The Norton Slideshow Maker with Visual Sociology Exercises

Young People and Altruism

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)


Plenty of evidence exists to indicate young people like to have a good time. Colleges are envisioned as sinks of promiscuity, binge drinking and weekend parties that begin on Wednesday evening. The image here is of a population barely able to conceive of anything much beyond their own self-interest and immediate impulse gratification. All of this is common knowledge.

What is not so well-known, however, is that the young also appear to have some enthusiasm for altruism. The General Social Survey (GSS) provides telling evidence that the young are as willing to go out of their way to help others as older people are. In 2002 and 2004, the GSS asked a representative sample of Americans a series of questions about steps that they had taken to put another’s need above their own. Let’s see how well the kids did. You might want to survey your own class or an even wider circle of young people. I have included the code names for the exact questions that were used and the url for the Survey Documentation and Analysis (SDA) at the University of California, Berkeley

After you read these ten questions, you’ll view a slideshow that explores the topic of young people and altruism.

  1. How often have you given directions to a stranger (DIRECTNS)?

    Young people (93 percent) were somewhat more likely to give directions to a stranger than older people (88 percent) were. The difference between the two age groups is more striking when considering those who reported giving directions once a month or more. In this instance young people (38 percent) were 11 percentage points more altruistic than their elders (27 percent).

  2. How often during the last year did you allow a stranger to cut ahead of you in a line with a cashier (CUTAHEAD)?

    Eighty-seven percent of young people—defined hereafter as age 18 to 29—allowed a stranger to cut ahead of them in line at least once in the preceding year. This is just a smidgeon below what older people—defined hereafter as age 30 or above—reported (88 percent). Nevertheless, young people revealed that they were slightly more likely (39 percent) to extend that courtesy to strangers than their elders were (34 percent).

  3. How often did you look after a person’s plants, pets, or mail while they were away (HELPAWAY)?

    For all intents and purposes, both the young and old will enter in equal proportion (59 percent) into other people’s domain to take care of private affairs and intimate matters.

  4. How often did you offer a seat to a stranger on a bus (GIVSEAT)?

    On this measure young people were significantly more likely to give up their seat to a stranger than were older people: more than half (57 percent) compared to less than half (45 percent). Moreover, young people (19 percent) were twice as likely to report doing so once a month or more than were older people (8 percent).

  5. How often did you carry a stranger’s belongings (CARRIED)?

    Young people (51 percent) were slightly more likely to carry a stranger’s belongings—like a suitcase or groceries—than their elders (45 percent).

  6. How often did you return money to a cashier after getting too much change (RETCHNGE)?

    Like carrying a stranger’s belongings, there isn’t much of a difference in how the young (50 percent) and those who are older (51 percent) respond positively to the question about returning money to a cashier. The young, however, are just slightly more likely to report doing it more often.

  7. How often have you done volunteer work for charity (VOLCHRTY)?

    Those who are younger (50 percent) are only slightly more likely to report that they do volunteer work for charity than their elders (46 percent).

  8. How often have you let someone you didn’t know well borrow an item of some value (LOANITEM)?

    On the question of whether you let someone you didn’t know well borrow an item of some value to you, the young (47 percent) are somewhat more likely to do so than older people (40 percent). Additionally, they are almost twice as likely to report lending an item once a month or more.

  9. Have you given food or money to a homeless person (GIVHMLSS)?

    As with so many of our other charts, there is no appreciable difference between the two age groups. The young (67 percent) are slightly more likely than older people (64 percent) to give food or money to a homeless person, although slightly more older people report giving once a month or more.

  10. How often have you donated blood (GIVBLOOD)?

Finally, young people (21 percent) are slightly more likely to give blood than those who are older (16 percent).

View the slideshow

After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

Some altruistic acts are highly organized and visible. Most, however, are impromptu and go unrecorded. In addition, if we do an altruistic act, we might feel that reporting it demeans its moral value. Might these social properties of altruism account for why we underestimate altruism in this society, especially among the young? What do you think? How would you test this hypothesis?
Are the young people who perform acts of altruism an entirely different population than those who party heavily, or is there some overlap? If so, how much of an overlap is there? How could you go about researching this question?
How often did you look after a person’s plants, pets, or mail while they were away (HELPAWAY)?

Submit to Gradebook:

First Name:
Last Name:
Your Email Address:
Your Professor's Email Address:

Create your own slideshow:

After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. To focus your approach, read the paragraph below. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

Volunteer at a blood drive, soup kitchen, or other group volunteer event.  Document the event in a slideshow.  Interview participants about why they chose to volunteer and include quotations from those interviews in your slideshow.