Recent studies by scholars in the psychological sphere have shown rather ambivalent results considering the nature of altruism and empathy in people. Empathy is described as an ability to perceive people in need, understand the struggles of others, feel the emotional spectrum of another person, knowing others’ feelings; whereas altruism is the term used to describe morally correct, self-sacrificing behaviour without any desire to benefit from any kind of prosocial interactions (Batson et al., 2015). The scientists argue whether social behaviour is fuelled by the human desire to help and nurture others due to empathy or for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Hence, the aim of this essay is to trace the cause of prosocial interactions and look into the altruistic side of human nature.
Prosocial behaviour, as well as altruism, have always been a phenomenon of high importance for psychologists because the understanding of such behaviour provides comprehension of the fundamental reasons of moral acts for the greater good. The modern description of the psychological term prosocial behaviour can be defined as the acts of people that are directed towards increasing or supporting the well-being of other members of the community (Li et al., 2021). According to Batson et al., prosocial behaviour encompasses emotions and acts such as sharing, communicating, caring, and any other actions that can be considered useful for one’s social group (Batson et al., 2003). The study also implies that during prosocial behaviour, the ‘helper’ can increase their well-fare through the interaction, too. Thus, while altruistic motivation can result in prosocial behaviour, egoistic motivation can, too.
The idea of egoistic motivators eliciting prosocial behaviour seems counterintuitive as the empathy-altruism hypothesis states that an emotional reaction a person has while seeing someone seeking help creates a desire to satisfy them. The scholars in the aforementioned study argue that the altruistic nature of all human beings can be tentatively proven by psychological analyses and future neuroscience research.
Speaking of the aforementioned hypothesis, scholars assume that empathy lies at the core of any prosocial acts as it is supposed to be connected with caring for the outer social world. Thus, altruism influences people to participate in prosocial behaviour meaning caring about the community without any visible physical benefits. However, egoistic motivation — “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s welfare” — can also result in prosocial behaviour when increasing the welfare of the individual receiving the help also simultaneously increases the welfare of the helper (Batson et al., 2015). This has made researching altruism, and by extension, the empathy-altruism hypothesis difficult because egoistic and altruistic motivations can co-occur during prosocial behaviour (Batson et al., 2003). However, much of the debate concerns the question whether empathetic motivation comes from altruism or egoism — “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s welfare” (Batson et al., 2015). However, the scientists highlight the possibility that social interactions are deeply connected with empathetic and altruistic actions.
Moreover, another significant aspect of the empathy-altruism hypothesis is how the scholars define the individual perception of what is good and needed for another person because people interpret any need for help differently. Some empathetic and compassionate individuals may find a person in need but they would not actually seek any help from outside. Vice versa, a person can be very emotionally fragile and vulnerable but another individual may not define such a mental state as in need of help. Therefore, reciprocity is highly significant when it comes to mutual satisfaction and acceptance.
The process of social interactions that are both mutual and reciprocated can be called reciprocity, the psychological science distinguishes this term in order to emphasize the ideal situation when empathy and altruism become beneficial for everyone in the relationship. Moreover, such a phenomenon is of great value because it allows the scholars to trace the roots of selfless behaviour when the benefits become obvious for the members of said relationship. The results of that process include social trust, predictability, stability, and the belief that this relationship is secure (Molm et al., 2007). The depicted emotional responses can be precisely defined as giving and receiving support for the greater good of the community.
In order to understand the ambivalent nature of prosocial behaviour and its correlation to empathy, a large meta-analysis by C. D. Batson et al. evaluated “research over the past 35 years” on altruism. The study indicated that there is a strong, positive correlation between altruistic acts and an individual’s level of empathy, even when egoistic factors are put into account. This evidence strongly supports the empathy-altruism hypothesis. The meta-analysis included many studies that focused on other population groups of varying ages, ethnicities, genders, etc. Hence, the researchers managed to create a research paper with a high population validity. In addition, the meta-analysis examined both artificial and real-life environments, giving the study high ecological validity.
On the contrary, some studies suggest that a variety of other alternative egoistic factors may be at play when it comes to being prosocial. For instance, individuals with high levels of empathy may be more inclined to help and please others to avoid feeling guilt or shame which is an egoistic motivator. Similarly, empathetic and attentive individuals can be more inclined to help for social recognition and feelings of accomplishment. Nevertheless, the study by S. L. Marshall (2020) and other psychologists that are specialised on the research of the construction of compassion during socialization state that the affective and cognitive empathy predicted prosocial development. In the aforementioned study the development of teenagers is taken into consideration which is the first research of the correlation between socialization of adolescents and the tendencies of prosocial acts for the well-being of others. The research paper demonstrates that compassion training among the youth increases positive affect, even amongst those witnessing human suffering (Marshall, 2020). The current study builds on existing research suggesting that self-compassionate adolescents appear less reactive to others emotional states and therefore are more likely to engage in the prosocial behaviour.
In the discourse about empathy-building that was mentioned in the study by Marshall et al. it is significant to emphasize the importance of reciprocity in altruistic relationships. The theory of social reciprocity suggested that prosocial behaviour acts are somewhat egotistical in nature as they are motivated by the expectation of direct or indirect rewards through reciprocity (Molm, 2007). The empathy-altruism hypothesis claims that human behaviour and empathetic concern produces altruistic motivation. The evidence strongly supports this claim over many alternative egoistic motivator explanations. However, prosocial behaviour can result from both egoistic and altruistic motivations, meaning that the theory does not explain all aspects of communal acts.
So, while the empathy-altruism hypothesis explains the role of altruism in regards to prosocial behaviour, it fails to consider all the aspects of such a phenomenon. However, the scholars do not stop their research and future developments in psychological science because it is widely known how empathy and compassion can change the world for the better in its global sense.
Batson, C. D., Lishner, D. A., & Stocks, E. L. (2015). The Empathy—Altruism Hypothesis.
Batson, C. D., & Powell, A. A. (2003). Altruism and Prosocial Behavior.
Li, B. J., & Kyung Kim, H. (2021). Experiencing Organ Failure in Virtual Reality: Effects of Self-versus Other-Embodied Perspective Taking on Empathy and Prosocial Outcomes. New media & society, 23(8), 2144-2166.
Marshall, S. L., Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P. D., & Sahdra, B. K. (2020). Is Self‐Compassion Selfish? The Development of Self‐Compassion, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Adolescence. Journal of research on adolescence, 30, 472-484.
Molm, L. D., Schaefer, D. R., & Collett, J. L. (2007). The value of reciprocity. Social Psychology Quarterly, 70(2), 199-217.