Home All Lesson from the Earthquake: Altruism and Selfless Love

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

“The cure for all ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word ‘love.’ It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.” Lydia Maria Child (1802 – 1880), American abolitionist, novelist

xinsrc_5620505190904593265506.jpgLast Monday’s catastrophic earthquake measuring a 7.8 on the Richter Scale in Wenchuan County of China’s Sichuan province jolted not only the region, but also many of our hearts. Up to now, it has cost more than 28,000 lives, and according to BBC news, this figure is expected to rise to more than 50,000. On the other side of the world thousands miles away, I could do nothing much but express my deep sorrow for everyone who is affected by this horrendous disaster. Though the tragedy is heartbreaking, it is soothing that apart from damages brought from the quake, I also see love and empathy.

Love Comes to China

xinsrc_5720505191604875299708.jpg After the incident, Chinese people and non-Chinese people all over the world grew united and made prompt responses. Within a few days, millions of donations have been made from individuals, businesses, various charitable groups, and governments from different parts of the world. Apart from monetary aids, experts and rescue teams from foreign countries offered help with the rescue and relief work selflessly. Even little school children in Hong Kong wrote greeting cards that would be brought to the victims in Wenchuan. Greetings and blessings from all over the world reach the heart of every Chinese through newspapers, magazines and the internet. As I am writing this article, the TV news has just reported that governments from other countries such as Turkey pledged $2 million dollars to be used in aid efforts. Again, this proves that caring and potentially love is beyond national boundaries.


Disasters might trigger the most magnificent qualities of humanity – which includes love, courage, unity, and the perseverance to survive. It is found that cases of depression and suicide drop substantially during war times. Because when tragedies happen, altruism and love which result in helping each other could actually reduce the tension felt from the traumatic experience, as well as highlight the glory of humankind. It is with altruism and love that we may feel the spring of hope in the winter of despair.

Altruism – Selfless Concern and Love

The term Altruism was created by Auguste Comte in 1830, originally as antonym of Egoism. By definition, altruism is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is not the same as “duty” as it focuses on a motivation to help others or to do good without reward, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (e.g., God, a king), a specific organization (e.g., a government), or an abstract concept (e.g., patriotism).

Controversy: We Help Because it Benefits Us? Or Because of Love?

Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century British philosopher, once argued that there is actually no altruism as altruistic-seeming behaviors are ultimately based on a desire that originates from the self (selfishness): self satisfaction, receiving praise or social status, etc.

Unlike what Thomas Hobbes thought, for me, true altruism DOES exist, and is initiated by LOVE and EMPATHY! It would otherwise be difficult to understand why volunteer rescue teams helped save lives after the earthquake with the risk of losing their own lives. Their actions don’t fit with Thomas Hobbes’ ideas or with the theory of utilitarianism proposed by John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham. It would be enigmatic why the passengers and crews of United Flight 93 sacrificed their lives to foil the terrorist plot from causing vaster damages on 9/11. It would also be difficult to explain why front line health care staff in Hong Kong bet their lives, stayed in the hospital, and helped fight with the mysterious lethal virus during the SARS epidemic in 2003. I would venture that, without selfless love, none of these would have happened.

What Do Psychologists and Research Tell Us?

Tent city in Cheng Du

Tent city in Cheng Du

My beliefs are supported by Daniel Batson, who proposed that altruistic behavior is selflessly motivated. According to Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, purely altruistic action occurs under the psychological state of empathic concerns for another. Empathic concern is defined as an emotional reaction characterized by feelings such as compassion, love, tenderness, soft-heartedness, and sympathy, and is dependent on perspective-taking.

Experimental results in general supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis. A number of studies have show that individuals help more frequently in altruistically-motivated attempts to improve the other’s well-being rather than egoistically motivated attempts to improve their own. It is also demonstrated that factors that foster perspective-taking also result in increased empathic concern. On the whole, the empathy-altruism hypothesis is repeatedly confirmed in response to challenges. It is also vivid in the earthquake in China.

Good-Heartedness Meets Recompense: Altruism and Happiness

Even though incentives don’t drive altruistic behavior, love, including empathy and kindness to others, might nonetheless bring us an unexpected reward – happiness. Jane Allyn Piliavin has examined the possible effects of helping others. She concludes that doing good gives rise to well-being on psychological, social, and even physical levels, which might come from the feeling of autonomy and choice.

Besides, Martin Seligman once declared altruism and kindness as crucial to happiness. He originally hypothesized that unhappy people are likely to be more altruistic since they would be more likely to identify with the suffering of others. Findings of studies on mood and helping behaviors, however, showed that happy people are more likely to demonstrate altruism. Studies conducted by Alice Isen and Jennifer George also showed that people are more willing to help others and engage in altruistic behaviors when they are happy. Hence, it can be proposed that altruism and happiness are reciprocal.

Further study on the bi-directional causal effect of kindness/altruism on happiness is needed. However, perhaps the research wouldn’t affect our actions anyway? If we are altruistic because of our genuine love and empathy for others, do we really care whether being altruistic gives us a direct benefit?

Further Thoughts …

The theme of this article is altruism, a selfless behavior which it appears could not occur without love and empathy, and its possible associations with happiness. We help and are kind to strangers because we love them and empathize with their feelings. So we do not ask for anything for doing so, and would offer help. When tragedies trigger such spirit from us, do they also cause us to think about the unpredictability of life as well as the idea of treasuring people around us? We can help people we never meet selflessly, and at the same time, might we sometimes be neglecting people around us who have been treating us well? Yet love and empathy are not just byproducts of tragedies. We can love and empathize with others any moment, and don’t wait until we don’t have the chance to love.

One teaching of Confucian philosophy, ‘????’ (Tui qin ji suo), says that love should start from people close to us, then be extended to other people, to strangers, and eventually to the world. In the West, there is a saying that “charity begins at home.” Might it actually be the other way round given the earthquake incident? This disaster illustrated how people can reach out to the world and to strangers. Would the next step then be to take a step back in our own circles, and show love to those who are around us yet may be unattended to, including our parents, families, lovers, friends, and peers?

I would suggest that we have learned two lessons from the earthquake:

  1. We can never predict what happens next in our life, but at the same time,
  2. We are all able to love people and to do good at every moment.

The only thing that could perhaps make you happier than loving strangers in a moment of need could be loving those who love you from the bottom of their heart.

What do you believe about altruism in times of need or altruism and love in everyday moments? I would welcome hearing your thoughts in the comments below.




Batson, C. D. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward A Social-psychological Answer Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dovidio, J. E, Allen, J., & Schroeder, D. A. (1990). The specificity of empathy-induced helping: Evidence for altruism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 249-260.

Piliavin, J. A. (2003). Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor. C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing, The positive person and the good life, 227-247. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Schroeder, D.A., Dovidio, J. E, Sibicky, M.E., Matthews, L.L., & Allen, J. L. (1988). Empathy and helping behavior: Egoism or altruism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 333-353.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.


Tent City in Chengdu courtesy of Lukas

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Daniel 19 May 2008 - 12:43 pm

I think it is also interesting to think about the World’s response to this tragedy in light of the recent conflicts that have occurred concerning the upcoming Olympics taking place in Bejing this summer. China has been criticized greatly all over the world, yet the aid has come in response to tragedy from all over the world.

Lanney 19 May 2008 - 1:50 pm

Firstly, I agree happy ones are more willing to help selflessly as one could hardly move his attention away from his pain easily. In other words, for example, if someone experiencing the earthquake would immediately concern about local disaster rather than the damage caused by Cyclone in Burma. The premise of selflessly help would be a stable status of the helper, a patient suffering his pain could hardly donate himself to rescuing people even if he wants to very much.

Secondly, tragedy triggers sympathy which call on the intrinsic will of helping, such as rescue, donation, and concern. One may worry about his unlucky job seeking after graduation from an overseas university, but he may feel better when he hears that a coursemate needs to resit for the next year, and he would change his mind to feel he is lucky because his parents in the place of the earthquake are fine in their house. Even not rich people in Tibet donate when they heared about news of those babies who lost parents in the earthquake and of those olds who lost yound children in the disaster. It is the tragedy that caused them to share their sympathy and love because they are under a better condition, which is a safty place of living, than those who were suffering the quake.

Senia 19 May 2008 - 4:01 pm


Thanks for writing all this. What you write so reminds me of Stephen Post and “Why Do Good Things Happen to Good People.” Here’s a link: http://www.whygoodthingshappen.com


Lisa Miller 19 May 2008 - 4:43 pm

Daniel brought up a very interesting point about China and the upcoming Olympics. This is a fascinating phenomena. However, like the author mentioned, what about the smaller scale altruistic acts? Altruism often gains attention through heroic actions in disasters, such as the Earthquake, but altruism also exists in small gestures every day. Dr. Batson has brought us amazing research to support the existence of altruism, and one important question seems to be how to increase altruistic-emphathetic motivation in the large and small ways. How might the altruistic gestures of so many people influence those affected by the Earthquake in China in their daily living and affect those in other nations protesting the Olympics?

Jeff Dustin 19 May 2008 - 7:04 pm


Altruists could become a source for gratitude. For those who do not believe in a higher power, altruists could become a good choice for depositing our gratitude. Does that make sense?

Kathryn Britton 20 May 2008 - 11:07 am

This situation reminds me of my daughter’s first job. She helped a neighbor construct and package equipment for detecting living people trapped under rubble — for use with disasters such as earthquakes. I guess that shows that disasters are always on the edge of the possible, and some human innovation and energy goes into being ready to deal with them.

I’ve been listening to some of the stories from Melissa Block on NPR as she travels around the Szechuan province. It reminds me that we humans need to put faces on people in trouble. I can feel abstractly sorry about 50,000 people killed, but it is easier to feel real empathy for a pig farmer who sees his livelihood dying because there is no water or food for them.

Another way of looking at this is the one that Robert Wright uses in his book Non-zero. Over history, humans have been forming ever larger and more complex units as the scope of non-zero behavior grows. Now we are on the edges of global non-zero behavior — with lots of counter-forces, of course. But as people put faces on disasters across the world from themselves and feel moved to contribute, they are adding to the preponderance of non-zero at a global level.

Doug Miller 20 May 2008 - 2:44 pm

Some came to sing, some came to pray, some came to keep the dark away.

What is the signifigance of these words? Each to their own in the interpretation. But altruism can certainly find a place in the interpretation.

I am ashamed at times to be a human being, for obvious reasons. I am proud to be a human being at times for obvious reasons.

Analysis to the umpteenth degree is academic. To know answers and solutions is academic. To be the answer and solution is altruism.

Ben Pun 20 May 2008 - 6:38 pm

Very well written, I really enjoy reading your Further Thoughts. All in all, there is always a counter for every psychological theories. It’s just a matter of what you believe and where you stand. What I believe is totally different than yours, Tim. There might be some people who are completely selfless and willing to sacrifice in times of need, but I would say most people are selfish. That’s what we are made for, it’s within us. If everybody had a sense of selflessness in them, the invention of door locks or traffic lights would be meaningless. We won’t even need law enforcement, and the world would be perfect…

Vivian Choy 20 May 2008 - 10:36 pm

Your article on earthquake and altruism is really impressive. I can see it comes from your heart. Yes, people always learn something from disasters, but would that be a cost too great? I have gone thru’ a very down period in the last few years but now I think it’s nothing at all when compared with life and death of the people in Sichuan. That’s also why I think pp is important. What we need is a ‘happy’ daily life and be prepared for the worst. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, right?

Mike Kwan 21 May 2008 - 9:22 am

This tragic earthquake again wakes up the sense of belonging among Chinese indeed. I do admit that the victims are needing our supports. We are also touched by the tragic scenes and evoked to make enthusiastic donations. But more important is how long the supports can be retained? As it will take long time for rebuilding of both properties and Sichuan people’s psychological beings. I tend to think altruism is only a short time effect if among a large group of people. How long such altruism can be sustained is yet to be proved.

Candace Ng 21 May 2008 - 11:06 am

No one can tell the future. That’s why at times we are just too confusing on planning for the future, look forward to tomorrow, but forgetting the present. The same applies on people who surround us every day. Very often the love they give out are simply being overlooked. Yet, they are our beloved ones and undoubtedly deserve our attention when we are, at the same time, reaching out to strangers from the opposite side of the world.

Jeff Dustin 21 May 2008 - 7:15 pm

Could you include a link to charities that are helping bring relief to the quake victims? That way our readers could donate or in some way help? Thank you.

David J. Pollay 21 May 2008 - 10:34 pm

Hi Timothy,

Thanks for a great and important post.

Best to you,

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:35 am

Thanks everyone for your concern about the earthquake in China, as well as every of your comment here. Million thanks!

Further information:
For those would like to help the victims in the earthquake, here are some links of charitable organizations through which you can make donations or offer different kinds of help. The victims need you, and we all need you! Thanks!!
Best, Timothy

http://www.unicef.org.hk/may08/sichuan_en.html (English)
http://www.unicef.org.hk/may08/sichuan_zh.html (Chinese)

Hong Kong Red Cross
http://www.redcross.org.hk/china_earthquake/eng/ (English)
http://www.redcross.org.hk/china_earthquake/chi/ (Chinese)

http://www.oxfam.org.hk/public/contents/category?cid=78347&lang=iso-8859-1 (English)
http://www.oxfam.org.hk/public/contents/category?cid=78343&lang=big5 (Chinese)

World Vision
http://www.worldvision.org.hk/appeal/Sichuan/emer_frame.html (Chinese)

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:36 am

I received an email a few days ago from Prof Michael Bond in Chinese University of Hong Kong with an article of human resilience and sociality emerging from the earthquake, which inspires us, the survivors, to live more mindfully of those around us:


Professor Bond wrote some inspiring words which I would like to quote and share with you below:

‘can the stories of strangers change our lives? was Confucius right that, “Within the four seas, all men are brothers”? for the sake of our planet and our future together in this dawning 21st century, i hope so…’

I hope you enjoy reading that as well!
Best, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:37 am

Daniel – Thanks for your comment. Personally I would not suggest that the tragedy to be linked to political issues, as I believe people leave disagreements on racial and political issues aside when they offer their help to the victims, that they only focus on the current situation…and this is what I indeed appreciate! Best wishes, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:38 am

Lanney – Thanks! Yes, tragedy triggers empathy which leads people doing good, but doing good does not necessarily happen only when tragedy occurs. In Martin Senliman’s 24 VIA strengths, Kindness and Generosity, Loving and Allowing Oneself to Be Loved as well as Justice are related to helping behavior and are all buildable. All these strengths can flourish with enough practice, persistence, dedication and good teaching. Thus I am optimistic that all good deeds and love should always exist, instead of only during tragedies. Best, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:44 am

Absolutely Jeff! You are aware of the good things happen to you, and you never take them for granted! That’s gratitude, my first VIA strength! And yes, what you have said matches Senliman’s words perfectly –’We are grateful when people do well by us, but we can also be more generally grateful for good act and good people!’. We are always grateful for having altruists that devote themselves to the world selflessly, like Mother Teresa, and we treat these altruists as our role models. I think there’s a reciprocal relationship between altruism and gratitude, yet it would not be altruism if we do good for receiving gratitude from others. What do you think?

And thanks for your reminder on the links of the charities!

Besides, I always enjoy reading your comments on different posts, thanks for all these!

Best, Tim

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:45 am

Thanks Senia! I just went through the site last night, and it’s very interesting!! Thanks for sharing (actually I should have read that before I wrote up the article!) Best, T

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:49 am

Lisa – Thanks for your comments. To me, altruistic gestures exist in our daily life in a subtle way. We give our seats to others who are in need on the bus, make regular donations to charities. It is sad but true that not every one of us perform these acts. As I have discussed in my article, love and empathy are precursors of altruism, and empathy depends very much on our ability in taking others’ perspectives. If we can think in others’ shoes, it is more likely that we will feel how they feel, and in turn be more likely to display helping behaviors to them. With this ability to feel for others, we would be more ready to offer our help to victims during disasters. We would also be more considerate and less likely to protest. Best, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:51 am

Kathryn – Very impressive comment! Thank you!!

I agree with you that responses from people across the world contribute to non-zero behavior at a global level. It is also delight to see that people can get connected and united at times of difficulties. Yet I guess many people are with me that this connection and unity should emerge not only when there are disasters, as the price to pay is too huge. Our abilities to love and empathize with others are with us at any moment, and we should make good use of it before we regret.

And I agree that disasters are always on the edge of the possible. This shows that human beings indeed have great potentials for innovation and improvement.

Again, thanks for your comment!! Best, Tim

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:55 am

Doug – Yes, I can’t agree with you more! Leave analyzes, answers and solutions to researchers and scholars, as I believe that people do not do good because of the data and numbers. We come across news that are really dreadful every day…. but still we cannot deny the fact that positive qualities of human being like love, empathy and altruism do exist. Education offers supports for us to behave better, yet everyone should really Take Action!

Thanks for your comments Doug!

Best, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:55 am

Vivian –

Thanks for your nice words. You are very right, it comes not only from my heart, but also from my tears (all of my friends know that I cry easily..)

I am sorry to hear that you were at your trough few years ago. It is, however, very encouraging and glad to hear that PP would help, would lit the candle when people are suffering in darkness.

And yes no one knows what will happen tomorrow, yet it is also true that most of us do not know what we have until we lost it (or in face of losing). So we have to cherish what we have, and live our days in a happy way. Hope you would gradually learn to face the challenges in life and live happily when you come across more and more PP knowledge!

With best wishes, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 3:57 am

Ben – Thanks for your comments! Though I don’t think there are many people who are COMPLETELY SELFLESS, however I won’t say that most people are SELFISH. What I really mean is that I believe people can both be evils and angels, and what I propose, or I think the educators, psychologists in positive psychology believe is that we can spread positive messages, principles, beliefs which can enhance human strength and goodness. As we LEARN and IMRPROVE, we become more understanding and caring; less selfish and more selfless.

Back to Freud, he proposed that we all have id, ego, and super ego. I truly believe in that. And I also believe we are all flexible and our super ego can be trained to guide us doing good. That’s why education is needed for us to improve and develop, and that’s why laws and rules are needed to guide our behavior.

Ben I’ve known you for more than 10 years and you also did psychology in the States, if you reflect on what we have learnt during these years, and compare to our ‘naughtiness’ in high school, it might give you a hint that how much we’ve improved… does it make any sense to you?

Besides, glad to see your comment here. It’s my pleasure!

Best, T

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 4:00 am

Mike –

Thanks for your comment. This incident reminds me of a question on ‘Killing a Mandarin’ proposed by Denis Diderot. If a man murders another man and then flies to China. At that difference, safe from the consequences of what he has done, does the murderer feel remorse? Do people in Europe worry that he would kill another man in China? Probably not. In his book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, Adam Smiths who illustrated that a European might feel sad after knowing that there’s an earthquake in China, yet his life and work resume normal on the next day.

The question on ‘Killing a Mandarin’ challenges if people really care a stranger, and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” discusses for how long our empathy lasts. It is natural and easy for us to feel pity for those who are close to us, but not for those who are far away. Distance diminishes moral emotion. These are indeed challenges to Moral Psychology as well as to mankind. But I think to some extent the earthquake in Sichuan proves that people care and love without boundaries, and we do not simply feel sad but also take action to help.

I tend to view human being in a more positive light, but it definitely depends on education! We can learn to empathize with others, and in that case we would be more likely to behave altruistically.

Thank you so much for your comment!

Best, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 4:00 am

David – Thanks for your comment, as well as the article that you sent me!! I enjoy reading it very much!!! I am going to catch up with you again very soon! Thanks! Best, Tim

Timothy T.C. So 23 May 2008 - 4:03 am

Can – Thanks for your comment! I know you are doing very well on loving people who surround you. Very great! Best, Timothy

Kathryn Britton 15 January 2010 - 6:23 pm

For those wanting to help with the earthquake in Haiti, here’s a link to a list of organizations that are on the ground helping and accepting donations:


Timothy, the Haiti earthquake reminded me of this article. It is once again relevant!


Razi ullah khan 1 February 2011 - 12:13 am

Most Honourable Respected Sir/Madam
I have the honour to invite your kind attention towards my miserable circumstances
and seeking your help.
With best regards it is stated that I am an old man of 59 years
from Karachi Pakistan. I was runing my business of Mobile Cell Phones.Meanwhile
M/S. Standard Chartered Bank of Pakistan provided me business loan on pre-colateral
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of my house.I am in severe depression and worried about the dire consequences by above Bank.
I am also feeling some kinds of sounds producing in my mind.
My mind is depressing to commit suicide in order to get rid off such liabilities.
I submit my merciful Appeal to you people because your organisation is protecting humanity of
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I am looking forward to your kind action.

Your,s Sincerely
Razi ullah khan
Cell # +92345254 5550
A/C. 01-3283011-02 Standard Chartered Bank Karachi
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