Understanding altruism at various levels of explanation: Toward applications in political psychology

Stephen Robert Cooper, Fordham University


Altruism has no unitary meaning across or even within scholarly disciplines. A levels of explanation framework for understanding and classifying altruism literatures was proposed. Theories of altruism in developmental and social psychology and biology were examined. Social scientists often misapply terms like kin selection and indirect selection. Kin selection is a theory applicable to both ultimate and proximate causation in biology. We found that there can be no singular unified empirically-based theory of altruism. To encourage more borrowing of knowledge from the various altruism literatures by political science, new conceptualizations and operationalizations of political public altruism and political civil altruism were offered. A theory and model gleaned from situational altruism research were applied to these political contexts. We found that social impact theory and the arousal: cost-reward model of emergency intervention cannot be combined to explain all of the acts of political altruism posed. However, elements of this theory and model come closer to being "unified" when explaining inaction in our operational settings. These conclusions may support a general model of human motivation--one that seeks to explain both action and inaction. An "arousal: rationalization" model of action/inaction, based mostly on the above theory and model, was proposed. Its temporal dimension was extended; and elements including mood and character were designated.

Subject Area

Political science|Social psychology|Ecology

Recommended Citation

Cooper, Stephen Robert, "Understanding altruism at various levels of explanation: Toward applications in political psychology" (1997). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9806946.