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Altruistic Behavior and Altruistic Motivations

In: Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity


  • Elster, Jon


Altruism can be understood in a behavioral or in a psychological sense. Motivationally, altruism is the desire to enhance the welfare of others at a net welfare loss to oneself. Behaviorally, altruism is any act that could have resulted from altruistic motivations. The economic literature shows many examples of how altruistic behavior can be generated from self-interested motivations, in iterated games or in reputation-building. The chapter provides further categories and examples, notably from political behavior. Two main examples are taken from the debates at the Federal Convention in 1787 and the elections to the Estates-General in France in 1789. In addition, it is argued that altruistic acts may be caused by the emotions of the agents, notably pride and shame. A distinction is drawn between acts whose performance is conditional on seeing what other agents are doing, corresponding to quasi-moral norms of fairness or reciprocity, and acts whose performance is conditional on being observed by other agents, corresponding to social norms. The operation of quasi-moral norms is observed in experiments where subjects engage in one-shot anonymous interactions. Many subjects not only display cooperative and generous behavior, but are willing to spend resources on punishing those who do not. Since A's punishment of B may induce B to behave cooperatively with C in later interactions, it can be seen as an altruistic act. Experiments by Ernst Fehr and co-workers suggest that the motivation for such altruistic punishment may be non-altruistic, being related instead to a "warm glow" effect. Whether this conclusion is valid for more general forms of reciprocity, such as the tendency for A to punish B when he observes B harming C, remains to be seen. Throughout the chapter there is an attempt to trace the origin of these ideas back to writers such as Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, Hume and Kant.

Suggested Citation

  • Elster, Jon, 2006. "Altruistic Behavior and Altruistic Motivations," Handbook on the Economics of Giving, Reciprocity and Altruism, in: S. Kolm & Jean Mercier Ythier (ed.), Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 3, pages 183-206, Elsevier.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:givchp:1-03

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    Cited by:

    1. Nebiyou Tilahun & David Levinson, 2013. "Selfishness and altruism in the distribution of travel time and income," Transportation, Springer, vol. 40(5), pages 1043-1061, September.
    2. Wilson, Nicholas, 2018. "Altruism in preventive health behavior: At-scale evidence from the HIV/AIDS pandemic," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 30(C), pages 119-129.
    3. Bénédicte de Peyrelongue & Olivier Masclef & Valérie Guillard, 2017. "The Need to Give Gratuitously: A Relevant Concept Anchored in Catholic Social Teaching to Envision the Consumer Behavior," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 145(4), pages 739-755, November.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification


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