If you’ve ever sat through a semester of Economics 101, you’ve probably been faced with the question: Do we really actually care about anyone but ourselves? Or are we purely motivated by personal gain? Economists love to argue that, yes, rational human beings are entirely self-interested. In the words of the “first” economist, Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Economists have plenty of fancy arguments, but when it comes down to it most of us still feel like there’s something more–hope, compassion, selflessness–the human attributes that soulless economists don’t understand. Personally, I stand with the optimists in believing that we really are often motivated by a sincere desire to help other people.

Let’s take a look at whether this altruistic motivation exists and whether the desire to help other people can actually help us make personal changes as well.

In the Face of Trypanophobia

Scroll through a list of the most common phobias and you’ll likely see acrophobia (fear of heights), pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying), and arachnophobia (you got this one, right?). Not far down the list is one more that you won’t recognize: trypanophobia, the fear of injections. Unless you’re a phlebotomist, diebetic, or heroin addict, the idea of jabbing a needle into your arm probably doesn’t sit well with you.

And yet, more than nine million people volunteer to take one in the arm for blood donations each year. The self interested person would likely avoid the experience altogether; it’s basically uncomfortable from beginning to end. You’re forced to read (err…skim) a ten-page medical document, answer a crazy list of questions about your sexual history, endure a finger prick that’s worse than the needle itself, allow a stranger to stick a needle in you, and spend the next several hours with an achy arm.

If the only reward for donating blood is the satisfaction of saving lives, it must be evidence of altruism, right? A few years ago in Ohio, a research group set out to test this very assumption. Since they were economists, they pursued it with the question, “How will financial incentives impact behavior in a ‘pro-social’ activity”? In other words, if I’m doing something simply for the good of others, how will my behavior change if I get paid to do it?

In the first part of the study, the results showed evidence of rational, self-interested individuals. The paid blood donors were more likely to donate, more likely to recruit other people to donate, and more willing to change their donation time or location. Plus, the more they got paid, the more likely they were to do all these things. But the second part of the study unveils an interesting reversal: when donors who did NOT expect to be paid were given a reward by surprise, they were less likely to donate thereafter. The researchers concluded that giving people money actually negatively affected their experience. Because the free donors were motivated by altruism, not a reward, the experience was ruined when they received the reward.

Help Others to Help Yourself

When we’re trying to develop new habits, change bad behaviors, or exercise self-discipline in any way, we almost always look to motivation as a solution. Of course, a library of behavioral psychology literature will tell you that it’s not that simple, but finding new sources of motivation certainly can make a difference.

One way to motivate yourself is actually by helping others. It’s almost a paradox, but if you have a strong desire to help others it can actually drive you to help yourself. Here’s an example. Imagine you have a goal of exercising every day, but no matter what you try, you’re unable to get out of bed in the morning to go exercise. You try setting up a reward for yourself (dinner at a nice restaurant), making it social by going with friends, and memorizing every motivational quote you can find, but still no success.

Then you find out that your best friend’s daughter has a very rare disease, and the family is planning a 5K race to pay for the astronomical medical costs. You won’t be able to run the 5K unless you exercise to train for it, and all of a sudden you have real motivation to go run in the morning. Your concern for your friend’s family is your primary motivation but of course you’ll benefit personally from the exercise too.

An App for That

I realize that most of us do not find ourselves in the exact situation that I described, but smartphones, apps, and the internet make it fairly easy to create the same type of motivation. After plenty of failed attempts at running regularly, I’ve run nearly 200 miles in the last 3 months and even ran a half marathon. One of the major motivators for me has been an app called Charity Miles.

When you run with Charity Miles, it uses your phone’s GPS to track the total distance traveled. You earn money for each mile you travel, then you select a charity that you’d like to donate the money to. (Charity Miles has corporate sponsors that pay for each mile that Charity Miles users travel.) So, each time I go running, I’m sending money to an organization that really needs it. It’s not a lot–I’ve donated about $50 to charity over the course of 200 miles–but to me, it makes a big difference. I always remember to use the app and I constantly tell other people to use it because it’s so simple and meaningful.

Along the same lines is CharityBets. I haven’t had the opportunity to try CharityBets since it’s “under construction” for a month or two, but it allows you to set a personal goal and recruit others to make donations. If you reach your goal (e.g. a marathon in 4 hours) then the donations are sent to a charity that you choose. If you involve friends and family and choose a charity that’s important to you, it’s easy to see how CharityBets can help you create altruistic motivations for achieving your goals.

A Final Note from an Optimist

I admitted before that I’m an optimist; I really believe that most of us find at least some motivation in the desire to help others. The desire is so strong that we can often find that we help ourselves by helping others. If, as you’re trying to reach your own goals, you’re looking for extra motivation, I’d suggest testing out this principle of altruism. Find a person, group, or a cause that’s important to you, and use it to drive the goals that you want to achieve for yourself.

Max Ogles

Hi, I'm Max Ogles. I'm a behavior designer, entrepreneur, and writer focused on psychology, technology, and business. Read My Full Bio