We humans spend a remarkable amount of time, money, and energy to benefit others, including family, friends, and strangers. Why do we do it? Do we ever care about others for their sakes and not simply for our own? Is our ultimate goal always and exclusively self-benefit, or are we capable of caring about another person’s welfare as an ultimate goal? These questions are asking about the existence of altruistic motivation in humans.
Dan Batson delivers an address on empathy at the 2007 Autonomy Singularity Creativity conference.
The orthodox answer to such questions, at least in Western thought, is clearly stated by La Rouchefoucauld: “The most disinterested love is, after all, but a kind of bargain, in which the dear love of our own selves always proposes to be the gainer some way or other.”
The empathy-altruism hypothesis offers a very different answer. It claims that empathic concern (other-oriented emotion felt for someone in need—sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like) produces altruistic motivation (a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing the other’s welfare). Over the past 35 years, other researchers and I have attempted to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis using laboratory experiments and have, overall, found quite strong support (for a partial review see Batson & Shaw, 1991; Batson, forthcoming provides a more complete review). Altruistic motivation does seem to be within the human repertoire. Of course, fundamental questions remain: What produces empathic concern? Can we give a plausible account of the evolution of empathy-induced altruism? What are the practical and theoretical implications if empathy-induced altruism exists?
In everyday life, empathic concern seems to be a product of (a) perception of another as in need and (b) intrinsic valuing of that other’s welfare. Contrary to what is often thought, empathic concern is not a product of perceived similarity of the other to the self. We do not simply feel for ourselves in the other. We can feel empathic concern for a wide range of others in need, even dissimilar others, as long as we value their welfare.
In terms of evolutionary history, I do not think that reciprocal altruism, inclusive fitness (kin selection), or group selection in its various forms can account for empathy-induced altruistic motivation in humans. Rather, generalized parental nurturance now seems the most likely evolutionary basis of empathic concern—even for strangers. Human parental nurturance is far more flexible and future-oriented than the parental instincts found in most—perhaps all—other mammalian species. It is need-oriented, emotion-based, and goal-directed. And it can be generalized well beyond our own children—in the case of pets, even to members of other species. If parental nurturance is the prototype for empathy-induced altruism, then the intensity of tender, empathic feeling for strangers should vary with perceived similarity to progeny, not perceived similarity to self. Is this true?
Colleagues and I sought to address this question with an experiment (Batson, Lishner, Cook, & Sawyer, 2005). Undergraduate women were asked to read a pilot article for a new feature for the Daily Kansan, the local university newspaper. The feature was called “Helping Hands,” and was to run articles in which students described their volunteer experiences in the local community. Some of the women read about a female student helping Kayla, a university student much like themselves, with rehabilitation exercises after a severely broken leg. Others read about exactly the same volunteer experience, except that Kayla was a child, a dog, or a puppy. This variation produced four experimental conditions:
- Student: “a badly hurt and struggling 20-year-old junior at KU”
- Child: “a badly hurt and struggling 3-year-old child”
- Dog: “a badly hurt and struggling 5-year old adult dog”
- Puppy: “a badly hurt and struggling 4-month-old puppy”
After reading, the women were asked to rate the similarity to themselves of Kayla. As you would expect, the student-Kayla was rated as more similar than the child, and far more similar than the dog and puppy. But when the women reported the empathic concern they felt for Kayla, it was significantly lower for the student-Kayla than for the other three. Clearly, the reported empathic concern was not tied to perceived similarity to self. Rather, it was tied to Kayla being more progeny-like, either as a child or as a pet.
Empathic Concern in Each Experimental Condition
- Student: 4.25
- Child: 5.42
- Dog: 5.22
- Puppy: 4.84
Results of this experiment underscore the need for increased attention to the classical, but currently neglected, suggestion that empathy felt for strangers is based on cognitive generalization of the human parental instinct that is so vital for the survival of children.
- Batson, C. D. (forthcoming). Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Batson, C. D., Lishner, D. A., Cook, J., & Sawyer, S. (2005). Similarity and nurturance: Two possible sources of empathy for strangers. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 15-25.
- Batson, C. D., & Shaw, L. L. (1991). Evidence for altruism: Toward a pluralism of pro-social motives. Psychological Inquiry, 2, 107-122.