By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Why does anyone engage in altruism—meaning prosocial behavior designed to help or benefit others? We all engage in various types of altruism all the time: we donate money to charitable causes, provide directions to a stranger who is lost, and so on. In these cases, we actually lose something: time or money or both. So, why do we ever engage in altruistic behavior?
The motivations for altruism can be complex. Different theories in social psychology explain this behavior in different ways.
At one extreme is a theory that altruism is actually rooted in entirely self-focused motives. According to the egoistic model, we help due to anticipated future gain. What do we gain? We might help to reduce our own sense of unease when seeing someone else in distress. So, giving a dollar to a homeless person just outside your favorite coffee shop might reduce your own feelings of discomfort or agitation when seeing someone else in need. It might also make you feel good about yourself for donating.
An Instinctive Behavior
A second view, which takes a broader view of self-centered motives, comes from the evolutionary model of helping, where altruism is an instinctive behavior that enhances survival. This theory is based on Darwinian principles of evolution. We first help those who share our genes because that lets our genes get passed on. Thus, we’re more likely to help our relatives than strangers and even more likely to help people who are closely related.
However, this same theory also proposes that sometimes we show altruism even to people who don’t share our genes. For instance, if we help an unrelated person in need, that person may later help us, or at least our relatives, if we are ever in need. Altruism motivated by this belief that kindness will eventually be repaid is known as reciprocal altruism.
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The third, and really most optimistic, view is known as the empathy-altruism model. This view agrees that altruism can indeed be motivated by self-focused, egoistic concerns, such as reducing our own distress, but it also proposes that at least in some cases, altruism is instead motivated by a genuine desire to do something good for someone else.
When is altruism motivated by true empathy for someone else? When we truly take the perspective of the person in need—when we actually feel their pain and basically put ourselves in their shoes. We help them because we feel compassion for them and want to reduce their distress, not our own.
Impact of Empathy on Altruism
Daniel Batson and his colleagues at the University of Kansas designed a clever study to examine the impact of empathy on altruism. Students came into the lab to participate in what they were told was a study on experiencing unpleasant conditions and that they would be working with a partner.
In each pair, the researcher’s confederate was to serve as the learner, the person who would be experiencing the unpleasant condition, while the volunteer was to serve as the observer. Observer was definitely the better job here, but the experimenter had done a fake drawing to make it appear that one had an equal chance of getting the other job.
And then, the observer watched as the researcher hooked up their partner to some scary-looking equipment and explained that she would be receiving a series of painful electric shocks. The partner then told the experimenter about a frightening experience she had had as a child in which she was thrown from a horse onto an electric fence. She’s willing to continue with the study, but she just thought the researcher should know about her prior bad experience with electric shock. The researcher then pulled the observer aside and asked if they would be willing to trade places, so they would receive the shocks and the other person could be the observer.
What Drives Decisions
To test whether empathy drives one’s decision, there were two other key variables in this study. First, in one condition, the observer had been told at the start of the study that they and their partner were very similar in values and interests to create a sense of empathy. In the other condition, they had been told that they and their partner were very different.
For both groups, the researcher also varied another important part of the study: How long the observer would have to watch the other person getting shocked if they didn’t choose to switch places. In one condition, they were told they had to observe all 10 trials in which their partner would receive shocks. In the other, they were told they had to watch the first two trials, but then they would be free to leave.
So, here’s the key question: Who was willing to switch places? First, for people who did not feel similar to their partner, the amount of time they had to watch the other person get shocked made a huge difference. If they could watch just two trials and then leave, very few switched. But if they had to watch her get shocked 10 times, some people did switch, even if they didn’t feel connected to their partner.
The researchers explained this finding as support for the egoistic model; basically people in this case switch because they are going to feel awful having to sit and watch their partner receive 10 painful shocks. But people who felt connected to their partner agreed to switch regardless of whether they got to leave quickly after just two trials, or if they had to sit through all ten trials. This finding suggests that their choice to switch was truly motivated by concern for this recently-met partner.
Common Questions about Altruism
According to the evolutionary model of helping, altruism is an instinctive behavior that enhances survival. This theory is based on Darwinian principles of evolution. We first help those who share our genes because that lets our genes get passed on. Thus, we’re more likely to help our relatives than strangers.
Altruism motivated by the belief that kindness will eventually be repaid is known as reciprocal altruism. For instance, we hope that if we help an unrelated person in need, that person may later help us, or at least our relatives, if we are ever in need.
The empathy-altruism model states that while altruism can surely be motivated by self-focused, egoistic concerns, such as reducing our own distress, at least in some cases, altruism is in fact motivated by a genuine desire to do something good for someone else.