Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

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Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis Abstract: The empathy-altruism hypothesis is rooted in the study of pro-social behavior and attempts to explain when and why people help. Altruism is the unselfish regard for the well being of others. To explain this behavior, Batson (1991) proposed that altruism is associated with the degree of initial empathy (the emotional response felt toward the welfare of another), the benefit to the empathic person, and the ease of psychological escape. Batson feels that “the motivation behind some helpful actions is truly altruistic”. However, others, such as Cialdini (1988) argue that altruism does not exist and that helpful behavior is better explained by the relationship of the other to the self known as oneness, defined by Cialdini as being a measure of perceived self.


Batson's Hypothesis:

Batson (1991) believes that people help out of regard for the persons well being, suggesting that the two main components to how much a person helps is the degree of initial empathy and the ease of psychological escape. Empathy can be either triggered or not triggered. If empathy is triggered, then people will help even if the rewards do not outweigh the costs. The motivation for this type of helping is true altruism. If empathy is not triggered then people will look at the cost-benefit analysis and determine whether to help out or not. The cost benefit analysis is an idea based on Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Darwin’s idea is that we want to pass our genes down to the next generation. Thus, we are more likely to help someone that is genetically similar to us, as opposed to someone who is a complete stranger. If r is the degree of genetic similarity, c is the cost of helping to the altruist, and b is the benefit to the person being helped, then as long as c<b*r than we are likely to help. For Batson’s hypothesis, the cost benefit calculation is based on identifying the selfish, egoistic, reasons for helping, such as making ourselves look better or to put ourselves in a better mood. Another component to Batson’s hypothesis is the ease of psychological escape. If the situation is easy to dismiss from our minds, then helping will decline. However, if we are motivated to help out of altruistic motives then helping will not decline even if the situation has a low ease of escape.

Batson’s Empathy Altruism Hypothesis 1981

Batson conducted one important study in order to confirm his hypothesis. He assigned participants as an observer to a confederate who is a participant in the study, but already has assigned roles and knows the purpose of the study. The confederate was named “Elaine” and she was to complete an unpleasant task, similar to the Milligram experiment, in which she would receive electric shocks. The Independent Variable in this task is that half of the participants were told that they had similar values to that of Elaine, and half were told that they had different values. During the experiment, after she received a few shocks she tells the participant a story of a traumatic event of how she was thrown off a horse into an electric fence and now is traumatized, but she would like to still continue the experiment. The experimenter steps into the situation at this point and proposes that Elaine stop the experiment and switch with the observer. The experimenter then introduces another Independent variable in which he tells half of the participants that the experiment is almost over, which is associated with the easy escape, and the other half were told that it was not almost over yet. The results of this experiment indicated that if empathy was high then helping was high even if escape was easy but that if empathy was low and there was an easy rate of escape then participants would choose to not switch with Elaine and continue on with the experiment which entailed Elaine continuing to receive shocks. There were a few criticisms in this experiment in which are very relevant. The first criticism is that empathy was not measured. Thus, although the experimenter attempted to manipulate the degree of empathy by telling the participants they had similar or different values from Elaine, the experimenter did not actually determine how much each of these participants felt that they “were in the other person’s shoes”. Also, another area of criticism was that there were social rewards because of the presence of the experimenter. Thus, people may have been more likely to have switched with Elaine because they did not want the experimenter thinking negatively of them. Due to these criticisms Batson reformed his experiment and put the participants in cubicles and they read two essays written about a confederate Janet who was very lonely. In the low empathy condition participants were told to be objective about the essay, where as in the high empathy condition participants were told to think of how Janet truly felt. After reading the two essays half of the participants were asked in public and half in private how many hours they would spend with Janet. Thus, this experiment addressed both concerns and if the person was in the high empathy condition, then they were more likely to spend more hours with Janet, whether or not the experimenter was present when they gave their answer.

Alternatives to Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis:

Cialdini (1988) conducted three experiments in which he reinterpreted the empathy-altruism hypothesis and concluded that oneness, not empathy, was the key to how much helping a person would truly do. Thus, in several experiments participants were told to imagine how much they would help a person who was evicted from their apartment. Cialdini manipulated the degree of closeness the participants would have to the person by asking them to think of the person who was being evicted as a near stranger, an acquaintance, a good friend or a family member. Then he asked them to rate how they were feeling toward the individual and how much they would help. Thus, he measured the degree of empathy and manipulated degree of oneness. His results indicated that the degree of closeness and oneness to the person was more of an indicator of helping than empathy. Cialdini also created a path model which represented his data from his three experiments. In this model he showed that it was the degree of relationship closeness and severity of need that most influenced helping. Another alternative to Batson’s empathy hypothesis was made by Hoffman (1981) in which he hypothesized that empathetic helping is a result of innate drives. Thus, when a person is in a state of distress and needs helping, our innate drive is to help them.

Five Studies Testing Two Egoistic Alternatives to the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis:

Batson was criticized by Cialdini who believed that not all helping is actually done out of selfless regards (altruistic nature), and that people act due to egoistic alternatives. Thus, people help because by helping, the helper will receive rewards or they will feel the costs of not helping. Thus, people want to help because they do not want to feel bad about not helping or they maybe in a negative mood and want to escape this mood by helping. Alternatively; helping may be part of an inner drive which causes us to selfishly experience empathic joy. These concepts were described in two counter hypotheses to Batson’s model. The first hypothesis was the empathy-specific reward hypothesis which states that people learn through reinforcement and that there are rewards for helping (praise, honor, pride) that have been taught to us. The other hypothesis is the empathy-specific punishment hypothesis which states that when we feel empathy we feel that we need to help because it is our social obligation to help and failing to help will result in guilt or shame. Batson did five studies to evaluate these alternate explanations. In Study 1 he tested the empathy-specific reward hypothesis by designing an experiment to evaluate the mood of individuals before and after learning they would not be allowed to help someone and/or that the individual was no longer in need of help. A subject encountered a person in need and was able to help out the person in distress with little or no cost to themselves. The subjects were then reported their mood, and their emphatic emotional reaction to the distressed person. After this data was collected, one half of the participants then were told they were unable to help out the person or that the person no longer needed help, both or neither and there mood was then recorded again. The results of this experiment showed that people who had high empathy felt better when the victim was helped by themselves or by others. Thus, this study provided further evidence of the empathy-altruism hypothesis and not the empathy-specific reward hypothesis. Three studies were done to evaluate the empathy-specific punishment hypothesis by evaluating the impact on helping of providing various justifications for not helping. Study 2 evaluated whether the inaction of others leads to a justification for not helping. In this study 120 college students, (60 male, 60 female) listened to two different radio stations, one was referring to campus activities, and the other was a news program going into more detail of how the news has affected individuals. Empathy was manipulated by either telling the students to focus on the technical aspects of the broadcast (low empathy), or the person (Katie) who is being interviewed (high empathy). After listening to this the participants were given a letter from the professor in which included a letter from the young girl in the interview discussing ways people could help her. Enclosed in the letter was a sign up sheet. On the sign up sheet there was either a low justification for not helping, consisting of five of the seven people already signed up to help, or a high justification for not helping consisting of only two of seven people offering to help Katie. As a control, some participants received a letter with no information about whether anyone else signed up or did not. As expected, the high empathy condition resulted in more people (.70) willing to help Katie as opposed to the low empathy condition (.35) However, within the high empathy group, there was no effect of justification manipulation but there was a large effect in the low empathy group. Thus, the prediction made by the empathy-specific punishment hypothesis was not accurate. The results of study 3 and 4 were similar to that of study 2. Study 3 measured the justification for not helping by giving participants two options (helpful to person in need or beneficial to participant) and varying what they were told most other people chose (attributional ambiguity). Study 4 measured the justification for not helping, where it was difficult for people to qualify to help. Both of these studies further verified study 2 and found that feeling high in empathy leads to altruistic motivation. Thus, even if there is a justification for not helping, people high in empathy will still help. Finally, study 5 used a Stroop test in which subjects name the color of the ink of a word they are shown; the delay in naming the color increases if the word is related to what the person has been recently thinking about (Stroop, 1938). Words were grouped into punishment, reward, or victim- related words. During this test, it was found that helping was not associated with punishment or reward-related words, but with victim-related words. Overall, Batson found that the empathy-specific reward and empathy-specific punishment hypotheses were not supported and thus did not counter argue his original empathy-altruism hypothesis.


Cialdini, Robert B. Empathy-Based Helping: Is it selflessly or selfishly motivated? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987

Cialdini, Robert B. Reinterpreting the Empathy-Altruism Relationship: When One into One Equals Oneness. Arizona State University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1997. Vol. 73. No 3.1997

Batson, C. Five Studies Testing Two New Egoistic Alternatives to the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 55. 1997

Batson, C. Self-Reported distress and Empathy and Egoistic versus Altruistic Motivation for helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1983

Weiner, Irving. Handbook of Psychology. John Wiley and Sons. 2003.

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