Dolores Huerta was a mother and an elementary school teacher when she quit her job, sold her house and car, and became a civil rights activist to better the lives of those around her. By the time she was 70 years old, her activism has led to being arrested more than 20 times, and earned her the title of a “moral hero” (Kile, 2015). People like Dolores knowingly and willingly put their lives at risk for others through altruistic behavior (Colby & Damon, 1992; Oliner & Oliner, 1988). Altruism can range from such extreme, life-sacrificing behaviors to less costly ones, such as cooking for the homeless and donating money anonymously.
How can we explain such tendencies? Dolores’ behavior could be attributed to her active participation in church life. Religious institutions that go beyond places of worship, such as charity houses, further encourage altruism (Krause, 2007). One reason is because they transcend the individual and provide opportunities to “expand” one’s concern away from the self and towards others (King, 2003).
In addition to a religious purpose, altruistic tendencies are also associated with people who habitually take part in activities such as volunteering (Burns, Reid, Toncar, Fawcett & Anderson, 2006). If Dolores acted selflessly in the past, it is likely that she will continue a similar behavior without thinking much about it because when behaviors are well-learned, they become automatic and involuntary (Ouellette & Wood, 1998).
As well as institutional or habitual motivations, could altruistic tendencies be attributed to intentional motivations? Dolores’ activism started when she realized that her students could not pay attention in class while having to face poverty and discrimination. Seeing the situation at hand, and realizing that she could better it, fueled a life of selflessness. In addition to a religious purpose or one that is learned through practice, altruistic tendencies might surface as a result of a self-chosen purpose in which one finds meaning and understands oneself as a game-changer for the lives of others (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003).
By Eliana Hadjiandreou, Clark University, USA
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Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The Development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.
Kile, J. (2015, March 23). Dolores Huerta, A lifetime of relentless sacrifice. Retrieved from http://http://moralheroes.org/dolores-huerta
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Oliner, S. P., & Oliner, P. M. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York, NY: Free Press.
Ouellette, J. A., & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54-74.