Altruism can be trained

October 11, 2018, University of Würzburg
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Whether regarding climate change and its consequences, the refugee crisis or the unfair distribution of wealth, when looking for solutions to these global challenges, the decisions of individuals, such as their willingness to cooperate, are just as important as international agreements or national regulations. This is what scientists call "prosocial behaviour".

Psychologists from the University of Würzburg and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have now published the results of a longitudinal study that investigated the influence of various mental trainings on over several months.

The results: "We were able to demonstrate that human prosociality is malleable and that different aspects of prosociality can be improved systematically through different types of mental ," Anne Böckler-Raettig explains; she is a junior professor at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Würzburg. According to her, this can be achieved through training that consists of short daily practices, which are easy to implement in everyday life. The scientists published the results of their study in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Human prosociality is at the heart of peaceful societies, and it is key to facing global challenges," Böckler-Raettig explains. Prosocial is defined as behaviour that is costly to the individual and benefits others at the individual or group level. Research on cooperation and altruism has been the focus of many disciplines ranging from philosophy and psychology to mathematics and economy, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Yet, "surprisingly little is known about whether and how human altruistic motivations can be trained," the junior professor says. She believes that this is because economic models often consider prosociality as a stable social preference whose malleability scientists have considered irrelevant for a long time.

Training with different focuses

The scientists were now able to prove this assumption wrong. Over the course of none months, participants were trained in different types of -based mental training for this purpose. One training module was about increasing present-moment attention and body awareness—similar to what is taught in mindfulness-based stress reduction classes that are presently popular. A second module focused on socio-affective skills such as compassion, gratitude, and prosocial motivation. The third module was about cognitive flexibility and the ability to understand other people's perspectives.

"We were mainly interested in which mental training would be effective in cultivating altruistically motivated behaviour, that is behaviour which is immediately directed at improving the well-being of another person," Anne Böckler-Raettig details. The study results give a clear answer to this question: Only the second module, the so-called Affect Module, had a direct impact on the participants' motivation to pursue altruistic behaviour. After training units, they were more generous, more willing to help spontaneously and donated higher amounts to welfare organizations, for example.

A step toward a caring society

"Hence, the Affect Module, consisting of three introductory days, weekly meetings with teachers, and about 30 minutes of daily practice over the course of three months, effectively boosted altruistic behaviours regardless of how the exercises were combined with other practices," the psychologist says. No such progress was measurable in the participants after the two other modules.

So the conclusion the scientists draw is clear: Altruistic motivation and behaviour can be altered through simple, short and inexpensive mental practices. "Cultivating these affective and motivational capacities in schools, healthcare settings and workplaces may be an effective step toward meeting the challenges of a globalized world and moving toward global cooperation and a caring society."

Explore further: Prosocial behaviour can be measured

More information: Anne Böckler et al, Distinct mental trainings differentially affect altruistically motivated, norm motivated, and self-reported prosocial behaviour, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-31813-8

Related Stories

Prosocial behaviour can be measured

April 11, 2016
Irrespective of whether we offer someone a cookie, give up a seat to a pensioner, or receive refugees – the broader the variety of prosocial behaviour, the more diverse the methods used to investigate it, employing different ...

Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

October 4, 2017
Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words "mindfulness" and "meditation" denote a variety of mental ...

Know thyself to understand others

May 18, 2017
Through targeted training, people can be guided to develop a better inner awareness about their own mental states, and to have a better understanding of the mental state of others. This is because the better people understand ...

Sensitive babies become altruistic toddlers

September 25, 2018
Our responsiveness to seeing others in distress accounts for variability in helping behavior from early in development, according to a study published September 25 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Tobias Grossmann ...

How we understand others

April 28, 2016
People who empathise easily with others do not necessarily understand them well. To the contrary: Excessive empathy can even impair understanding as a new study conducted by psychologists from Würzburg and Leipzig has established.

Celebrating positives improves classroom behavior and mental health

July 17, 2018
Training teachers to focus their attention on positive conduct and to avoid jumping to correct minor disruption improves child behaviour, concentration and mental health.

Recommended for you

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

These bacteria may be the key to treating clinical depression

December 11, 2018
We like to think of ourselves as individuals.

Meditation adapts the brain to respond better to feedback

December 11, 2018
In a new study in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience researchers from the University of Surrey have discovered a link between meditation and how individuals respond to feedback.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.