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Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis And Prosocial Behaviour

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Altruism can be defined as the desire to help someone even if it involves a cost to the helper (Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2013). This is different to prosocial behaviour which is an act performed with the goal of benefiting another person (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin & Schroeder, 2005). There is difficulty in understanding people’s motivation behind their behaviour as we can never fully know a person’s intentions, making the distinction between altruistic actions and prosocial behaviour hard to define. We have to infer the motivation from the behaviour using empirical evidence. An altruistic motive involves the desire to reduce distress or increase the benefit of the person in need, this differs from an egoistic motive of helping from a desire for gaining reward or avoiding personal pain (Aronson et al., 2013). Although altruistic and egoistic motives differ, the action of helping is the same. Batson’s (1991, as cited in Aronson et al., 2013) Empathy-Altruism hypothesis, argues for a form of altruism that is based on feelings for others. Although the hypothesis can explain how some acts may be altruistic and others egoistic, it also has its criticisms including those of needing to be motivated by empathy – therefore resulting in the behaviour not being purely altruistic. Altruism can also be explained by evolutionary theories such as Kin Selection and Survival Tendencies but it is hard to conclude motivation behind people’s actions and therefore prosocial behaviour, a broader category, may be able to explain our helping behaviour.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis can be used to support the existence of pure altruism. Devised by Batson (1991, as cited in Aronson et al., 2013), the hypothesis explains altruistic behaviour in terms of feelings for others. Batson (1991, as cited in Aronson et al., 2013) states that when we feel high empathy for someone in need, our behaviour towards that person is purely altruistic, if we do not feel empathy for this person then social exchange will occur – weighing up the benefits and costs of helping. Experiments run by Batson (1992) support the empathy-altruism model as results are consistent with the predictions of the hypothesis. Batson devised an ease of escape x empathy experiment in order to discover whether motivation behind helping behaviour is altruistic or egoistic. Batson predicted than even in the easy escape condition, high empathy predicts high helping behaviour – altruistic behaviour. Participants observed a ‘worker’ whom they believed to be electrically shocked – ease of escape being manipulated by informing some participants that if they do not help then the electric shocks will continue (difficult escape) and informing others that they will observe no more (easy escape). The results confirmed the hypothesis – when escaping was easy but empathy was high, the individual would still help. This portrays how there is an existent pure altruism when we feel high empathy for those in need, we will help regardless of the costs to ourselves.

Although the hypothesis provides evidence of altruism, it is difficult to generalize findings from experiments such as Batson’s (1992) as we cannot conclude that everyone has similar motives behind their behaviour. The study suggests that we only help when we feel empathy for those in need and therefore a sense of guilt. A study conducted by Cialdini, Vincent, Lewis, Catalan, Wheeler and Darby (1975) tested the effectiveness of guilt on a person’s behaviour. Participants were given two scripts, one extreme request script and the other a smaller request. Participants were then assigned to one of three conditions, the door-in the face, small-request-only, or the exposure control condition. The results showed that the door-in-the- face technique – where the extreme request is rejected then the smaller request made was the most effective condition. We reciprocate when someone does something for us in order to relieve our own stress of seeing someone suffer (Aronson et al., 2013). Therefore, this study shows that helping behaviour may be motivated by egoism rather than altruism, conveying the non-existence of pure altruism and the existence of an innate need to resolve distress.

If altruism is based on emotion then it must existent as it is in our instincts when we feel guilt to make amends and help those who need it. Our feelings can guide our behaviour through our urges that accompany them, this is known as thought-action tendencies (Fredrickson, 1998). The feeling of guilt urges the thought-action tendency of amendment, altruistically motivating us to reduce feelings of distress. A study conducted by Coombes, Cauraugh and Janelle (2007) assessed whether specific emotions produce specific thought-action tendencies. Participants were shown a range of emotion inducing images and were instructed to extend their wrists and fingers a quickly as possible whilst the electrical signals in their muscles were recorded. The results found that the fear-inducing images produced faster withdrawal actions than other images. Just as fear produces fast withdrawal symptoms, feelings of guilt will naturally enforce you to make amendments or help others. This conveys how our natural thought-action tendencies support the existence of a pure altruism as our emotions guide information processing and therefore our behaviour (Nolen-Hoeksema, Fredrickson and Loftus, 2009).

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Our thought-action tendencies suggest that emotion guides our behaviours and therefore altruistic motives. However, a study conducted by Cialdini, Schaller, Houlihan, Arps, Fultz and Beaman (1987) suggested how it is our own guilt and personal sadness that we want to alleviate by helping another person rather than wanting to reduce the other persons state of distress. Cialdini et al. (1987) study had two conditions – an empathy-set condition and a mood-fixing condition (participants believed the drug taken would fix their mood for the next hour) in order to test whether empathically orientated individuals would help a sufferer for selfless or selfish reasons. Researchers found that participants helped more when not taking the mood-fixing drug as they believed that helping could fix their own mood. These results suggest there is an increased personal sadness associated with empathy and supports an egoistic interpretation over a selfless altruistic interpretation of enhanced helping under conditions of high empathy. Therefore, there must not be an existent pure altruism as we only help others in order to feel better about ourselves.

Biological theories of evolution suggest that there must be a pure altruism as we act altruistically toward those who we are related to. Darwin’s (1859, as cited in Aronson et al., 2013) natural selection suggests that we favour altruistic acts towards genetically related others as we want to ensure our genes are passed on and will flourish in the future. A study conducted by Madsen, Tunney, Fieldman, Plotkin, Dunbar, Richardson and McFarland (2010) looked at the duration of time an individual would endure pain in order for a reward to be given to a close relative or distant relative. Participants, both male and female, were asked to maintain a ‘ski position’ for as long as possible for each condition of close or distant relative. The results showed a significant linear trend between effort invested in task and relatedness of beneficiary. This suggests that altruism must exist if we are willing to benefit another person even if this does produce a cost to ourselves.

Although Madsen et al. (2010) found a significant relationship in their study, a limitation is that there may be differences between male and female motive and behaviour and therefore this does not promote a purely altruistic gene that is passed on through natural selection. We don’t know whether we are helping just because evolutionary processes deemed it an essential trait for survival. If pure altruism does exist through natural selection then behaviour between genders should be similar and we cannot explain why we help others that we may not share genes with. A study conducted by Flanagan, Bowes, Jonsson, Csapo and Sheblanova (1998) found when surveying volunteer work in seven countries, more girls than boys reported partaking in voluntary work in their communities. This suggests that if pure altruism exists then behaviour between genders should be equal, proposing that we may behave differently for different motives such as gaining reward. Therefore, this reinforces that helping may be due to prosocial behaviour rather than altruism.

In conclusion, although constructs such as the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson, 1992) can explain how some acts may be altruistic and others egoistic based on our empathy for others, prosocial behaviour can explain the behaviour differences between genders and the differences in motives behind each action more effectively than altruism. The evidence against the empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that there is no such thing as pure altruism – we can have altruistic tendencies but all acts cannot be purely altruistic due to differing motives. There cannot be absolutely selfless acts we will always gain personal reward from helping others. It is difficult to determine whether pure altruism does exist due to not being able to fully know a person’s motive behind their behaviour. By helping others in order to benefit them or reduce their distress we may be acting altruistically, but we also may be acting, by conditioning, on a principle that we believe will lead us to better things.

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Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis And Prosocial Behaviour. (2021, September 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from
“Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis And Prosocial Behaviour.” Edubirdie, 29 Sept. 2021,
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