Looking for the Good Samaritan

Meerkats. These adorable, furry animals are well known for their role in the BBC produced animated film, The Meerkats. What’s more, meerkats are also often used as model animals for their altruistic behavior.

These animals are famously known to stand guard while other members of their gang forage for food. If they detect any threats, the sentinels call out to the rest of the meerkats, which then run to nearby hiding places. It seems that they are risking their lives to protect their groups. However, a 1999 report showed that guards are the first to flee after sounding an alarm and that sentinels, in fact, are positioned such that they have the most time to reach safety. Therefore, what does altruism really mean and do meerkats have a hidden agenda?

Altruism is defined by Daniel Batson as “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare.” This is differs from egoism, the ultimate goal of which is individual benefit. It seems that the meerkats who stand guard as sentinels might therefore be acting with egoistic rather than altruistic motivation. But what about humans? Can they ever be truly altruistic? Does the Good Samaritan, a person who helps others without an expectation of a reward, exist?

There are several theories that explain prosocial and altruistic behavior in humans. One such model is the Empathy-Altruism hypothesis developed by Daniel Batson. According to this theory, when a person sees another person in need, they might help the other person either to reduce their own distress or if they feel they might be rewarded for their service. There is a third possibility, however. They may feel empathetic towards the person in need, and in that state they are willing to help the other person regardless of what they might gain. Reducing the other person’s suffering becomes the most important goal, indicating that it is possible for humans to behave in a truly altruistic manner.

On the other hand, evolutionary theories on altruism suggest that humans do behave selfishly, even when helping another person. For example, according to the Kin Selection hypothesis, humans help others, especially their descendants. Although they may be reducing the chances of their own survival, they are increasing the probability of their genes being passed on to the next generation. Moreover, the degree of helping behavior increases if the concerned individuals are closely related. It is therefore also not surprising that people are more willing to help those whom they perceive to be more similar to rather than different from themselves.

However, humans have behaved altruistically and have helped complete strangers in the past. For example, Patrick Morgan risked his life by jumping down under a stationary train in Sydney, Australia to save an elderly woman who had fallen there. But he said that he was simply doing what he thought anyone else would do. Similarly, Vishnu Zende, the railway announcer at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus saved hundreds of lives by alerting commuters to leave the station during the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

I guess the Good Samaritan does exist. And in any case, helping others is always good, even if you do it to help yourself.

Kahini Shah