Other regarding preferences are often connected to our sense of identity, how we see ourselves and how we see others shape whether and how we give to them and in other cases our sense of self leads us to value some public good or social norm over our own interests. Let’s think about charitable giving. Why do we give off ourselves to help others? Are we really altruistic?

So why did he do it?

On January 7, 2007 Wesley Autrey was walking through a New York City subway station awaiting the train that would take him and his two daughters home. While he walked through the turnstile toward the subway platform he saw a young man lying on the platform having an epileptic seizure. Andy ran to help.

After Mr. Autrey and others help the young man to his feet the young man then stumbled off of the platform onto the subway tracks and into the path of an oncoming train. Mr. Autrey saw the man fall and he then made a remarkable decision. He looked back at his daughter standing behind him and he left down onto the tracks.

Mr. Autry grabbed the man and wasn’t able to pull him back for the platform. There was no time so he pinned the man down into the space between the rails lying on top of him as the train passed over both of them. As the train stopped admits the clamor of breaks and screams Mr. Autry shouted: We’re okay down here, but I’ve got two daughters up there let them know their fathers okay!

What an amazing story! Every time I hear it or tell it I get goosebumps. This man saw stranger helpless and about to die and he decided to jump in front of and under under a train himself to say that stranger’s life. So why did he do it? why did he risk his life to potentially save a stranger? It wasn’t because of potential benefits outweigh the potential costs.

Why we act in ways that help or hurt others

Yes, after this act of unadulterated heroism Wesley Audrey was indeed celebrated throughout New York and beyond. He received thousands of dollars in gifts, a family trip to Disney World and a medal for his bravery. He became famous, he made appearances on major talkshows and was even honored at a US state of the union address, but the potential costs are obvious.

There was no way for him to know the relative chances of success or death. None of us were blamed if he hadn’t risk his life, if you instead stayed there on the platform with his daughters. There are other less life-threatening ways to become famous besides diving under a train.

We’ll probably never know why even he probably doesn’t remember exactly why he decided to jump down to the track, but we can get some hints from his own words as quoted in the New York Times the day after. He said I don’t feel like I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.

In today’s article we’ll explore why we often act in ways that help or hurt others, even when those actions might not be in our own interest. There’s a strand of research and economics that considers motivations beyond one’s own interest what are known as other regarding preferences. Let me to find that bit of jargon.

Other regarding preferences

So far I’ve emphasized preferences about personal outcomes: someone might prefer receiving $100 today compared to $120 in a year or might prefer to own a new jacket compared to the $200 it costs. Preferences about one’s own outcomes are self regarding preferences. A preference about someone else’s outcomes is an other regarding preference.

If you want the Red Cross to have more money compared to less money, that’s an other regarding preference. If your decisions are affected by notions of fairness or equity then you have other regarding preferences. Other regarding preferences aren’t necessarily positive, consider the Grinch the mean-spirited titular character of the classic children’s story: How the Grinch stole Christmas.

The Grinch hated merriment he hated singing celebration and holiday cheer, he preferred others to be sad not merry. Those are all other regarding preferences. Other regarding preferences can be much more difficult to explain than self regarding preferences. We often don’t know why some sacrifice of themselves on behalf of another, but there’s a general steam that separates self regarding and other regarding preferences.

Other regarding preferences are often connected to our sense of identity, how we see ourselves and how we see others shape whether and how we give to them and in other cases our sense of self leads us to value some public good or social norm over our own interests. Let’s think about charitable giving. Why do we give of ourselves to help others?Are we really altruistic?

Not all good works are altruism

Because the term all truism has been defined and criticized in so many ways I want to offer a simple definition. Altruistic actions reduce one’s own well-being to fulfill an other regarding preference. So what’s not altruistic all truism isn’t supporting your kids or helping her other relatives.

Doing so provides clear personal benefits due or at least to your genetic fitness. It isn’t showing reciprocity to your friends or entering into alliances of convenience with your enemies. Again acts are altruistic if they’re done strategically in anticipation of some reciprocity later that’s closer to cooperation than altruism, and not all good works are altruism.

When a major corporation start supporting the Red Cross or local school system, that support might be driven by the desire to change a brand image instead of helping those less fortunate,  and altruism doesn’t require that someone obtain no benefit from one’s action, just that the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost.

Economists think about altruism in the context of public goods, things like national parks highway systems, a clean environment or public radio or television channels. A public good is something that benefits many people all of whom want the public good to continue to exist.