Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis Definition
The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that feelings of empathy for another person produce an altruistic motivation to increase that person’s welfare. In the empathy-altruism hypothesis, the term empathy refers to feelings of compassion, sympathy, tenderness, and the like. Altruism refers to a motivational state in which the goal is to increase another person’s welfare as an end in itself. (Altruistic acts are what are ordinarily called “good deeds.”) Note that this definition of altruism is different from the typical usage of the term, which is usually defined to mean an act of helping that involves considerable personal costs to the helper. Overall, the empathy-altruism hypothesis has generated a large body of research that answers important questions about why people help and fail to help, and offers insights into the roles played by different types of motives underlying human social behavior.
Background and Importance of Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
The empathy-altruism hypothesis arose out of a longstanding debate in Western philosophy and psychology about whether humans possess the capacity for altruism. For centuries, it was assumed that all human behavior, including the helping of others, is egoistically motivated. The term egoism refers to a motivational state in which the goal is to increase one’s own welfare as an end in itself. Although there is little doubt that egoism can be a powerful motivator of helping behavior, some researchers have questioned whether all human behavior is motivated by self-interest. Specifically, some have suggested that people may help because they feel empathy for another person’s welfare, which may lead to altruism. Those who have argued that empathy may be a source of altruism include naturalist Charles Darwin, philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as psychologists Herbert Spencer, William McDougall, Martin Hoffman, and Dennis Krebs. Social psychologist C. Daniel Batson formulated the empathy-altruism hypothesis as a revision and extension of the ideas developed by these philosophers and psychologists.
Evidence and Alternative Explanations of Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
The empathy-altruism hypothesis predicts that those feeling high levels of empathy for a person in need will be more likely to help than will those feeling less empathy. This prediction is well supported by research. However, a number of egoistic alternative explanations have been proposed to explain these findings. For example, those feeling high levels of empathy may feel more distress and, consequently, may be more likely to help because they are egoistically motivated to reduce their own distress. Another possibility is that those feeling high levels of empathy are more likely to help because they are more egoistically motivated to avoid feeling bad about themselves or looking bad in the eyes of others should they fail to help. Similarly, those feeling high levels of empathy may be more likely to help because they are more egoistically motivated to feel good about themselves or to look good in the eyes of others should they help. Determining whether these and other egoistic explanations can explain the high rates of helping among those feeling high levels of empathy has generated much scientific debate and empirical research. With few exceptions, evidence from dozens of experiments over the past 30 years has provided support for the empathy-altruism hypothesis over all the available egoistic explanations and, by extension, for the claim that humans are indeed capable of altruism.
Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis Implications
In addition to investigating the nature of the motivation associated with empathy, researchers studying the empathy-altruism hypothesis have discovered a number of other interesting phenomena. For example, those feeling high levels of empathy tend to experience more negative mood than those feeling low levels of empathy when their attempt to help the person for whom empathy is felt is unsuccessful. These findings suggest that feeling high levels of empathy for others may lead to negative outcomes for those feeling empathy when altruistic goals are unattainable. Other findings show that those feeling high levels of empathy tend to behave unjustly or are willing to harm the welfare of a group to which they belong when such behavior will benefit a person for whom empathy is felt. These findings demonstrate that, at least under certain conditions, altruism can undermine other prosocial objectives, such as maintaining justice or working for the common good.
Although altruism at times may be harmful to those feeling empathy, it does appear to be very beneficial to those individuals for whom empathy is felt. For example, research shows that individuals who feel high levels of empathy will actually avoid helping the person for whom empathy is felt in the short term when doing so promotes the long-term welfare of that individual. These findings suggest that altruistically motivated individuals may be more sensitive to the needs of those for whom empathy is felt compared to individuals who are not altruistically motivated to help. Finally, leading individuals to feel empathy for members of stigmatized or disadvantaged groups appears to produce not only a tendency to help members of those groups, but also promotes positive attitudes toward the groups as a whole. These findings suggest that empathy may be useful for reducing prejudice and discrimination.
The available research offers strong support for the claim that humans are indeed capable of altruism. Even though altruism appears to be beneficial to individuals for whom empathy is felt, it may lead to negative outcomes for the altruistically motivated person in some circumstances. Also, altruism may lead helpers to benefit the person for whom empathy is felt at the expense of others. Although the debate over human altruism may not be completely resolved any time soon, the empathy-altruism hypothesis nonetheless presents an intriguing and complex picture of human motivation worthy of continued scientific attention.
- Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Towards a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Batson, C. D., & Shaw, L. L. (1991). Evidence for altruism: Toward a pluralism of prosocial motives. Psychological Inquiry, 2, 107-122.