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date: 13 December 2018

Empathy and Altruism

Summary and Keywords

The term empathy has been used as a label for a broad range of phenomena, including feeling what another person is feeling, understanding another person’s point of view, and imagining oneself in another person’s situation. However, perhaps the most widely researched phenomenon that goes by this label involves an other-oriented emotional state that is congruent with the perceived welfare of another person. The feelings associated with empathy include sympathy, tenderness, and warmth toward the other person. Other variations of empathic emotions have been investigated too, including empathic joy, empathic embarrassment, and empathic anger. The term altruism has also been used as a label for a broad range of phenomena, including any type of helping behavior, personality traits associated with helpful persons, and biological influences that spur protection of genetically related others. However, a particularly fruitful research tradition has focused on altruism as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of protecting or promoting the welfare of a valued other. For example, the empathy–altruism hypothesis claims that empathy (construed as an other-oriented emotional state) evokes altruism (construed as a motivational state). Empathy and altruism, regardless of how they are construed, have important consequences for understanding human behavior in general, and for understanding social relationships and well-being in particular.

Keywords: empathy, vicarious emotions, perspective taking, altruism, helping, prosocial behavior, social motivation

A Simple Question, Difficult to Answer

Humans have a remarkable ability to care about, and help, others in need. This capacity to care about someone other than oneself may well be an important hallmark of what it means to be human. And the target of such treatment transcends species boundaries. Individuals and groups send money to natural disaster victims in other countries, campaign to save endangered animals, give money and food to homeless strangers, and offer comfort to family and friends. Efforts to help others can range from the casual and benign, to heroic acts that put the helper’s life in immediate danger. Examples of care and helping are so commonplace that they are expected, rather than puzzling. As such, thinkers from various fields of study spanning the last few centuries have attempted to answer a deceptively complex question—why do people help?

There are a number of possible answers to this question. However, most explanations include some form of emotional response, such as empathy, as a possible cause. Before discussing helping or the motives that cause helping, it is necessary to first describe possible emotional processes that instigate helping phenomena.

What Empathy is and What it is Not

The term empathy has been used to refer to a broad range of cognitive, emotional, and perceptual phenomena (Batson, 2009, 2011). The most frequent usage of the term, however, focuses on the vicarious emotional reaction a person has to another individual’s emotional state or condition—particularly when the other is experiencing some type of need. Empathy, then, may be defined as an other-oriented emotional response elicited by, and congruent with, the perceived welfare of a person in need. In this context, congruent refers to a match in valence between what the other is feeling and what the empathizer is feeling—that is, when the other is experiencing a negative state, empathy has a negative valence; when the other is experiencing a positive state, empathy has a positive valence (Powell & Roberts, 2017).

This does not, however, imply that the empathizer and target are feeling the exact same emotion (Hoffman, 1975; Stotland, 1969). In fact, such a case would likely be the exception rather than the rule. For example, it would be quite normal for a person to feel compassion, sympathy, and tenderness for a close friend who was recently dumped by his or her significant other. It would be strange for that person to feel intense sadness for oneself in this situation, which is the likely feeling state of the target. Furthermore, the specific quality of empathy will change depending on both the eliciting situation and the relation between empathizer and target. Consequently, it is more appropriate to think of empathy as a category of emotions rather than a single, discreet emotion that is stable across different contexts.

This category of emotional response has been called many different things over the last few centuries, including compassion, distress, pity, sympathy, and tenderness. Research in social psychology and related fields use the term empathic concern to highlight the other-oriented nature of empathy and to differentiate this emotional response from other types of vicarious emotions (e.g., emotion contagion) and related cognitive-perceptual processes (e.g., perspective taking). The other-oriented nature of empathy is its key characteristic, and the feeling for the other differentiates this emotional response from self-focused emotions that would occur if a need situation happens to oneself. Although it is possible to feel distress and sorrow for oneself, this is not empathy and does not instigate prosocial motivation and behavioral responses.

It is also important to differentiate empathic emotions from other phenomena that have, on occasion, been labeled empathy. For example, perspective taking (or role taking) is the process associated with deciphering or understanding another person’s thoughts or feelings. Although some researchers have described this as empathy (e.g., Rogers, 1959), it is actually a cognitive-perceptual process rather than an emotional outcome. Similarly, behavioral matching (the process of adopting the posture or neural patterns of another person) and emotion contagion (the process by which a person comes to feel what another person is feeling) have been mislabeled as empathy in certain contexts (Batson, 2009). Although these are certainly important phenomena in their own right, none of them describes empathy as we use the term here.

When and Why People Feel Empathy

Most people would consider empathy to be a wonderful thing. Most people would further admit that humans do not feel empathy for everyone equally. So what causes an individual to experience empathy for one person but not another? Research suggests that empathy is a product of two things: (a) intrinsically valuing the welfare of another individual, and (b) the perception that the valued other is experiencing some type of need.

Intrinsically Valuing the Welfare of Another Individual

Are humans capable of valuing someone other than themselves? Is any connection or care offered to another person simply self-love in disguise? There is some debate regarding this issue (e.g., Batson, 1991, 2011; Nussbaum, 2011). And it is certainly more parsimonious and makes theory development easier to assume that humans are inherently selfish and can only value themselves. However, research simply does not support this claim. Instead, research suggests that the capacity to value another’s welfare is a normal developmental event that emerges within the first three years of life (Hoffman, 1975, 2000; Zahn-Waxler & Radke-Yarrow, 1990). Those high in psychopathy are the exception to this natural capacity and their lack of empathy is jarring and bizarre, rather than normal (Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 1999; Damasio, 1994).

There are two ways to value a person, event, or object—intrinsic and extrinsic (Rokeach, 1973). Intrinsic valuing is when something is valued as an end, rather than as a means—that something is viewed as valuable even if it cannot provide some benefit to self. In the case of people, an intrinsically valued other is held to be important and deserving of continued existence, regardless of that person’s relation to, or interactions with, oneself. In contrast, extrinsic valuing is when something is viewed as a means to some other end. In the case of people, the value placed on the person’s welfare is tied directly to what he or she can do to benefit oneself. Another way to think of this distinction is that an intrinsically valued other is irreplaceable. This person cannot be replaced by someone else without constituting a dramatic threat to one’s value structure. On the other hand, if that person is extrinsically valued, she or he could be replaced by another person without constituting a threat to one’s value structure. For example, a person’s mother (who is, presumably, intrinsically valued) cannot be swapped out for another person without producing intense sadness and sense of tangible loss. This emotional response is the result of threat to the person’s value structure. However, if a person’s accountant (who is, presumably, extrinsically valued for the service he performs) falls ill, so long as another accountant can step up to complete the service, the swap would likely cause no dramatic emotional outburst or sense of dread.

It is important to note that intrinsic and extrinsic valuing are not mutually exclusive. What was once extrinsically valued can become functionally autonomous and, consequently, intrinsically valued (Allport, 1937). Likewise, what was once intrinsically valued, when paired with external reinforcers, can become extrinsically valued (Lepper, 1983; Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). And it is likely the case that a particular individual can be both intrinsically and extrinsically valued, depending upon the situation. A child may intrinsically value his mother in general, but the mother may be extrinsically valued (at least temporarily) when the child is considering gifts that he wants for his birthday. It is conceptually possible that a person can be intrinsically and extrinsically valued at the same time in the same situation, but research has yet to clearly demonstrate this phenomenon.

The ability to intrinsically value another person likely evolved as part of a parental care system among higher mammals (Batson, 2010; de Waal, 1996; Hoffman, 1981; Zahn-Waxler & Radke-Yarrow, 1990). Mammalian parents are in the unique position of having particularly vulnerable progeny that are completely incapable of fending for themselves. This vulnerability is uniquely prolonged in comparison with other animal species. Without an instinctual mechanism to evoke valuing of these progeny, mammalian species would go extinct quite rapidly. Although this instinct to value progeny among humans was probably inherited from earlier forms of mammalian species, its form in modern humans appears to be far more flexible than that found among other mammals (Damasio, 2003). This flexibility is useful, if not necessary, given the complexity of raising children in the rapidly changing precincts of modern human societies. The human capacity for intrinsically valuing other individuals can also be extended beyond one’s own child to a broad range of others, including non-humans (Batson, 1991; Batson, Lishner, Cook, & Sawyer, 2005; Shelton & Rogers, 1981). This extension is made possible by the human cognitive capacity for symbolic thought, and by an environment of evolutionary adaptation in which survival of one’s own genes in early hunter-gatherer societies depended on protecting the welfare even of those who were not close kin (Hrdy, 2009; Sober & Wilson, 1998).

For the purposes of research, producing empathy for family and friends is quite simple. Intrinsic valuing is already present, so depicting the target as experiencing need is all that is required. However, most research on empathy often involves producing empathy for a stranger in a laboratory setting. Of course, most people do not intrinsically value complete strangers, particularly in the sterile confines of a research study. As a proxy for intrinsic valuing in these laboratory experiments, a perspective-taking manipulation can produce empathy for such a target. Specifically, participants are instructed to imagine the thoughts and feelings of the target (or, in a control condition, to remain objective and detached). These imagine-other instructions mimic a natural approach that one might use with close others. The result is that the empathy-eliciting mechanism is hacked such that a person who otherwise would elicit no strong emotional responses will now elicit feelings of empathy and the motivational and behavioral consequences that go along with this (Stocks, Lishner, & Decker, 2009; Stocks, López-Pérez, & Oceja, 2016). Other factors, such as emotion regulation strategies, gender, mental and behavioral disorders, and personality can influence the intensity of empathy. These differences in the intensity of empathy may reflect differences in the degree of intrinsic valuing, the perception of need, or the general capacity to experience empathic experience, but the process that gives rise to empathy appears to be the same for all humans.

Perception That the Intrinsically Valued Other is in Need

The second antecedent of empathy is the perception that an intrinsically valued other is experiencing some type of need. There is relatively little research on this topic compared to the first antecedent. However, a number of important discoveries have been made regarding how individuals perceive need in others.

Perceiving need requires attending to and recognizing that there is currently, or possibly could be, a negative discrepancy between the valued other’s psychological or physical status and what is relatively more desirable for the other (Batson, 1987). Sources of discrepancy include the presence of negative emotional responses, disease, distress, physical pain, and real, implied, or imagined potential harm. They also include the absence of positive experiences, such as achieving important goals, experiencing positive emotional states, resolving basic physiological and security needs, and personal growth.

What complicates this issue, however, is that the welfare of the other is almost certainly best evaluated by that other. Yet, information about this evaluation must somehow be deduced by, or communicated to, or decoded by, the perceiver. Some cases are quite simple. If the target bumps her knee, the perceiver can recognize expressions of pain, experience empathy for the target, and respond accordingly. There is no disagreement about the source of the other’s need state and likely no disagreement about the proper remedy. Therein lies the rub. When there is a disagreement between the perceiver and target about what constitutes a threat to the target’s welfare, whose judgment produces empathy? If an alcoholic believes that his welfare will be improved by having another drink, the perceiver may well think that helping the target get another drink will actually cause an increase, rather than a decrease, in the overarching need state. And, of course, it is possible that a target may not perceive her or himself to be in need, although the perceiver does. In each of these two cases, serious disagreement is imminent.

Thus, to perceive another person in need, there must exist a real, implied, or imagined discrepancy between the current status of the other’s welfare and what the other’s welfare could (or should, or should not) be. It is an open debate as to who ought to be the ultimate judge of this discrepancy and what actions are needed to correct it, but it is clearly the potential empathizer’s judgment (accurate or not) that elicits empathy (Clark & Word, 1972, 1974; Latane & Darley, 1970). It is also important that the potential empathizer’s attention is focused on the thoughts and feelings of the other, rather than on him or herself, or on some other aspect of the situation (Aderman & Berkowitz, 1983; Mathews & Canon, 1975; Milgram, 1970; Weiner, 1976). For example, if a close other breaks his leg, focusing on the protruding bone and blood would likely create disgust and distress rather than empathy. If the observer, instead, focused on the victim’s thoughts and feelings, empathy is the more likely emotional outcome.

The magnitude of perceived need is determined by the size of the discrepancy between current and preferred psychological or physical status, the number of discrepancies, and the relative importance of each discrepancy. The specific contribution and strength of these factors to the perception of need is a topic in need of further study. There may be additional factors that influence the perception of need, but these three are almost certainly necessary components. Of course, these perceptions are prone to errors and missed cues, particularly in a group context (e.g., the bystander effect).


The term altruism, as we employ it here, refers to a motivational state with the ultimate goal of protecting or promoting the welfare of someone other than oneself (see Batson, 1991, for a review). In this context, ultimate goal refers to the purpose, or end state, of a motive. In contrast, an instrumental goal is a means to achieve the ultimate goal. Most, if not all, motivational states involve an ultimate goal that is the source of the motivational force acting on the individual. In order to pursue this goal, intermediate steps must be accomplished en route. For example, if one’s ultimate goal is to eat, sub-goals associated with securing and preparing food must be accomplished in order to resolve this. One may be required to get dressed, drive to a grocery store, select the appropriate food, pay for it, drive home, cook the food, find plates and utensils, and so forth. Only when those sub-goals have been accomplished can the person resolve the ultimate goal of eating (Lewin, 1938). Instrumental and ultimate goals must also be distinguished from unintended consequences, which are incidental outcomes of goal pursuit.

The connection between empathy and altruism is quite simple, according to the empathy–altruism hypothesis—empathy is the emotion that triggers an altruistic motive (for a review, see Batson, 2011). Much of the research on empathy and altruism has come from investigating the link between the two. And this research has reignited interest in the egoism–altruism debate. Specifically, altruism is typically contrasted with egoism, which is a motivational state with the ultimate goal of protecting or promoting one’s own welfare. Both egoism and altruism have an ultimate goal of increasing someone’s welfare. The crucial difference between the two is whose welfare is at issue—in egoism it is one’s own welfare and in altruism it is the other person’s.

It is also important to differentiate altruism from other, related phenomena. First, altruism is a motivational state, not a behavior. Therefore, it is not appropriate to label an instance of helping behavior as altruistic (or, for that matter, egoistic). Helping behavior can be motivated by altruism, egoism, or some other motive. Outside of a well-controlled research laboratory, it is often impossible to pinpoint the motive behind helping behavior. Even if the helping behavior is costly or reduces reproductive fitness, the behavior itself is not a motive and should not be labelled as such (Alexander, 1987; Dawkins, 1976; Hamilton, 1964; Trivers, 1971; Wilson, 1975).

Second, some researchers have argued that altruistic and egoistic motives differ only by the locus of reward for helping behavior. Specifically, it has been argued that altruism is a subtype of egoism in which helping another person means one reaps benefits oneself. As long as the self-benefits are internally rather than externally administered, the motive is altruistic (e.g., Hoffman, 2000). As we use the term here, any motive with an ultimate goal of protecting or promoting one’s own welfare is egoism, not altruism. Although this distinction between internal and external rewards is subtle, failure to maintain the distinction between whose welfare is the focus of the motive confuses the defining features of altruism and egoism. Finally, some have argued that altruism is synonymous with helping behavior that meets some standard of goodness or morality (Campbell, 2006). This view is based on connecting altruism to morality through the relation of each to selfishness. If selfishness is immoral, and altruism is a lack of selfishness, then altruism must be moral. However, this argument does not work. Altruism may be selfless, but even selfless motives can result in immoral actions. For example, if given a choice to donate a kidney to a family member or a stranger, it is highly likely that the kidney will be given to the family member rather than the stranger—even if the stranger is in much greater need. Indeed, one of the fundamental flaws of altruism is partiality toward those we care about. Thus, altruism can yield actions that are moral, immoral, or amoral. The same is true of egoism. Protecting or promoting one’s own welfare can, and often does, increase the greater good (e.g., donating money to a homeless shelter in order to bolster one’s public image can improve the lives of the residents of that shelter). Thus, to equate any motive with morality is based on flawed logic and is almost certainly inaccurate.

Is Altruism a Good Thing?

If it is true that humans are capable of genuinely altruistic motivation, then the assumption that all behaviors are motivated by selfishness is not only cynical, but demonstrably wrong. The existence of altruism would also give us all a great reason to celebrate the human capacity for goodness. But is altruism always a good thing? Batson, Ahmad, and Stocks (2004) suggest not. On the positive side, it appears that altruism is associated with a more sensitive form of helping than is egoism—one that is focused on the long-term well-being of the other rather than on short-term gains or helping in a manner that forces the helper’s worldview on the person in need (e.g., López-Pérez, Howells, & Gummerum, 2017; Sibicky, Schroeder, & Dovidio, 1995). Also, empathy has been shown to correlate with neural responses indicative of lower approach tendencies in response to provocation, suggesting that altruism inhibits aggression against the target of empathy (Harmon-Jones, Vaughn-Scott, Mohr, Sigelman, & Harmon-Jones, 2004). Still other research suggests altruism can increase cooperation in conflict situations (Batson & Moran, 1999). Finally, research suggests that altruism can improve attitudes toward stigmatized groups (Batson, Polycarpou, et al., 1997). Specifically, Batson et al. proposed a three-step model for using empathy-induced altruism to improve attitudes toward members of out-groups. First, instructing someone to adopt the perspective of a stigmatized person evokes empathy for that person. Next, empathy increases intrinsic valuing of that person. And finally, valuing of this person’s welfare generalizes to the stigmatized group as a whole. Thus, future interactions with members of that group are more likely to produce empathy (rather than antipathy), altruistic motivation, and the prosocial behaviors that go along with these. It is interesting to note that this strategy works with non-human targets as well, such as whales (Shelton & Rogers, 1981) and the environment (Schultz, 2000).

But celebrating altruism may be a bit premature. Research suggests that altruism has a dark side. First, altruism can be dangerous. Specifically, altruistically motivated prosocial acts may put an individual at life-threatening risk to protect the welfare of another. Aside from the obvious psychological and physical costs of such actions, there is also an evolutionary cost as well. If individuals help others without regard for their own safety, our species would quickly die out. Some egoism, at least in the sense of self-preservation, is a necessary condition for the preservation of humanity. Second, people do not, and in fact cannot, feel empathy for all victims equally. Instead, certain people are more likely to be recipients of altruism. A number of factors influence who is viewed as a valued target, such as the attractiveness of the victim, media coverage of the need, attitudes toward a victim’s group, and so forth. A chilling, recent example is how citizens and government officials in the United States responded to hurricane victims. When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in August 2017, the outpouring of aid was swift and abundant. Yet when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico (a territory of the United States) just one month later, far too little aid was made available. In fact, approximately 70% of its citizens were still without power and basic necessities for at least two months after landfall. Clearly, then, some victims were much more likely than others to evoke a desire to help among those in a position to help, even if the victims have the exact same need. This should not come as much of a surprise. Altruism is very partial in favor of specific others who are intrinsically valued. As such, empathy-induced altruism is a source of positive discrimination—in favor of those we like, love, care about, and so forth. It is also a source of negative discrimination—against those we do not like or care about, or those outside one’s in-group. Thus, altruism is both selective and unfair (Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw, 1995; Oceja, 2008).

In a similar vein, when a person becomes aware that he or she may potentially feel empathy for a victim, an empathy-avoidance motive may arise. That is, people can be egoistically motivated to avoid feeling empathy in order to avoid altruism and the prosocial actions that come with it (Shaw, Batson, & Todd, 1994). This empathy-avoidance motive is most likely when the person believes that he or she will be asked to engage in costly helping behavior for the victim. It also can occur when the person believes that successful helping of the victim is not possible, such as caring for a dying patient (Stotland, Mathews, Sherman, Hansson, & Richardson, 1978). In such cases, the quality of care may suffer due to a lack of empathy for the victim.

Moreover, altruism can undermine the common good. Specifically, altruism may lead individuals to act in favor of a specific individual, even when doing so harms others. For example, Batson et al. (1995) reported that participants in a social dilemma disproportionally allocated resources to a member of the group for whom they felt empathy, which reduced the welfare of the group as a whole. The different responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria demonstrate this phenomenon in action. Aid organizations allocated disproportionally to Texas compared to Puerto Rico, which reduced the welfare of the citizenry of the United States as a whole (Zagefka & James, 2015).

Although this final point is often overlooked, altruism is not always wanted by, or warranted for, the victim (Gilbert & Silvera, 1996). As noted, it is the observer’s judgment that the other is in need that evokes empathy-induced altruism. In some cases, that judgment is at odds with what the other believes he or she needs. Consequently, helping someone who does not want or need help can be annoying to the recipient. It can also undermine the credibility or denigrate the recipient in the eyes of others. But even in cases where the need is real, and both the observer and victim accurately recognize the need, the victim may simply not want to confront the situation. Forcing the victim to recognize the need may, itself, either exacerbate the original need or create a new one. Either way, altruism can lead to interpersonal conflict.

Altruism-Based and Non-Altruism-Based Prosocial Behavior

Although altruism has been discussed as a motivational concept up to this point, it is important to recognize that the term has also been used to refer to any form of prosocial behavior, of which helping other people is one type. Other types of prosocial behavior include moral actions or efforts to protect and promote non-living entities, such as the environment. For this reason, it is important to distinguish between prosocial behavior per se from altruistically motivated prosocial behavior. Specifically, prosocial behavior can be defined as any action that increases the welfare of someone or something other than oneself. Note that one’s own welfare can also be increased by the act and the act will still qualify as prosocial behavior. The important thing in identifying prosocial behavior is that someone or something other than self is affected, not that one’s own welfare is unaffected. Thus, altruism can be defined as a motivational explanation for why people engage in some instances of prosocial behavior. As noted, prosocial behavior produced by altruism is directed at increasing the other’s welfare as an ultimate goal. However, other motives can also produce prosocial behavior.

Egoistic Explanations for Prosocial Behavior

By far the most popular motivational explanation for prosocial behavior is egoism. Indeed, at least seven different classes of egoistic motivations have been proposed to explain why people engage in prosocial behaviors. One of the most popular egoistic explanation is helping behavior is motivated by a goal of aversive-arousal reduction (e.g., Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner, & Clark, 1981). According to this explanation, observing another person in need is unpleasant, which creates aversive feelings (e.g., sadness, distress, disgust). These aversive feelings, in turn, evoke a motive to reduce this unpleasant state. Helping reduces this aversive feeling state by removing the cause (i.e., the person in need). It is important to note, however, that helping in this context is likely only when a less costly means to achieve the aversive-arousal reduction goal is unavailable. In many cases, it is easier and less costly to simply leave the situation, turn attention elsewhere, or distort one’s perception of the other rather than help the person in need. According to this explanation, the ease of escaping exposure to the other’s need is what determines whether the observer will help.

A second egoistic explanation for why people help is to achieve the goal of avoiding punishment. Two versions of this explanation have been proposed. The first focuses on social evaluation (Archer, Diaz-Loving, Gollwitzer, Davis, & Foushee, 1981). According to this explanation, people help because they believe that others will judge them negatively for failure to help. Punishments for failure to help can also come in the form of legal sanctions or fines, social rejection, loss of social status, and the like. A second version focuses on self-evaluation (Dovidio, 1984). According to this version, people help because they fear that failure to help will result in feelings of guilt or shame. Taken together, these explanations suggest that helping is caused by fear of negative judgments from others, or from oneself.

A third egoistic explanation for why people help is to achieve the goal of receiving rewards. Three versions of this motive have been proposed. The first suggests that people earn rewards by helping. Such rewards can come in the form of praise from others, feelings of pride and accomplishment, increased self-esteem, and the like (Thompson, Cowan, & Rosenhan, 1980). A second version suggests that helping allows an individual to experience vicarious joy when the target’s need is resolved (Smith, Keating, & Stotland, 1989). A third suggests that people help in order to acquire rewards that serve to counteract or reduce negative feelings, such as sadness (Cialdini et al., 1987). Thus, helping can offer relief from a person’s own negative emotional state.

Finally, a fourth egoistic explanation of why people help is to benefit aspects of the self that are perceived to overlap with aspects of the person in need (Batson, Sager, et al., 1997; Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, & Neuberg, 1997). This explanation proposes that often times when encountering someone in need we may come to perceive a sense of self–other merging with the person. By helping the person we are actually helping the self, at least those perceived aspects of the self that are shared with the person.

Taken together, these seven explanations are often used to explain why people help one another. The general idea is that prosocial action is always caused by the pursuit of some type of self-benefit—reducing aversive feelings, avoiding punishments, or obtaining rewards. Another egoism-based explanation for prosocial behavior operates at a different level than these seven explanations. It is rooted in genetic influences on helping behavior and will be discussed in detail in Section “Other Factors That Affect Prosocial Behavior.”

Altruistic Explanations for Prosocial Behavior

The egoistic explanations for helping are certainly compelling and undoubtedly predict a broad range of prosocial behavior. However, are humans always, inherently, and unavoidably selfish? As discussed, research on altruism suggests this claim is simply not true. Although we are often motivated to benefit others for egoistic reasons, we are capable of protecting or promoting the welfare of another person as an ultimate goal when we experience empathy for that person. Yet, the idea that feeling empathy for another produces an altruistic motivation has not gone unchallenged. Instead, some have argued that the motivation evoked by empathy, although it appears altruistic, actually involves a subtle form of egoism. For instance, it may be that instead of an altruistic motivation, empathy actually evokes one or more of the egoistic motivations described in Section “Egoistic Explanations for Prosocial Behavior” (Neuberg et al., 1997). Indeed, dozens of research projects conducted since the 1980s have pit the empathy–altruism hypothesis against each of the egoistic explanations for prosocial behavior (for a review, see Batson, 2011). However, the data from these projects overwhelmingly suggest that the motivation produced by empathy is altruistic rather than egoistic. It appears, then, that humans are capable of genuine altruism and that not all prosocial behavior is rooted in egoism. However, empathy occurs under a small set of conditions and it is safe to say that most cases of helping can be traced back to one form of selfishness or another.

Principlism and Collectivism: Two Other Explanations for Prosocial Behavior

In addition to egoism and altruism, Batson (1994) proposes at least two other possible motivations for prosocial behavior. The first is principlism, which is motivation to uphold a moral principle, such as justice or fairness. According to this explanation, we may benefit the welfare of another as an instrumental means of promoting a moral principle or of re-establishing a moral principle that has been violated. In contrast, collectivism is a motive to benefit a group as a whole (i.e., a collective), and it may be another cause of prosocial behavior.

Other Factors That Affect Prosocial Behavior

Aside from motivational explanations for why people engage in prosocial behavior, researchers have also examined a number of other phenomena related to helping. Specifically, this research has sought to better understand what increases or decreases the likelihood of prosocial behavior, regardless of the type of motivation that may evoke the behavior. The factors that predict when, and for whom, prosocial behavior will occur can be divided into three categories: dispositional, situational, and evolutionary.

Dispositional Influences on Prosocial Behavior

Dispositional factors are personality characteristics, or individual difference variables, that predispose an individual to engage in prosocial behavior. These factors include sensitivity to norms of personal and social responsibility, internalization of prosocial values, moral reasoning ability, a tendency to empathize, intelligence, nurturance, religiosity (i.e., internalized religious values and practices), and self-esteem. Although none of these factors alone predicts prosocial behavior well, a combination of empathic tendencies, moral reasoning ability, and sensitivity to norms of personal and social responsibility constitute what some have called an altruistic personality (Oliner & Oliner, 1988). It is important to note that while these altruistic personality characteristics are strongly correlated with helping behavior, research suggests that the motive associated with this helping is almost certainly egoistic rather than altruistic (see Batson, 1991, for a discussion). Thus, it may be more appropriate to refer to this collection of traits and abilities as the foundation of an egoistically motivated helping personality rather than an altruistic personality.

Social learning is likely another dispositional factor that can promote prosocial behavior. People who have received (or who have observed others receiving) rewards for helping, or punishments for not helping, are more likely to help than are those who have not. Social learning can result in internalized values and norms that influence helping in a more general manner (Bandura, 1971). Internalized values and norms motivate helping behavior due to the consequences of upholding or failing to uphold them. For example, behaving in line with one’s internalized values or norms can increase self-esteem, lead to praise from others, and so forth. Failing to behave in line with one’s internalized values or norms can instead increase shame or guilt, lead to condemnation from others, and the like.

In order for norms to influence any behavior, they must be both salient to the individual and perceived as being relevant to the situation at hand. It is important to note that some helping situations are more likely to engage the power of norms than others. For example, a need situation in which one’s child is in danger will likely trigger a norm that is both highly salient and easily recognized as relevant. A need situation in which a stranger is sad, by contrast, is unlikely to trigger a norm to help. Situations in which people fail to help one another can often be traced back either to a norm that has not been made salient for some reason or to lack of recognition that the norm is relevant to the helping situation, to the victim, or to some combination of the two (Latane & Darley, 1970).

Situational Influences on Prosocial Behavior

Situational factors are stimuli in an individual’s environment that promote prosocial behavior. These factors are not bound by an individual’s personality disposition but are, instead, features of the environment that promote or inhibit certain behaviors. Although there are a considerable number of situational factors that affect prosocial behavior, only a few have received detailed scientific attention. One of the most frequently studied situational factors is the presence of bystanders (Latane & Darley, 1970). In an emergency situation, increasing the number of bystanders in the situation causes a diffusion of responsibility for helping (i.e., the amount of personal responsibility to help that each individual feels decreases). This diffusion of responsibility reduces the likelihood that any individual in the situation will engage in prosocial behavior simply because each individual believes that the other people in the situation should be the ones to help. Research does suggest, however, that the type of bystander matters. For example, people are more likely to help in an emergency if they are with a friend rather than with a stranger. People are also more likely to help those who are similar to, rather than different from, themselves. This similarity holds true for a broad range of attributes, including everything from political or religious affiliation to music preference (for a review, see Batson, 2011).

Another factor that influences helping is the presence of prosocial norms, which are written and unwritten rules of behavior that communicate when, how, and for the benefit of whom help is to be provided. If a situation promotes attention to prosocial norms, then prosocial behavior is more likely to occur. As noted, however, any factor that makes the norm salient and relevant to the victim or situation will be more likely to evoke helping behavior.

Information about the cause of a victim’s need is also an important factor in a potential helper’s willingness to offer aid. For example, those viewed as not responsible for their need are more likely to be helped compared to those viewed as having caused their own need (Lerner, 1980). In fact, the salience and clarity of a victim’s need can directly promote helping behavior, and this tends to increase as either the physical or psychological distance between potential helper and victim decreases (Milgram, 1974). Thus, a victim in close physical proximity or who is in a familiar relationship with the potential helper will be far more likely to receive help than a victim who is physically farther away or not in some form of relationship with the helper.

Factors that increase positive mood and feelings of empathy also promote helping behavior. Ironically, research suggests that the opposite is equally true. Situations that increase negative mood or feelings of personal distress promote helping behavior but only if behavior is perceived as rewarding or if escape from negative feelings can only be achieved through helping (Stocks et al., 2009). Furthermore, research also suggests that race influences prosocial behavior. For example, people are more likely to help members of their own racial group, but this pattern emerges primarily when failure to help is not viewed as a form of prejudice or discrimination. In cases where failure to help can be viewed as prejudice or discrimination, people tend to help all racial groups equally (see Graziano & Habashi, 2010, for a review).

Gender also matters. For instance, females are more likely to receive help than males. As helpers, men and women tend to help in different ways. Specifically, men are more likely to engage in short-term prosocial acts, whereas women are more likely to engage in long-term acts. This pattern may reflect culture-based gender roles: Females are generally taught to be caring and nurturing, whereas males are taught to be decisive and courageous (Piliavin & Charng, 1990). Of course, both genders do engage in both types of helping behavior, but culture shapes which form of prosocial act is viewed as more appropriate for each gender, and social approval or disapproval is tied to acting according to these expectations.

Evolutionary Influences on Prosocial Behavior

Evolutionary factors promote prosocial behavior as a consequence of natural selection processes. According to sociobiology, individuals are predisposed to help those who are, for one reason or another, perceived to share or promote their own genes. Sociobiologists claim that individuals are simply vessels for genes and that genes are far more important in the grand scheme of evolution than are the individuals who happen to carry them (e.g., Dawkins, 2009). For example, the kin selection explanation for prosocial behavior suggests that people are more likely to help individuals who are genetically related to them because helping kin promotes the survival and reproduction of one’s own genes. Consequently, helping kin is a roundabout way of helping oneself (or, to be more precise, helping one’s own genes). However, not all kin are, from an evolutionary standpoint, worth the costs associated with helping. In fact, research suggests that younger individuals are more likely to receive aid than older individuals, as are those who are capable of reproduction rather than those who are not. In both cases, it makes no evolutionary sense to risk one’s own welfare to help a person who cannot reproduce or otherwise promote the transmission of one’s genes into the next generation. If helping an individual does not increase the likelihood that one’s own genes will move forward in evolutionary history, according to this explanation, any action is unlikely (for a review, see Sober & Wilson, 1998).

Likewise, the reciprocal altruism (sometimes referred to as reciprocal helping) explanation for prosocial behavior suggests that people tend to help those who are, for one reason or another, likely to help them in return (Trivers, 1971). This is because helping those who will return the favor increases the likelihood that one’s own genes will be protected or promoted when in need at a later date. This explanation has been taken a step further. Sociobiologists claim that selection occurs not only at the level of individuals but at the level of groups as well. Indeed, research suggests that helping one’s in-group members can promote the survival of all members of the group, which, in turn, protects one’s own genes that happen to reside in other individuals within the group. Taken together, these evolutionary explanations for prosocial behavior claim that animals—or to be more precise, the genes within the animals—are inherently selfish. According to this perspective, the only reason prosocial action occurs is to protect or promote one’s own genes (regardless of whether they reside in one’s own, a family member’s, or a group member’s body) so that they can make it into the next generation.

Prosocial Behavior and Well-Being

Much research has focused on understanding why helping happens or fails to happen. But what effect does helping have on the helper him or herself? Does prosocial behavior influence a person’s sense of well-being? Well-being is a complex concept with multiple meanings. It is also subjective, in that it reflects a sense of satisfaction and happiness in one’s current state or life (Diener, Oishi, & Lucas, 2003). These evaluations can be relatively global or specific to certain life domains or events. Subjective well-being consists of several related but conceptually distinct indicators, including relative degrees of positive and negative affect, satisfaction, and a sense of vitality and meaning (Kyeongmo, Lehning, & Sacco, 2016; Ryan & Deci, 2001). High well-being typically corresponds to high physical or psychological functioning: one tends to feel positive, robust, and healthy. Low well-being typically corresponds to low physical or psychological functioning and one tends to feel negative, weak, and unhealthy.

A growing body of research suggests that prosocial behavior is associated with longevity and mental health (for reviews, see Brown & Brown, 2014; Piliavin, 2003; Wilson & Musick, 2000). This association appears to generalize across multiple types of prosocial behavior, including informal caregiving of friends and family (e.g., Poulin, Brown, Dillard, & Smith, 2013) as well as formal volunteer activities (e.g., Muscik, Herzog, & House, 1999). Prosocial behavior also is associated with mental health (Brown & Brown, 2014). Weinstein and Ryan (2010) suggest that prosocial behavior results in better mental health when the behavior allows helpers to satisfy their own psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

It is important to note that not all research finds evidence that prosocial behavior is positively associated with well-being. Some research finds the opposite. For instance, some studies of informal caregiving of close others and family members finds that prosocial behavior is associated with decreased well-being, especially when giving care to older individuals, disabled individuals, or those living with long-term illnesses (see Brown & Brown, 2014, for a review). Brown and Brown (2014) argue that this inconsistency in results stems from failure to address confounds in those studies that tend to find evidence of a negative association between informal caregiving and well-being. They propose that many of these studies fail to take into account pre-existing dispositional and situational differences of participants that are related to lower well-being more generally, regardless of whether one is in a caregiving situation. Failure to take these differences into account can mask the positive association between caregiving and well-being. Indeed, those studies that find evidence of a positive association tend to address these confounds in a more adequate manner.

Lishner and Stocks (2018) go even further in explaining the reason for conflicting findings. They propose that the extent to which prosocial behavior will result in increased well-being depends on the nature of the motivation spurring the prosocial behavior, whether the behavior results in successful achievement of the ultimate goal linked to that motivation, and the degree to which the helping situation entails a high degree of cost (or strain) on the helper. Specifically, only when prosocial behavior results in achievement of the relevant motivational ultimate goal, and the satisfaction in this achievement outweighs the costs associated with the prosocial act, is well-being expected to increase.


Empathy is a complex and interesting phenomenon. So is altruism. And research suggests that the two are inextricably linked. One potential consequence of empathy-induced altruism is prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is normally a selfish act—that is, it is an attempt to seek rewards, to avoid punishments, or to reduce unpleasant feelings. It is also a mechanism to protect one’s genetic components so that they may be reproduced in the next generation. However, the research is equally clear that humans are—at least in certain circumstances—capable of genuine altruism. Specifically, the conditions that promote empathy for another will also promote altruism, and the goal of this motive is to protect or promote the welfare of someone other than oneself. It is important to note, however, that empathy-induced altruism is not the panacea that some may believe. It has a dark side that must be acknowledged.

Situations that can give rise to empathy may also give rise to egoistic motives to help or to not help. As such, the capacity for altruism does not always translate to prosocial behaviors that are solely driven by altruism. Rather, it is more likely that even helpful acts spurred by feelings of empathy may carry with them some form, however subtle, of self-benefit as well. Aside from the nature of the motive to help, a number of other dispositional, situational, and evolutionary factors increase or decrease willingness to help. It is important to understand each of these and how they work together in order to fully answer the question: “Why do people help one another?” One other thing is clear from research on prosocial behavior: Under certain conditions, helping others can increase the helper’s well-being. When this is the case, helping others is generally a good thing for all involved. Perhaps this alone is reason enough to continue feeling empathy for, and helping, others.


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