What motivates an individual to help others? Human beings help each other for a variety of reasons. Whether responding to social norms, seeking reward or reciprocation, or out of pure empathy, individuals have several motivations for helping each other. The theory of egoism, a motivation to increase one’s own welfare, has long been considered the underlying motivation for all human behavior (Myers, 2010). When deciding whether or not to help someone egoism gives way to social exchange theory. Social exchange theory holds “that human interactions are transactions that aim to maximize one’s rewards and minimize one’s costs” (p. 443).
The individual weighs his/her costs against his/her reward in the situation, loss of personal time vs. social approval, loss of personal income vs. group acceptance. In theory, the individual will decide what is most beneficial for him/herself and act accordingly. But social exchange theory “does not contend that we consciously monitor costs and rewards, only that such considerations predict our behavior” (p. 443). On the surface it would seem that human beings only help one another to benefit themselves, and it is true that helping others not only makes an individual feel good, but it also improves the situation of the person being helped and ultimately the helper too.
This inner knowledge may be present in a helping individual but in many cases is not the prime motive, merely a happy side effect. Human beings and many animal species develop empathy, “the vicarious experience of another’s feelings” (p. 455), from an extremely young age. We help because we care, not because we want something. True altruism, “motivation to increase another’s welfare without conscious regard for one’s self-interests” (p. 443) does exist and we all benefit when it is enacted. Inevitably. Gautama Buddha once said, “How can I harm my brother lest I harm myself?” Social norms or universal laws, what goes around comes around. Doing good, helping others, helps everyone whatever the motivation.