Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Altruism Advertises Cooperativeness

  • Manpal Singh BhogalEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3474-1



Altruism refers to benefit provisioning behavior, and cooperation is defined as exchange between two or more individuals which is mutually beneficial.


Altruism is defined as a behavior that is beneficial to a receiver but costly to the altruist (Trivers 1971). Altruism is a phenomenon which causes evolutionary theorists trouble when tying it into the overall play of evolution. Why be altruistic to someone you do not know?

The reason why altruism is a puzzling phenomenon is because it is costly in nature. Being altruistic has also been argued to be costly to an individual’s fitness, beneficial to the receiver’s fitness but at a cost to the altruist. Because of the fitness deficit between altruist and recipient, Sanchez and Cuesta (2005) argue that altruism should therefore cease to exist over time if it provides us with no direct evolutionary advantage(s). However, we observe altruism in everyday life; giving up one’s seat for an elderly person on public transport, helping someone by carrying their shopping, or stopping to help someone in an accident.

Evolutionary theorists have spent decades exploring the psychological mechanisms that drive altruism towards those we are not related to (see Kurzban et al. 2015 for a recent review). According to the principles of natural selection, altruism must have evolved in order to convey benefits to others and to increase one’s fitness, otherwise, due to its costly nature, it should not have evolved.

There are several explanations to explain the signaling purpose of altruistic behavior. Explanations derive from individual selection where the altruist expects reward from his or her action (this suggests that altruism is selfish as opposed to selfless – see Ruse 2012). Further explanations derive from indirect and direct reciprocity (Roberts 1998), where altruistic behavior evolves through engaging cooperatively with others. Reputation building has also been proposed (Nowak and Sigmund 1998), where altruism increases one’s reputation through continued cooperation with others, thus suggesting a good reputation can be sought from displays of altruism, which signal cooperative intent towards others. Multilevel selection has been used to explain the evolution of altruistic behavior, arguing that natural selection, when operated on a group level, increases the survival of a group. For example, if a group contains more altruists compared to other groups, it increases the likelihood that the group which contains altruistic people will outperform and have increased longevity compared to the group of non-altruists. In relation to cooperativeness, although altruism (at face value) is a costly endeavor, multilevel selection diminishes the personal cost of altruistic behavior, as altruism may advertise cooperativeness through multilevel selection by increasing the survival of a group (Wilson 2015).

Altruism is crucial, on a societal and individual basis, as we need to be both on the receiving end of altruism and be engaging in altruistic displays to survive, particularly through being chosen as partners in cooperative ventures (Ruse 2012). Throughout our evolutionary history, cooperation has been crucial in increasing survival. Even today, cooperation is just as important to governments maintaining relationships with one another, personal and social ventures, with kin or non-kin alike. The decisions we make in everyday life, whether they involve family, friends, acquaintances, enemies, or strangers with whom you are walking along the street, are influenced by conflict and cooperation. Day to day decisions such as deciding whether to confront a colleague about taking advantage of your good nature or deciding whether to deal with the free rider in a group task are both influenced by cooperation or conflict.

For altruism to evolve, the benefits associated with these traits should provide benefits through reciprocating altruistic behavior, leading to cooperation (Kurzban et al. 2015). If the benefits of cooperation are greater than the cost of cooperation, benefits can be accrued by continuously cooperating with those who cooperate with us.

Cooperative tendencies refer to a variety of behaviors and traits. For example, cooperation can encompass altruism, furthering the notion that altruistic behavior signals or advertises cooperative intent (Baumard et al. 2013). Reciprocal altruism (Trivers 1971) suggests that people are altruistic towards others when there is a mutual benefit in being so. This theory suggests that altruism is rewarded through reciprocation, suggesting the benefits of altruism somewhat match, or exceed, the costs of engaging in the altruistic act (Trivers 1971), implying the interaction is repeated, and the recipient will reciprocate in the future, thus leading to cooperative behavior. One of the conditions set by reciprocal altruism is that the altruistic cost should provide a larger benefit to the receiver than the altruist. Manktelow (2012, p. 80) states “If you take a benefit, then you pay a cost.” Evidence suggests that humans are not simply altruistic in order to gain immediate benefits, but altruistic behavior may lead to immediate and/or future gains through cooperative ventures (Stevens and Hauser 2004).

Being cooperative may not always benefit an individual in the short-term and may in fact be costly in the short-term, but actors may “recoup their losses in the future” (Stevens and Hauser 2004; p. 60). Reciprocal altruism has been extensively studied in a range of economic contexts, and due to the societal importance of cooperation, humans have developed cognitive functions to ensure cooperation is embedded into our society, which may also be a reason why cheater detection and free riders are (generally) punished in society. After all, in order to monitor social exchange fairly and prevent others from reaping benefits without paying a cost, we must detect and punish cheaters (Manktelow 2012).


In summary, altruistic behavior can often signal cooperative intent when communicating with others. This can be through direct observation, through reputation building, indirect, and direct reciprocity.



  1. Baumard, N., André, J., & Sperber, D. (2013). A mutualistic approach to morality: The evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36, 59–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Kurzban, R., Burton-Chellew, & West, S. A. (2015). The evolution of altruism in humans. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 575–599.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Manktelow, K. (2012). Thinking and reasoning: An introduction to the psychology of reason, judgment and decision making. London/New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  4. Nowak, M. A., & Sigmund, K. (1998). Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature, 393, 573–577.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Roberts, G. (1998). Competitive altruism: From reciprocity to the handicap principle. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 265, 427–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ruse, M. (2012). The philosophy of human evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Sanchez, A., & Cuesta, J. A. (2005). Altruism may arise from individual selection. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 235, 233–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Stevens, J. R., & Hauser, M. D. (2004). Why be nice? Psychological constraints on the evolution of cooperation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(2), 60–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does altruism exist? Culture, genes, and the welfare of others. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Institute of Human SciencesUniversity of WolverhamptonWolverhamptonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kevin Kniffin
    • 1
  1. 1.Cornell UniversityIthacaUSA