Lecture: Social Motivation
Reading Assignment 21:Altruism and Aggression (pp. 638-646)
Click for Objectives for Reading Assignment 21

The twenty-first reading assignment will discuss social motivation. To begin this discussion, we will explore the age-old question of whether people are naturally good or bad. It could be the case that when a child enters the world that they are innocent and that being raised in their environment, living in this cold and harsh world, drives them to be selfish and self-serving. On the other hand, it could also be the case that when a child is born that they are selfish, self-serving, and lack empathy. It is only through learning that we gain compassion and adopt selfless morals.

If Genuine Altruism does exist, it could be used as evidence that humans are born with a natural inclination to be good. Unfortunately, not much scientific research has been documented showing evidence of Genuine Altruism in humans. That statement, however, says more about the nature of psychology than it does about the nature of social motivation, as what might appear to be Altruism is often ruled out after considering the small details.

Imagine that you are late to class and you notice an elderly female professor struggling to open the door to the building that you have seen her teach in. Just as she approaches the door, she drops the books and bag that she was holding; you assist her in picking up her belongings and opening the heavy door. Is it truly Altruism if she thanks you for helping her? Is it possible that the chance of her rewarding you motivated your helping behavior?

Even if the elderly faculty member did not say anything, would you not feel better about yourself after having helped her? Psychologists have gone so far as to argue that the enhanced feeling that occurs when helping or when reflecting on helping makes the helping act self-serving. The term Ethical Hedonism is a form of motivation that argues that every action that we do operates according to two selfish guiding principles. When observing an individual and there are no tangible rewards are readily identifiable, then we should look closer at the situation and possibly within the individual to identify what is motivating their helping behavior. You might notice that Ethical Hedonism has many parallels to Reciprocal Altruism, discussed in an earlier reading assignment.

Psychologists have learned a lot about social behavior and realized that people act differently when they are amongst a group. Group Processes such as Bystander Intervention and Diffusion of Responsibility greatly decrease the probability that a person will behave altruistically.
If Aggression is considered a basic motivating drive, which Sigmund Freud proposed, than it could be used as evidence that humans are born with a natural inclination to be bad. Unlike Altruism, there is no similar lack of research on Aggression.

There are two major categories of Aggression that researchers use to distinguish aggressive behavior. The first category is Hostile Aggression, which is likely the form of Aggression that people think about when they think of aggressive acts. Growing up, I recall hearing news stories in which interactions over Nike™ tennis shoes and starter™ jackets would lead to violent acts. I often considered how those individuals would feel and reflect on thee behavior that led them to being incarcerated when they are removed from the situation. The second category is Instrumental Aggression, which can arguably be more problematic than the other form of Aggression. In these cases, the aggressive act is not in the heat of the moment and is instead planned out. The recent trend of cyber-bullying is a good example of Instrumental Aggression, as the culprit often strategically plans out their attack.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis argues that under the right circumstances frustration leads to aggression. This theory is also very beneficial as it explains what happens when frustration is experienced and there is no means to channel or direct one’s aggression. If the intrusion of one’s Personal Space leads to frustration, it might explain many people’s uneasiness in the close proximity of others. For non-human animals, the Pain-Attack Reflex is more likely to explain behavior. Animals are unable or unlikely to exercise restraint like humans are capable of demonstrating.



A. Carson, R. C., Butcher, J. M., & Mineka, S. (2002). Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life (10th Edition). US: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

hit counter