purpose & altruism in college

purpose & altruism in college

A study involving U.S. college students, mostly seniors, explored the relationship between altruistic tendencies and different forms of life purpose. College opportunities, such as Random Acts of Kindness or volunteering with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, can support the development of altruistic tendencies. In this study, participants reported altruistic tendency measured as endorsing opportunities to help others without social recognition or other benefit (“I think that helping others without them knowing is the best type of situation”).

A linear regression analysis showed that altruistic tendency was related to endorsing a religious life goal, past prosocial actions, and a multidimensional purpose of meaningful and engaged beyond-the-self intention. The importance participants placed in living their life according to a religious life goal complements previous research showing that religious behaviors and goals have been linked to a concern that expands beyond the self (King, 2003).

Surprisingly, a negative relationship between prosocial action and altruistic tendency was observed: if a student reported having done something in accordance with their life purpose that positively impacted others, then this student was less likely to endorse altruistic tendency statements. Past research suggests if a behavior has positive outcomes, it tends to become a source of social learning and imitation (Kashdan & McKnight, 2009) and further develop into a habit (Ouellette & Wood, 1998).

Finally, a meaningful intention to engage in a self-chosen life purpose aimed to impact others, a definition of purpose that is multidimensional (Damon, 2008), was positively related to altruistic tendencies, even after religious goals and prosocial behaviors were accounted for.

The results suggest that a commitment to a life purpose could potentially facilitate altruistic tendencies, especially when it is self-defined, conscious, and intentional. The surprising negative relationship to prosocial action calls for further exploration: Is this negative relationship a function of individuals “staying true” to their endorsement of anonymity for their “good deeds,” or are the opportunities to act prosocially encountered during college mainly used instrumentally to gain recognition for future endeavors?

By Eliana Hadjiandreou, Clark University, USA



Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.

Kashdan, T. B., & McKnight, P. E. (2009). Origins of purpose in life: Refining our understanding of a life well lived. Psychological Topics, 18(2), 303-316.

King, P. E. (2003). Religion and identity: The role of ideological, social, and spiritual contexts. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 197-204.

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.