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Empathy-altruism is a form of altruism based on feelings for others.

The social exchange theory states that altruism does not exist unless benefits to the helper outweigh the costs. C. Daniel Batson disagrees. He holds that people help others in need out of genuine concern for the well-being of the other person.[1] The key ingredient to helping is "empathic concern". According to his 'empathy-altruism hypothesis', if you feel empathy towards another person you will help them, regardless of what you can gain from it (1991). Relieving their suffering becomes the most important thing. When you do not feel empathy, the social exchange theory takes control.

Batson recognized that people sometimes helped out of selfish reasons. He and his team were interested in finding ways to distinguish between the motives. Students were asked to listen to tapes from a radio program. One of the interviews was with Carol. She talked about her bad car accident in which both of her legs were broken. She talked about her struggles and how behind she was becoming in class. Students who were listening to this particular interview were given a letter asking the student to share lecture notes and meet with her. The experimenters changed the level of empathy by telling one group to try to focus on how she was feeling (high empathy level). The other group did not need to be concerned with that (low empathy level). The experimenters also varied the cost of not helping. The high cost group was told that Carol would be in their same psychology class after returning to school. The low cost group believed she would finish the class at home. The results confirmed the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Those in the high empathy group were almost equally as likely to help her in either circumstance, while the low empathy group helped out of self-interest. Seeing her in class everyday made them feel guilty if they did not help (Batson & Toi, 1982 - Not in reference list).


Debate over whether other-helping behavior is motivated by self or other interest has raged over the last 20 years. The prime actors in this debate are Daniel Batson arguing for empathy-altruism and Robert Cialdini arguing for self-interest.

Five Studies Testing Two New Egoistic Alternatives to the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis[2][edit]

The authors set out to show that empathy motivates other-regarding helping behavior not out of self-interest but out of true interest in the well-being of others. Two hypotheses that counter the empathy-altruism hypothesis are addressed in this article:

  • 1) Empathy Specific Reward: Empathy triggers the need for social reward which can be gained by helping.
  • 2) Empathy Specific Punishment: Empathy triggers the fear of social punishment which can be avoided by helping.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aronson, E.; Wilson, T. D.; Akert, A. M. (2005). Social Psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-178686-5. 
  2. ^ Batson, C. D.; Dyck, J. L.; Brandt, J. R.; Batson, J. G.; Powell, A. L. (1988). "Five Studies Testing Two New Egoistic Alternatives to the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55 (1): 52–77. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.55.1.52. PMID 3418490. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Batson, C. D., & Leonard, B. (1987). Prosocial Motivation: Is it ever Truly Altruistic? In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. Volume 20, pp. 65-122): Academic Press.
  • Decety, J. & Batson, C.D. (2007). Social neuroscience approaches to interpersonal sensitivity. Social Neuroscience, 2(3-4), 151-157.
  • Decety, J. & Ickes, W. (Eds.). (2009). The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Thompson, E. (2001). Empathy and consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 1-32.
  • Zahn-Waxler, C., & Radke-Yarrow, M. (1990). The origins of empathic concern. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 107-125.