Thursday, 2 April 2009

Learning To Be Altruistic

Many years ago, when I was walking back home from a grocery store, I went pass a crowded bus stop. As I passed through the crowd of about 30 people, I heard a faint voice asking for help coming from the sitting area inside. I turned my head and saw two young ladies; one of them was resting her head on the other lady's lap. Seeing that I was somewhat responding to her call for help, the second lady pleaded to me to help bring her friend to a clinic. Her friend looked really ill. She was very pale and was breathing heavily.

Without much hesitation, I offered to help and brought the lady to the nearest clinic. I carried her in my arms to a clinic which was about 100 metres away. And while I was doing this, everyone around the bus stop stared at me as if I was doing something wrong.

This happened years ago before I began my studies in psychology. Eventually, I realised what I did that day can be considered an example of altruistic behaviour. On the one hand, yes, I am proud of what I did, but on the other, I am sad to have witnessed a real example of bystander effect. I was clearly not the only person who heard the call for help from the two ladies. But amazingly, not only did none of them there offer to help, everyone of them (including the two people sitting right next to the two ladies) had turned their faces away deliberately pretending not to hear a thing.

I should probably mention here that the two ladies were Indonesians (recognisable by their accent), and they were both wearing shorts. I don't know, probably others thought they were involved in immoral activities but even if that was true, does that mean they did not deserve to be helped?

I never saw the two ladies again. The few people that I've told about this have mostly given me mixed reactions. They praised me for what I did while at the same time scolded me for my supposed naivety. How a small act of helping someone can be considered naive is beyond me. I certainly did not expect anything for what I did, nor did I think it was really praiseworthy.

To be altruistic is to be able to tell ourselves, for whatever we do we should not expect anything (tangible and intangible) in return. I don't know from where really I learned this but this has always been one of the philosophies in life that I greatly cherish. Probably it has even become an obsession of some sort that I often become extremely annoyed whenever I see people demanding for rewards and appreciations for their good deeds.

In studies on organisational behaviour, altruism is a dimension of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB). I've just completed a research project on the work culture of primary school teachers here in Malaysia. One of the variables we looked at was OCB. When we compared the scores on OCB among Malay, Chinese and Indian school teachers, we found Malay school teachers scoring significantly higher than the Chinese and Indian respondents.

Teaching is a tough job, which certainly requires a degree of dedication that goes beyond any extrinsic motivation. Why Malay school teachers here were found to be significantly better on this quality however was difficult for us to explain. Perhaps, just perhaps, their passion for teaching is far higher, seeing it more as a noble deed and service to the society rather than a job that gives them their monthly salaries.

A quantitative cross-cultural comparison study like this unfortunately does not tell us the details about many things. Of interest to me personally is to know how we can teach people to be altruistic. My two small children often demand things in return whenever we (my wife and I) ask them to do something. Yes, they are children but how can I teach them or make them learn eventually that they should not expect anything from anybody? I want them to live by the principle that the most important thing in life is to do what is right, without thinking much (if not at all) about receiving any reward in return.

If only we know how to do this, I'm sure this world would be a far, far better place. Our children, and everyone in the society, from the most common labourers right up to presidents, kings and prime ministers; can thus be taught the mentality that we live to serve, not to serve for a living.


suhailie said...

salam, what is your opinian if I said: some are born to be altruistic, some have to learn to be altruistic.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Salam Sister Suhailie,

Thank you for visiting my blog.

On altruism, I like to believe that everyone has a natural potential to be altruistic. But whether that potential is manifested into behaviours must be harnessed by learning contingencies or experiences.

Some people though may have a neurological defect that unables them to not only to be altruistic, but to be unable to have sympathy and empathy. This is based on findings from studies of the brains of psychopaths.

Based on the above, we might just want to speculate that possibly there are neurological 'defects' that may enable some people to be more altruistic than others. To investigate this, neuroscientists may have to do studies on the brains of altruistic personalities. I'm not aware of any existing studies on this. It'll be interesting to find out...


Anonymous said...

Salam, Brother Zaki. Thanks for the post. I believe everyone is born with the potential to be altruistic. Even when we were in our mother's womb, we had promised Allah that we would serve HIM for HIM only. The development of this potential very much depends on other socio-environmental variables; parenting is one. Parents who are authoritative will nurture their kids to love AND fear HIM. If those feelings are instilled early, I truly believe that altruistic behaviors will be second nature.

Zaki Samsudin said...


Dear Anon (10:06),

Thank you for your comments. Your advice is exactly the wisdom I hope to impart on my children.

JazakAllahu khayr.

bubu said...

Although that effort can be made to promote altruistic behavior, I do still think it's a gamble, playing with probabilities. Why?

You see good families where children everyday were exposed to altruistic behavior but turned out to be one that was opposite of it. You see children who were taught to be selfish but turned out to be the opposite as well.

When you teach them directly, there's a probability that they'll get bored and might be influenced with "outside" advices, while not teaching them will make them alien to altruistic behavior.

Doing anything, either this or that is a risk. Doing nothing on the other hand, is a risk also. Although harsh as it may sound, this is reality.

Only thing that we can/should do, is to make effort based on what we believe we can take responsibility for it. And of course, making du'a as well.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Salam Brother Bubu,

Agree, no method of teaching is full-proof. Nonetheless, I personally believe when it comes to values and ethics, teaching by-example is more effective than oral lessons. If children always see their parents act in a certain way, gradually they would follow them.

Of course the challenge today is the fact that children spend more time with their friends and watching television. So, if there are contradictions between what they observe from their friends & on TV, and what they observe from their parents, we hope and pray that they'll know what is best for them.