The reasons for altruistic behavior, the selfless desire to help others, are biological, neurological, cognitive and social in nature, according to Kendra Cherry for About.com. Whether altruistic behavior is purely unselfish or motivated by selfish reasons is a hot debate among social psychologists.
Among the biological explanations for altruism is kin selection, states Cherry. People inherently are more altruistic toward relatives because it improves the chances of genetic survival. The neurological explanation for altruism is that helping others feels good because it activates the reward centers in the brain. The social explanation is that the rules, norms and expectations of society pressure people to help others. For instance, people feel obligated to help those who have helped them.
The cognitive explanation is that people may be altruistic for unclear reasons, explains Cherry. They may help others to relieve their own distress or build and maintain a positive image of themselves. The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that people who feel empathic towards those in distress are more willing to help them. Alternatively, the negative-state relief model states that people help others to relieve their own negative feelings. Batson suggests true altruism may be possible, but Cialdini and others suggest empathy for others is often motivated by selfish reasons.