The Puzzle of Reciprocal Altruism: What Makes Humans Help the Others?

Conflicts are happening almost everywhere in the world nowadays. Many—especially women and children—are suffering because of the constant wars. While most of us can only watch and mourn from afar, there are actually some people who really went there and lent their hands to help. Some of them are paid to do so, but some others do it voluntarily. Can you believe that? They are risking their own lives for no pennies at all!

Many scientists and philosophers have been wondering what makes humans help others. Based on the neo-Darwinian theory, humans are actually selfish. We are designed to carry numerous genes, survive ourselves, and reproduce the new generation. Therefore, helping or even sacrificing ourselves for others doesn’t seem to make any sense. That is probably why the reciprocal altruism theory exists.

What is Reciprocal Altruism?

Reciprocal altruism is a theory that explains humans’ helping behavior towards others with a hope that they would return the help in the future. The behaviors include (but are not limited to) helping people in pain due to sickness or accidents and sharing knowledge, medicine, money, food, etc.

Based on the theory, it is a human nature that when one takes our help but doesn’t give back, we feel upset. On the other hand, if we take but can’t return the help, we will feel sorry. As a matter of fact, our society is based on helping and getting helped back.

Even though a little bit different from that of humans, reciprocal altruism is also a phenomenon among several types of animals. Chimpanzees will look after their counterparts that have helped them before while vampire bats will feed the other bats that have done some favors for them in the past. Apparently, the phenomenon happens amidst species in a stable colony with a relatively long life-span.

Historically, the “altruism” concept was first introduced by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher in the 19th century. Derived from a word in French, “altruisme”, Comte had no doubt that the concept is actually a moral doctrine—against egoism—focusing on sacrifices of ourselves and benefits for others. In other words, he believed we humans possess both selfish and altruistic sides, and the latter is aimed to limit our selfishness.

Is there Such a Thing as Pure Altruism?

I suppose that many good deeds are encouraged by self-interest, but as the opposite, I believe that there is also “pure” altruism. Kindness acts that the volunteers do to the war victims in the battle fields such as giving away foods, clothes, and medicines, as well as taking care of the wounded victims are considered pure altruism.

Such noble acts mentioned above allow you to feel better about yourself, resulting in the others paying you some more respect, and eventually, you may also raise your chances to get helped back in the future. However, there’s also a chance that with helping others voluntarily, your motivation is just to fulfill a desire to lessen the pain that the victims are suffering from. Sounds too impossible? Read another case below.

This morning when I was trying to heat up some left-over soup on the stove, I saw an ant clinging on the side of the saucepan. Instead of shoving it away or just ignoring it, I gently stuck my finger tip to the side, near the ant, making way for it to leave the saucepan.

Once the ant went on to my finger, I moved it to a safer side of my pantry. Afterwards, I got back to my cooking activity.

Why do you think I did such a “noble” deed? Do you think I did it in the expectation that the ant would help me back in a life-taking moment like that? Or that it would tell all of its friends what a friendly human I am? Or probably I did it just to fulfill the needs to respect the other living things? Which one sounds more sensible to you?

Sorry, but none of those is the exact answers. I think when I decided to do that simple “noble” act, I had just been moved by my empathy. I was feeling empathetic to the ant as a living being that deserved to remain alive just like I was. I tried to feel what it was like to be in its place. Therefore, I have no doubt that empathy is what leads to acts of pure altruism.

Nevertheless, empathy has always been defined as a cognitive ability to look at the world through the others’ perspectives, and I think it is too underrating it. I believe that empathy is actually far larger than that. In my point of view, all living beings in the universe—not only limited to humans—are basically interconnected through empathy.

The Conclusion: The Puzzle has Finally been Solved

If we look at ourselves through the evolutionary perspective, we are not more than just the carriers of thousands of genes who are egoistic and just want to survive themselves. Fortunately, we are gifted with the altruistic sense to balance our selfishness.

It is very human, though, if we do good acts based on the reciprocal altruism concept, in which we are expecting others to help us back. In fact, it’s actually considered as a survival method—not only for humans but also for other living things. Furthermore, we are also capable of showing our empathy at the higher level, which is based on the pure altruism, we can help the others just to put ourselves in the others’ “shoes”.

Understanding Adult Attachment Theory

Experts have tried to explain how we connect with each other using adult attachment theory. When we were kids, we have strong but simple attachments to caregivers, especially parents. Adults, however, have more complicated relationships with other people.

Many experts have explained how our relationship style roots on childhood attachment. Are they valid? Can we use our past attachment patterns to describe current interactions with other people?

History of Adult Attachment Theory

Adult attachment theory originated from early 20th century researches about child attachment. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby studied infant behaviors to see the way they react when separated from caregivers. Bowlby concluded that reactions such as crying, frantic searching, and clinging are adaptation results of the loss of caregivers (such as when the parents leave the room).

Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver revisited Bowlby’s theory in 1987, applying it in an adult relationship. They noticed that adult relationships, including romances, mimic the way they interacted with caregivers during childhood.

These theories redefined the relations between adults, especially in romantic relationships. We got explanations about mental security and insecurity, which motivate adults to act in certain ways during relationships.

Types of Adult Attachment

What kind of attachment can an adult have with his or her significant other? Here are four types of adult attachment you must know:

  • Secure attachment

Secure attachment means you have a positive view on yourself and other people. You feel warmth and other positive feelings when having good relationships with others. However, you can also handle alone time well, without being clingy, fearful, or extremely jealous all the time.

Secure attachment roots from warm, fulfilling relations between a child and caregiver. In this case, the caregiver provides proper attention and acceptance to the child’s needs, but still within boundaries.

  • Anxious-preoccupied attachment

This type of insecure attachment makes you develop a positive view toward others, but negative view toward yourself. You want a warm relationship but feel that you don’t deserve one, even when you got a good partner. You become clingy, dependent, and jealous.

This insecure attachment type happens if you experienced neglect by a caregiver. The lack of response could make you feel that there’s something wrong with you.

  • Dismissive-avoidant attachment

This type of attachment makes people feel that they are mentally independent. They view a relationship as something unnecessary, and even negative. They have a strong feeling of self-sufficiency, and refuse to consider having a long-term partner. The extreme version of this feeling can grow from various reasons, from abuse to neglect.

While having independence is good, avoiding potential relation with others can lead to isolation. It can also cause a fear of commitment, even if a potential partner has good qualities. Dismissive-avoidant attachment may also cause you to cover up your feeling and emotion.

  • Fearful-avoidant attachment

This is the most extreme form of insecure attachment, often resulting in severe abuse that happens repeatedly. Fearful avoidance causes someone to feel confused and unsure about any potential relationships. People with this kind of insecure attachment often develop negative views toward themselves and others.

These attachment forms are widely used as the standard model to explain adult relationships. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists may solve relationship problems by focusing on attachment styles.

How Attachment Affects Your Relationship

Attachment, either secure or insecure, affects several aspects in your relationship, such as:

  • Spousal satisfaction

Spousal satisfaction relates strongly to attachment. If you and your partner have a secure attachment, you are more likely to develop a satisfying relationship. Secure attachment often leads to better communication style and emotional expression, which contribute to satisfaction.

  • Emotional support

Secure partnership shows a healthy pattern of emotional support. You and your partner seek supports from each other when you need them, and it happens equally. Insecure attachments cause lack of support or clingy behavior.

  • Intimacy level

Intimacy means a level of closeness where you feel comfortable enough to share emotions, feelings, and personal stories. While intimacy level can be influenced by personality, attachment also plays an important part. Secure attachment makes it easier for two people to be intimate with each other, especially when they seek assurance, support, or bliss.

Attachment type also determines the way you respond toward separation. For example, secure individuals often have a healthier coping mechanism when their partner leaves temporarily or passes away. They are also more likely to seek supports. Meanwhile, people with insecure attachment often fall into deep despair, fear, withdrawal, or emotional lash-out.

Does Attachment Affect Relationship Duration?

You probably think that healthy adult attachment leads to a longer relationship duration. This is not always the case.

Attachment is not the only determining factor in relationship duration. A couple may separate because of inevitable circumstances, despite their efforts to keep the relationship intact. People with anxious-preoccupied attachment also tend to keep long but unsatisfactory (and even abusive) relationship, because they are afraid of being left.


Adult attachment theory explains how childhood attachment affects how we view relationship as adults. Secure attachment roots on healthy interactions, so you should emulate them as adults to experience stimulating relationship. Secure attachment also involves two adults that understand and support each other to make things work.