Batson’s Empathy-altruism Hypothesis and Prosocial Behavior

Empathy-altruism Hypothesis

The empathy-altruism hypothesis posits a direct relationship between empathy and altruistic behavior. Originating from the work of social psychologist C. Daniel Batson, this concept suggests that feeling empathy for others can lead to genuine selfless helping actions. Batson has published experimental research to support the empathy-altruism hypothesis ruling out various other egoistic explanations.

The hypothesis stands in stark contrast to that of social exchange theory. According to psychologists and sociologists who are social exchange theorists, individuals in interpersonal relationships aim to maximize the ratio of social benefits to social costs, just as they would in an economic marketplace where individuals try to maximize the ratio of their monetary profits to losses.

At the heart of this hypothesis are two theoretical constructs: empathic concern and altruistic motivation. Empathic concern refers to the emotional response of caring for the well-being of someone in need.

When one feels empathic concern, it is theorized that they are more likely to engage in helping behaviors driven by an altruistic motivation, which is the desire to increase another person’s welfare for its own sake, not for any external benefit or internal reward. Batson’s extensive experimentation aimed to separate altruistic motivation from selfish motives when individuals help others.

Empathic Concern Vs Empathy

Empathic concern is defined as other-oriented emotions triggered by and consistent with the perceived well-being of someone in need. These other-oriented emotions include tenderness, sympathy, compassion, and softheartedness.

Empathic concern is frequently confused with empathy. To empathize is to respond to another person’s perceived emotional state by having similar feelings, imagining what they are thinking or feeling, or mentally putting oneself in another’s position. Empathic concern or sympathy entails not only empathizing, but also having a good regard or unwavering concern for the other person.

Batson, the term’s originator, defines it as “other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need”. He describes this term in the following manner:

“First, “congruent” here refers not to the specific content of the emotion but to the valence—positive when the perceived welfare of the other is positive, negative when the perceived welfare is negative.… Third, as defined, empathic concern is not a single, discrete emotion but includes a whole constellation. It includes feelings of sympathy, compassion, softheartedness, tenderness, sorrow, sadness, upset, distress, concern, and grief. Fourth, empathic concern is other-oriented in the sense that it involves feeling for the other — feeling sympathy for, compassion for, sorry for, distressed for, concerned for, and so on.”

At the behavioral level, accounts by comparative psychologists and ethologists show that other mammalian species exhibit prosocial behavioral responses similar to empathic care. Notably, a variety of observations on ape empathic reactions indicate that, in addition to emotional connectedness, apes express unambiguous appreciation for the other’s circumstances.

Altruistic Motivation

Batson defines altruism as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. The motivations in question are not the relatively stable aspects of a person’s disposition, like the need for achievement or freindship, but rather goal-directed psychological forces in a particular situation.

Because an individual can have more than one ultimate objective at the same time, both altruistic and egoistic motivations may exist simultaneously. Batson also points out that because we do not always know our true motivations, a person may be altruistically or egoistically motivated without realizing it.

Acting with the goal of increasing another’s wellbeing may involve some form of self-sacrifice, whether in a heroic or more subtle way, but it is also possible it may not; it may even involve benefits to the individual as a by-product of his intention.

Altruistic motivation is in contrast to egoistic motivation. Egoistic motivation is fueled by self-interest: the individual acts for the benefit of themselves or to meet their own needs and objectives. This self-interest can manifest in a variety of ways, including instantaneous gratification, avoiding negative consequences such as punishment, seeking advancement in the workplace, financial benefits, or garnering the respect of others.

According to the disputed theory of psychological egoism, there is no such thing as altruistic motivation; all motivation is egoistic. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that even seemingly selfless activity is motivated by egoistic reasons. For example, they may argue that people enjoy helping others and that their egoistic drive to feel good is the underlying internal motive for externally altruistic behavior.

Evidence Supporting the Empathy-altruism Hypothesis

The problem of proving the existence of altruistic motivation is to demonstrate how empathic concern leads to helping in ways that are not explained by current theories of egoistic motivation. That is, a clear argument must be established that concern for the other person’s wellbeing, rather than a desire to better one’s own welfare, is what motivates one’s helping activity in a given situation.

It is not enough to point to cases of heroic helping, like the more than 350 firefighters, emergency rescue workers, and 23 police officers who were killed while attempting to direct others to safety after the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The selflessness of Mother Teresa and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oskar Schindler also make good examples, as do countless community volunteers and wealthy philanthropists.

Such cases are heartwarming and inspiring, of course. But Batson needed hard evidence to show the social exchange theorists his hypothesis was sound; that a link between empathetic concern and altruistic behavior exists. He and his team were looking for ways to distinguish between motivations.

They set out in one 1988 series of experiments to demonstrate that empathy motivates other-regarding helping behavior not out of self-interest, but because of genuine concern for the well-being of others. They tested two hypotheses that could account for alternatives to the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

One hypothesis was Empathy Specific Reward, which proposes that the prosocial motivation associated with empathy moves towards the goal of the social reward which can be gained by helping, such as praise, honor, and pride. The other was Empathy Specific Punishment, where researchers propose that empathy triggers the fear of social punishment (censure, guilt, and shame) which can be avoided by helping.

The results of the five tests conducted did not support either the empathy-specific reward or empathy-specific punishment hypotheses. Instead, they supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

In a 1982 study, students were invited by Batson’s team to listen to tapes from a radio show. One of the interviews was with a woman named Carol, who discussed her horrific car accident in which both of her legs were broken, her problems, and how far behind she was in school.

Students who were listening to this interview received a letter requesting that the student share course notes and meet with her. The experimenters altered the level of empathy by instructing one group to try to focus on how she felt (high empathy level) and the other group to ignore it (low empathy level).

The experimenters also altered the cost of not assisting: the high-cost group was told Carol would be in their psychology class when she returned to school, whereas the low-cost group assumed she would continue the class at home. The findings supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis: those with strong empathy were almost equally inclined to assist her in either situation, whereas those with low empathy did so out of self-interest (seeing her in class every day made them feel bad if they did not help).

Other, more recent research has looked at the hypothesis from different angles. For example, Liu Xiaomin and colleagues, in a 2023 paper, recruited 253 middle school students from Northern China to participate in playing the dictator game.

Altruistic behavior was assessed through the amount of money that the “dictators” offered to the “receivers” in the dictator game. The objective socioeconomic status of participants was assessed in order to investigate the relationship between socioeconomic status and altruistic sharing behavior. Empathy was measured using affective and cognitive empathy scales to examine the mediating role of empathy in the relationship between socioeconomic status and altruistic behavior.

The results showed that low-socioeconomic status students behaved more generously than high-socioeconomic status students, and that affective rather than cognitive empathy mediates the relationship between socioeconomic status and altruistic behavior.

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