There is a point of view in philosophy and other academic disciplines like evolutionary psychology that underscores the idea that people cannot be selfless. However, this egocentric theory does not hold to be true a hundred percent of the time. Sometimes people are selfless and receive nothing in return when they perform acts of kindness. Historical evidence suggests that people have performed self-sacrifice and even put their lives on the line for the welfare of others. On the other hand, scholars argue that selflessness comes with rewards, even when faced with death, people may want to be remembered or have a sense of purpose and gain benefits through appraisal. Even with empirical evidence or rational evidence, regular scenarios can have consistent outcomes, but science is probabilistic. Yet to say that humans cannot be selfless is a way to say that we are predictable and there is no free will. Although I cannot speak from a researcher's standpoint, I can speak on behalf of my experience and rational examination of culture.
A lot of my experiences consist of giving gifts to people and not expecting anything in return. Some might argue, I am gaining recognition because I am discussing the matter online, so I may not be truly selfless. However, I am most likely not going to be remembered in history and not everyone will know about what I did and that is something I am okay with.
The Self-less's Purpose
In fact, I believe true acts of selflessness require no expectation from the receiver. In addition, people who are truly selfless may not receive pleasure from doing good deeds, or if they do it is temporary because they are mostly concern with receiving a sense of peace and hope for future generations.
Culture also plays a role in selflessness. Even when there is a difference between collectivist and individualistic cultures, there are selfless acts in both that support the theory that people can be truly selfless. For example, in collectivist cultures (where the emphasis is placed on the group), people act out of selflessness to support the welfare of the family or group in which they belong. Therefore, the needs are not focused on the individual, but on everybody. Selflessness, for this culture, means to meet the needs of others and voluntarily choose to help one another to contribute towards a common goal. On the other hand, when children take care of their parents as they age, are they being selfless? Or are they being examples for their future children to the same for them? Individualistic cultures do not worry about who is going to take care of them in the future. In individualistic cultures, emphasis is placed on the needs of the individual. Parents tend to worry more about their children's future wellbeing than having their own needs met when they aged. Knowing that their children will okay in the future means they can pass away in peace.
Argument vs. Counter-Argument
Yet one might also argue, we have resources to take care of the elderly so it is not really self-sacrifice. People on the other side also think that it feels good to think of oneself as selfless. Yet people with a lower social status in the past performed a lot of undervalued work and did not gain anything. African Americans could have asked the government for compensation for having worked as slaves. However, they received nothing. People with lower social status did not sacrifice for what was going to be given in the present. Instead, they sacrifice for what was going to be given to future generations. In other words, they did not care about their own lives but the lives of the future. Additionally, most of these people are not remembered in history. We only find value in the most significant historical contributions, but not in the other details.
This particular topic of selflessness is known in evolutionary psychology as altruism and it is quite debated. Some people mainly believe humans are focused on their egos, but I do not think I even have to be a researcher to theorized that it might just exist.