A long tradition of research in social and evolutionary psychology tells us that this behavior doesn’t make sense. That people operate according to fundamentally selfish instincts, and that these selfish instincts can be found in every organism, every cell, and every gene. According to this tradition, thinking of any “us” at all can be explained as a means to the end of preserving one’s own physical and psychological well-being, living to see another day, and producing children that have a reasonable chance of doing the same. Ostensibly altruistic behaviors—everything from sharing resources to laying down one’s life to save others—can be explained by fundamentally selfish motives like reputational concerns (the desire to be seen in a positive light), kin selection (the desire to preserve one’s genetic material, sometimes even at the cost of one’s own life), or simply a desire to ease the personal discomfort that comes along with viewing others in distress. In short, people help others to help themselves.
But other research tells a different story. When people find “lost” letters on the sidewalk, they tend to mail them to the intended recipients, even though this good deed will receive no recognition or reward, does nothing to further their own genetic legacy, and probably does not relieve much personal distress. People make anonymous financial donations, and as many as 32% are even willing to anonymously donate their own internal organs—while still living—to complete strangers. Even children who are four years old spontaneously help others with no apparent concern for approval from friends and/or authority figures, personal benefits, or moral (good/bad) imperatives. Examples such as these provide a counterargument to the selfish view of human nature that has long dominated psychological research. They suggest that people may help others with little or no thought for their own well-being; people may help others simply because they need to be helped.
Of course, it could be that these heartwarming actions can also be explained by selfish motives, ones that are simply more difficult to pin down. Or it could be that these actions represent the outcome of hard-fought battles pitting conscious control against selfish core impulses—victories for virtue, yes, but ones that require continuous effort and are likely to be surrendered as soon as people are unable or unwilling to continue overriding their selfish impulses. It could be that when caring for others threatens people’s own welfare, they will retreat into increasingly smaller moral circles—from caring for the “us” of humankind to the “us” of their families, friends, and ingroup members; from caring about this restricted “us” to only caring about themselves. It could be that, when people are put to the ultimate test, self-preservation will always win out.