Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Altruism and empathy

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Altruism and empathy:
What is the role of empathy in understanding altruism?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Key learnings within this chapter

  • What is the role of empathy in understanding altruism?
  • Does Empathy in fact motivate Altruism?
  • How can this knowledge develop deeper understanding of ones life?
  • How can this information better ones life?

Why do we feel the need to help one another? Why does this sense of altruism vary from person to person? What is altruism? What is the role of empathy in motivating one to act in an altruistic manner? This book chapter will address all of these questions and create an in depth understanding of why people help one another. Relevant psychological theories address the key areas of empathy and understand what motivates altruism. Addressing the way people differ, there can be reason behind pro-social behaviour[Rewrite to improve clarity]. There can be various underlying reasons for behaviours and some believe that cognition plays the main role in moral behaviour, arguing that moral action is not motivated by empathy (Kant, as cited in Eisenberg & Miller, 1987).

An extensive range of differing views surrounds the subject of altruism and selfless behaviour. A common notion suggests that helpful behaviour can be guided by two differing sources; behaviour can be altruistically motivated or motivated by universal egoism (Batson, O'Quin, Fultz, Vanderplas & Isen, 1983). Through developing a deeper understanding of the emotion empathy and the motivation of altruism, this chapter may proceed on the various ideas behind the relationship between empathy and altruism. With a more in depth understanding of this topic, there is the potential to influence a more caring society (Batson, 2008).

Altruism quiz[edit | edit source]

Think about yourself, do you go out of your way to help others? Do you like helping others? Ones generosity can be seen to be a direct result of your value system and your personal identity. If one feels positive emotions, then one is more likely to help (Moore, 1977) and as a result of helping feel more happiness from doing a good thing. This could possibly then result in individuals wishing to help more. If there is opportunity to help someone, do you normally take it? Although life is busy for everyone and whether or not you feel sorry for those you observe need help, there may not always be time. These questions are to make you think, how empathetic are you? This quiz will show how altruistically motivated you may be.

Figure 1. Individuals feeling joy through donation of food hampers to those in need at Christmas.

1 I plan to donate my organs when I pass away.


2 I do mind giving directions to strangers who are lost.


3 Volunteering to donate blood is very rewarding or if you have not done so, you believe it would be.


4 Children should be taught the importance of helping others.


5 I find that helping friends and family is not that rewarding and wastes my time.


6 If I found a large amount of money, I would not try to return it to the owner.


Emotion[edit | edit source]

What are emotions?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Using empathy to share and recognise the emotional state of sadness.

The evolutionary theory of emotion has a functional framework, using evolutionary biology to look at information about other species, to check biological bases and create deeper understanding (Plutchik, 2001). However, in reviewing emotions, cognitive process (Weiner, 1979) needs to understood and considered (Weiner, 1979) and biological process (Izard, 1993) due to the complex nature of psychological emotion.

A sizable 90 definitions of ‘emotion’ were suggested over the 20th century, clearly establishing the difficulty surrounding this topic (Plutchik, 2001). In everyday life most individuals consider emotion to be an internal experience (Plutchik, 2001). Although these familiarities of emotions may be internal, they are socially communicated and often appear in facial expressions (Reeve, 2009). Emotions are somewhat normal despite the extent of pressure and influence of social life events and experiences (Reeve, 2009). It can be established that emotions are a motivational source that influence the cognition for action (Izard, 1993). One may experience various emotions occurring at once, (i.e. personal distress and upset), which may not result in altruistic motivation. In comparison, to empathy and compassion, are more likely to result in the altruistic motivation to help (Batson, O’Quin, Fultz, Vanderplas & Isen 1983).

Emotion has direct life impacts, where happiness directly affects ones actions. For example, a study on children and generosity was conducted to look at various moods, and the affect upon altruistic behvaiour. Results concluded happy children were more generous than those in a sad or neutral mood, who were less generous (Moore as cited in Underwood & Rosenham as cited in Underwood, Froming & Moore, 1977).

The emotion called empathy[edit | edit source]

In the broadest understanding of empathy, some suggest it is the reaction of one individual to the observed experiences of another (Davis, 1983). This emotion is important, as it allows the regulation of cooperation towards shared goals and richer social interactions (De Waal, 2008). Furthermore, empathy is an emotion that once felt allows you to swiftly and instinctively understand and relate to an emotion that another may be experiencing (De Waal, 2008). A distinction between the various possible empathetic reactions was developed consisting of two broad areas’ a cognitive, more intellectual reaction and then a visceral, more emotional reaction (Davis, 1983).

It has been found that there are two distinct types of congruent emotional responses to witnessing and then perceiving another individual in need (Batson, Fultz & Schoenrade 1897).

Emotional response to perceiving another in need; Personal Distress Emotional response to perceiving another in need; Feelings of empathy
Alarmed Sympathetic
Upset Moved
Worried Compassionate
Disturbed Tender
Distressed Warm
Troubled Softhearted

Table 1: (Batson, Fultz & Schoenrade 1897).

Empathy is understood to be more evident in some socio-demographic groups in comparison to others. It is suggested to be more likely within those who feel social and interpersonal obligation (Smith, 2005). A study conducted by Van Lange, (2008) developed an understanding of how interpersonal motivations can be activated by the emotion empathy. To communicate and socialise with others in our daily lives we are constantly using interpersonal skills. Interpersonal interactions have found to be motivated by the emotion of empathy (Van Lange, 2008). Findings from this study suggest that both self and egalitarian motivations are independent of empathy; however, empathy can add altruistic motivation to the two other types of motivation (Van Lange, 2008).

Levels of empathy[edit | edit source]

Some may consider people superior in comparison to other species based on the empathetic experience of emotion. Understanding the evolutionary perspective of empathic behaviour within humans questions are raised about other species and if they too posses the emotion of empathy.

Emotional Contagion Sympathetic Concern Empathetic Perspective-taking
Emotional connectedness in humans is very common and begins early in life, found to show neural and physiological correlations, making the idea that the emotion of empathy and how it relates to emotional contagion be only applicable to humans to be unusual (De Waal, 2008). A troop of kangaroos grazing that all begin to hop away because one among them was startled, shows a reflex-like, highly adaptive spreading of fear that although may not involve the understanding of what triggered the main reaction. This is comparable to humans in that a room full of new born babies, when one begins to cry they all begin to cry; this shows the automatic spreading of distress (Hoffman as cited in De Wall, 2008).

Sympathy differs from empathy in that rather than share the emotions of someone in need, by understanding their pain or distress you have a response that’s consists of sorrow or concern (Eisenberg as cited in De Waal, 2008). This is understood through the evolutionary step of attempting to understand what situation caused another’s distress (De Waal, 2008). A remarkable non-human example of this attempt to resolve the distress caused by sympathy is consolation. Consolation is common in humans and apes. Evident in this image of a young chimpanzee who puts its arm around an adult male, who is screaming as a result of losing a fight (De Waal, 2008).

Empathetic perspective-taking is when one has the capacity to not only understand one another but to also take another’s perspective on board and adopt their point of view (De Waal, 2008). This may be the reason as to why there is some disbelief surrounding whether or not animals may be able to feel empathy (De Waal, 2008). Apes show some levels of perspective-taking within both experimental conditions and within their spontaneous social behaviour (De Waal, 2008). An example is when a mother ape finds her young whimpering she then begins to whimper in result of seeing its distress and then goes about removing its distress. This response of a mother fixing and removing their young’s distress is conceivably due to emotional contagion (De Waal, 2008).

Table 2: Addressing three areas of emotions, evidently observable within other species. Regardless of what level, empathy is a diverse emotion that spans across species and is not only evident in humans.

What causes empathy?[edit | edit source]

Cognitive perspective[edit | edit source]

Cognitive process is perceived to be an essential part of experiencing and expressing emotions. Some theorists believe that without cognitive processing there is no emotion (Reeve, 2009). This creates the idea that all personal experiences and events are what shape our emotional responses. Life events do play a significant role in our emotional experiences, and Weiner (as cited in Reeve, 2009) suggests that our personal attributions are the foundations for our emotions, not the event or the resulting outcome. Known as attribution theory, it suggests that one who is altruistically motivated may have the exact same experience as an individual who is egoistically motivated, and both experience extremely different emotions.

Biological perspective[edit | edit source]

The cognitive perspective is important in looking at empathy and how individuals act upon this emotion. However, as established by Hoffman, “humans must be equipped biologically to function effectively in many social situations without undue reliance on cognitive process” (1981, p. 79).

The importance of biology is evident when looking into such hormones as oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that affects the activation of the amygdala. It is a hormone associated with motivating the seeking of support and nurturance during times of need (Reeve, 2009). Oxytocin has been suggested to enhance empathy, as it is known to be crucial in affiliated behaviour (Singer, Snozzi, Bird, Petrovic, Silani, Heinrichs & Dolan, 2008). Other biological factors that affect the emotion of empathy are mirror neurons, fired when we witness someone experience pain or distress, as explained by Ginot (2009).

Altruism[edit | edit source]

What is altruism?[edit | edit source]

There are psychological theories of Altruism that suggest that the human behaviour of helping has developed from evolutionary care tendencies, as evident in mammals reactions to distress or need for empathy and sympathy. Altruistic behaviour is said to provide benefits to the people who are being helped, whilst providing no benefit to helper and may possibly incur a cost to that person (Howard & Piliavin as cited in Smith, 2005). Altruism can be defined in various ways however, the key-underlying feature is that it is a motivational state in which an individual wishes to increase another’s welfare (Batson, 2008).

Altruism is commonly encouraged out of consideration and thought given to another’s needs rather than for ones own needs (Piliavin & Charng as cited in Smith, 2005). In comparison, the ‘warm glow of success’ hypothesis suggests that an individual who performs well on a task, would as a result behave more generously and helpful towards a stranger than an individual who perform badly (Isen, 1970). As a result of performing well, feelings of happiness and happier people seemingly help more (Moore, 1977). This supports the findings that altruism is suggested more likely in individuals with higher psychological and physical well-being (Smith, 2005).

In an interpersonal context, theories surrounding prosocial behavior behaviour place large amounts of emphasis on the role of social affiliation in why altruistic motivation is created (Hauser, Preston & Stansfield (2014). Human altruism, however, is obviously much more advanced than what has been observed in the animal world (Fehr, 2003). In the animal world, actions that appear altruistic are fitness-reducing acts and are mainly only observed within kin groups (Fehr, 2003).

Figure 4. Volunteers demonstraing altruisic behaviour through cleaning.

What causes it?[edit | edit source]

There is a hypothesis that suggests happier people are more attentive to the world around them, and as a result notice people in need (Moore, 1977). Findings suggest the sadder the individual, the more focus is put on oneself and less to their surroundings (Moore, 1977). This suggests that environmental factors of emotions play a large role in determining the altruistic motivations within a person. This hypothesis can be witnessed in everyday instances, and often illustrated in the patterns of charitable donation. Happier people tend to consider time to engage in conversation or donation, where unhappier individuals avoid eye contact and interaction charity organisations.

Understanding motivation[edit | edit source]

Altruism's relationship with motivation[edit | edit source]

The motivation that is created by empathy may be altruistic and have as its main goal the reduction in distress and need in the other, whilst not reducing ones own needs (Batson, Fultz & Schenrade, 1987). Empathy-based motivation however, is more about a preference to help sad or distressed individuals ((Hauser, Preston & Stansfield, 2014).

There are two areas for motivation that drive people to help. Social affiliation models of motivations explain people who participate in altruistic behaviour; with the condition that they only help people who are not sad or in need (Hauser, Preston & Stansfield, 2014). In comparison, people who choose to help sad, distressed or in need individuals are guided by the empathetic modes of altruistic motivation (Hauser, Preston & Stansfield, 2014).

Figure 5. Example of extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

An extrinsic motivation is environmentally created; a specific reason for someone to act in a certain way or perform a particular behaviour (Reeve, 2009). The assumption of universal egoism is that all human behaviour, even when wanting to help others, that behaviour is motivated by self-interest (Campbell as cited in Batson, 2008). This egoistic based behvaiour may be considered an extrinsic motivator for helping, through only helping if there is a personal reward involved.

The assumption of universal egoism needs to be reviewed in order to incorporate the idea of empathic-concern, to allow both altruism and egoism to coexist (Batson, 2008). As even when an individual acts in an extremely altruistic manner and the behaviour is a direct cost to the individual helping, the motivation can still be either altruistically motivated, egoistically motivated or a combination of both, (Batson, 2008) making it difficult to distinguish which type of motivation is underlying the behaviour. However, extrinsic reward is seen to have little influence if any role in empathy-based altruism (De Waal, 2008).

Intrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic motivations are things that one may do for pleasure, and that one chooses to do (Reeve, 2009). Benefits of having a motivation driven by intrinsic value include persistence, creativity, conceptual understanding, higher quality learning and optimal functioning and well-being (Reeve, 2009). Empathy-based altruism is thought to have similar intrinsically rewarding features that motivate the action in the first place (De Waal, 2008).

Some theorists believe that altruistic behaviour is motivated by built-in rewards (De Waal, 2008). The positive social experience of happiness, as understood by the influence of oxytocin; such is suggested to underpin the nature of maternal care relationships. (Panksepp as cited in De Waal, 2008).

Theory[edit | edit source]

Social exchange theory[edit | edit source]

Social exchange theory is a psychological perspective that seeks to explain reason behind the exchange of activity and social change between people. This theory states that human relationships are formed with the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives (Leslie, Snyder & Glomb, 2012). Social exchange theory suggests that motivations to do kind gestures and be motivated through altruism do not and will not exist unless the benefits of the action outweigh the costs. It is believed that every action, no matter how helpful to another, is driven with the motivation of and with the ultimate goal of self-benefit (Batson, 2008). This is established to be universal egoism, however the idea that this is the only motivating factor behind helping has been affectively challenged with Batson’s research (2008).

Empathy-altruism hypothesis[edit | edit source]

The idea of the empathy-altruism hypothesis is the direct opposite of social exchange theory. Empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that regardless of the costs one may experience as a result of altruistic behaviour, when empathetic concern is felt; one will help another person regardless of what you will gain as a result of helping (Batson, 2008). It is suggested that a good deed or behaviour relieving stress or pain is the meaningful issue.

In critique of this idea, Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce & Neuberg (1997) argue that although empathetic concern does lead to altruistic behaviours, empathetic concern can also lead to a greater understanding and sense of self. This establishes how the empathetic concern model may not be so accurate. A study conducted using the empathy-altruism model found that empathy does add altruistic motivation to already existing selfish and egalitarian motivation (Van Lange, 2008). However, the key feature of the empathy-altruism hypothesis is found, interpersonal motivations might in fact be motivated by empathy (Van Lange, 2008)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. The empathy-altruism hypothesis declares empathetic emotion does in fact create true altruism. Resulting in altruistic motivation, motivation that creates an ultimate goal of helping someone with no benefit for the self purely benefits the individual who the empathy is felt (Batson, Shaw, 1991). This hypothesis seeks to find a greater understanding of the perception of ones self and another when we feel the emotion of empathy, resulting in concern (Batson, 2008).

Case study[edit | edit source]

A study conducted by Batson, Ducan, Ackerman, Buckley and Birch (1981) sought to find if empathy leads to altruistic behaviour, relevant to opposing beliefs of its influence to the egoistic motivation to help[Rewrite to improve clarity]. The participants viewed the administration of electric shocks to other students, and were offered opportunity to stop the action. However the alternative to prevent another from receiving shocks was to personally receive the final number of shocks. The participant were manipulated by having their level of empathy (high or low) and the perceived to ease of leaving (easy or difficult) were manipulated (Batson et al., 1981)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Batson et al., (1981) believed that high individual empathy predicted when viewing another’s pain, one would select to personally compensate rather than escape, regardless of how easy (Batson et al., 1981)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. This suggests that, in comparison, some subjects of egoistic motivation felt empathy but would only offer help when escape was difficult (Batson et al., 1981). Leading to the conclusion that empathy does result in altruistic motivation, in comparison to egoistic motivation to help others (Batson et al., 1981)[grammar?].

Reflecting on interpersonal situations, whether students or colleagues, the observation of discomfort or pain influences an emotion. Would most people assist to relieve or remove the pain? Ultimately the benefits for society are evident for altruistic motivations of empathy instead of egoism.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

If you have ever wondered if your reason for helping is truly because you want to or because you think about the “warm glow” you get after helping. In some situations one may feel obligated too help. Questioning this area of motivation and the source of altruistic behvaiour, can allow deeper understanding of how an element of society functions. Understanding why and how people do the things they do allow us as individuals to develop a deeper knowledge of ourselves and why we in fact do the things we do. This deeper understanding and interest in how motivation plays a role in your life and others may benefit your life. Finding out how we as humans are similar and different is what helps us develop a basic and beneficial understanding of ourselves. Looking into the emotion of empathy and creating awareness about the multifaceted areas that this one emotion holds is beneficial. However when combined with how this emotion, empathy allows consideration of how and why we help other people and how we become motivated to do so, it then becomes even more beneficial.

"Other people can be more to us than sources of information, stimulation, gratification and reward as we each seek our own welfare. We have the potential to care about them for their sakes, not simply for our own.” (Batson, 2008, p. 13).

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Batson, C. D. (2010). Empathy-induced altruistic motivation. Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature, 15-34.

Batson, C. D., Duncan, B. D., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation?. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 40(2), 290-302. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.40.2.290

Batson, C. D., A., Fultz, J., & Schoenrade, P. A. (1987). Distress and Empathy: Two Qualitatively Distinct Vicarious Emotions with Different Motivational Consequences. Journal Of Personality, 55(1), 19.

Batson, C. D., O'Quin, K., Fultz, J., Vanderplas, M., & Isen, A. M. (1983). Influence of self-reported distress and empathy on egoistic versus altruistic motivation to help. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 45(3), 706-718. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.45.3.706

Batson, C. D., Shaw, L.L. (1991). Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives. Psychological Inquiry 2 (2): 107–122. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0202_1. JSTOR 1449242.

Cialdini, R, B., Brown, S, L., Lewis, B, P., Luce, C & Neuberg, S, L. (1997). Reinterpreting the empathy – altruism relationship: when one into one equals oneness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(3),481-494. Retrieved from

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 44(1), 113-126.

De Waal, F. B. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279-300.

Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91-119. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.101.1.91

Fehr, E. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425(6960), 785.

Ginot, E. (2009). The empathic power of enactments: The link between neuropsychological processes and an expanded definition of empathy. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26(3), 290-309. doi:10.1037/a0016449

Hauser, D. J., Preston, S. D., & Stansfield, R. (2014). Altruism in the wild: When affiliative motives to help positive people overtake empathic motives to help the distressed. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1295-1305. doi:10.1037/a0035464

Isen, A. M. (1970). Success, failure, attention, and reaction to others: The warm glow of success. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 15(4), 294-301. doi:10.1037/h0029610

Izard, C. E. (1993). Four systems for emotion activation: cognitive and noncognitive processes. Psychological review, 100(1), 68.

Leslie, L. M., Snyder, M., & Glomb, T. M. (2013). Who gives? Multilevel effects of gender and ethnicity on workplace charitable giving. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 98(1), 49-62. doi:10.1037/a0029943

Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344-350.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.): Wiley New York.

Singer, T., Snozzi, R., Bird, G., Petrovic, P., Silani, G., Heinrichs, M., & Dolan, R. J. (2008). Effects of oxytocin and prosocial behavior on brain responses to direct and vicariously experienced pain. Emotion, 8(6), 781-791. doi:10.1037/a0014195

Smith, T. W. (2005). Altruism and empathy in America: Trends and correlates (p. 1-48). Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

Underwood, B., Froming, W. J., & Moore, B. S. (1977). Mood, attention, and altruism: A search for mediating variables. Developmental Psychology, 13(5), 541-542. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.13.5.541

Van Lange, P. M. (2008). Does empathy trigger only altruistic motivation? How about selflessness or justice?. Emotion, 8(6), 766-774. doi:10.1037/a0013967

Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 71(1), 3-25. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.71.1.3

External links[edit | edit source]