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I Interviewed 80 People to Find Out if Pure Altruism Exists

helping others study altruism photographs

We all exhibit prosocial behavior, which stands for everything we do for other people without expecting anything in return, like helping our neighbors with groceries or an elder crossing the street.

Here’s what the sociobiologists are saying

  • All children are born with empathetic “powers” that allow them to bond emotionally with others¹.
  • This is a genetic response we use to support our genes.
  • Wilson et al have documented prosocial behavior in animals too², so that’s cool.

As with practically anything, though, people have different opinions on why we do this.

It would make sense to think we take these actions because of empathy, our core values, and a sense of responsibility towards others we share the planet with (hi guys).

But, sometimes, engaging in prosocial behavior can be financially costly, time-consuming, and emotionally draining.

According to social exchange theory, people help only when rewards (recognition, fame, etc.) surpass costs, so there’s no such thing as true altruism. Boooo.

I asked 80 people to find out if that’s true

Do we only help if something we want isn’t at stake? Are you hooked by now?

For a social psychology assignment, we asked 80 people, ages 20 to 40, I know I was at the time, so I asked 80 people, ages from 20 to 40, both genders* equally represented, what they would do in the following situation.

The verbs in bold are the interchanging factors.

Today is a very important day for you. you’re interviewing for your dream job. You just hopped in your car, when a close friend comes and asks for your help. You need to take them to the ER, now! If you take them, you can/can’t get to the interview on time. You ask them if they can return the favor in the future, they say they can/can’t. From 1 to 7, to what extent would you help your friend?

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Yes, it’s your DREAM JOB.
  • No, you can’t call to reschedule.
  • Yes, you lose the job if you don’t show up.
  • No, you can’t call them a cab, will you stop it with the hypothetical questions already?

Participants had to pick a number from 1 to 7, 1 meaning “I wouldn’t help them at all.” and 7 meaning “I would massively help them.” They were encouraged to include a reason for their choice.

I know we don’t go around interrogating people who just asked us to drive them to the hospital whether they would return the favor. But anything for science and an objective study, right?!


high reward, low cost

If they could get to the interview, help their friend, and get the hypothetical favor, everyone said they would help the most (7/7).

no reward, low cost

If they could get to the interview, help the friend, but not get the hypothetical favor, 25% said they’d greatly help (6.4/7).

Most said they’d help regardless of the favor, but others bluntly said they wouldn’t help because of the lack of it.

Some said they’d help because friendship is more important than a job, others because a loyal friend can get you a good job. Not very selfless now, are we?

high cost, high reward

What if our friend promises to return the favor and do whatever we want, but we can’t make it to the interview? 5.6/7.

  • “I’d only help if my friend was seriously sick, if not, I wouldn’t risk my dream job.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason. If I miss the interview, something better is in store for me.”
  • “I’d take my friend to the ER, no doubt. But I’d call the company to let them know why I was missing the interview so I’d make a good impression.”
  • “If my friend’s sick and I’m able to help, but the company doesn’t give a shit, that’s a company I don’t want to work for.” Same.

high cost, low reward

The part we’ve all been waiting for!

Would we help if we didn’t make it to the interview, lost our dream job, and our friend said they wouldn’t return the favor?

6.5 out of 7!

6.5 out of 7! We choose to help others over our dream job and being owed a huge favor.

How’s that for good news? People are good inside, after all. Isn’t that realization exciting?

Go out there and make someone’s day, not for any other reason other than YOU CAN.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for being.


Two people could give the same explanation, yet choose different numbers on the scale. Everyone likes to think of themself as a good person, so they answer as such, despite their reasoning indicating otherwise. I’m not saying those who wouldn’t help are bad. I dislike labeling people as good or bad. Actions on the other hand…

*At the time, no one identified as gender-fluid/agender/genderqueer where the study was conducted, even though they’d be answering anonymously. I probably should’ve included it as an option anyway. In other news, did you know asking students to confirm their gender before a test leads to lower scores for girls?

¹ Sagi & Hoffman, 1994
² Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: Variation and correlations at a city-wide scale. Evolution and human behavior, 30(3), 190-200.

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