessica Exton explains how pure altruism, in most cases, is not at the core of our decision-making. Instead, there is a personal benefit derived from altruistic behavior. By looking at the fields of social investing and social goods markets, Exton explains how the  inherent desire to feel morally good can in fact help us achieve greatness.

How to Motivate Volunteers with Behavioral Science

In this interview, associate Julian Hazell sits down with senior consultant Jayden Rae to discuss  behavioral science’s role in volunteering efforts. On the academic side, they dive deep into challenging the rational model of behavior and the science of why people volunteer. On the more practical side, they examine the benefits of altruism, how to motivate volunteers, and how to turn passion into action.


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About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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