The Roots of Altruism: A Gender and Life Course Perspective

Einolf, Christopher Justin, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Corse, Sarah, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Wilcox, William, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Guterbock, Thomas, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

This dissertation tests the relative predictive power of seven causal theories of altruism, the effect of contingent factors on altruistic activity, and how altruistic behaviors vary by gender and through the life course. Altruistic behaviors are defined as any behavior that helps non-kin others and brings little or no material benefit, and were measured primarily through self-reports of hours spent volunteering and dollars donated to religious institutions and secular charities. The pursuit of altruistic goals through paid employment was also examined. The study analyzed survey and interview data from the 1995 Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study. The analysis found that all seven proposed causal factors and many of the contingent or contextual factors correlated with altruistic behaviors. Of the individual characteristics, religion, generativity, and altruistic role identity had the strongest relationship to altruistic behaviors, followed by reciprocity and moral universalism. Empathy and parental influence correlated only weakly with altruistic behaviors. All of the strong predictors of altruism were individual characteristics that developed during the adult portion of the life course. Participation in altruistic behaviors varied somewhat by gender. As men earn more money than women, on average, men tend to donate more money to charity, but since women tend to work fewer hours, they tend to do more volunteer work. Women score higher on most measures of altruistic motivation, but men score higher on social contextual factors that correlate with altruism, such as education, income, and membership in social networks.. Life course transitions such as marriage, having children, children leaving home, and retirement, all affect participation in altruistic behaviors, and they do so more strongly for men than for women. Individuals follow a number of different pathways in the adult development of altruism, and an analysis of the interview data found seven patterns in the development of highly altruistic people: altruistic from an early age, gradual adult development of altruism, adult religious converts, activists, generative fathers, redemption narratives, and pleaser to mature altruist.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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