What are altruism, cooperation, and empathy?

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Altruism and cooperation are types of prosocial behavior. Empathy involves identification with another, and it leads to increased prosocial behavior.
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Social psychologists, like other social scientists and social philosophers, have long been intrigued by what is called the "altruism paradox." The altruism paradox arises from the fact that individuals sometimes engage in self-sacrificial acts that benefit another. This contradicts the assumption made in most theories of motivation that individuals engage only in behavior that is beneficial to themselves. There are two basic ways to resolve the altruism paradox. One way is to try to identify the perhaps subtle self-benefits from helping that motivate seemingly altruistic prosocial behavior—behavior intended to benefit another. The second way is to assert that individuals do engage in behavior that benefits others, irrespective of any benefit to the self. Theories and research on prosocial behavior make use of both ways of resolving the altruism paradox.

Theories of Egoistic Motivation

Theories of egoistic motivation for helping assume that some form of self-benefit motivates individuals to act prosocially. The self-benefits from helping are most easily recognizable in the case of cooperation. Cooperation is a type of prosocial behavior in which the self-benefit is the same as the benefit to the person helped: individuals mutually benefit by achieving a common goal. An individual’s self-interest is often best served by cooperating with others because, without cooperation, the individual may be unable to achieve a desirable goal. Selfishness, then, may prompt cooperation; if it does, the motivation to act prosocially is egoistic, not altruistic. The benefit to the other is a by-product of acting prosocially to benefit the self.

Theories of egoistic motivation for helping point out that cooperation is not the only type of prosocial behavior that can be mutually beneficial for both the persons giving and receiving help. The self-benefit for the person giving help also can be different from the benefit for the person receiving help. This principle forms the basis of the arousal-reduction explanation for helping developed by Jane Allyn Piliavin and her colleagues. Their theory proposes that individuals experience aversive physiological arousal when they encounter another person in need. One way to reduce this aversive arousal is to help the person in need, because alleviating the other’s need terminates the stimulus causing the bystander’s own distress. Thus, the theory proposes that bystanders will help as a way to reduce their own aversive arousal. The persons giving and receiving help benefit in different ways, but it is important to recognize that the egoistic desire to reduce aversive arousal motivates the bystander’s helping, not unselfish regard for the other’s welfare.

Other theories of egoistic motivation for helping propose that prosocial behavior can be based on factors different from the arousal caused by witnessing another’s suffering. For example, the negative state relief explanation for helping developed by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues in the 1970s proposes that temporary depression or sorrow can motivate helping as way to dispel the negative mood state. This negative state, it is reasoned, produces helping because people learn through socialization that feelings of personal satisfaction accompany the performance of good deeds. Helping, therefore, occurs as a way to lift the spirits of the temporarily depressed individual. An important implication of this theory is that even affective states that are not caused by witnessing another’s suffering can produce helping. A personal failure, thinking about a sad event, or watching a sad motion picture all can prompt helping as a way to relieve the negative mood state. Benefiting a person in need occurs as a way to benefit the self by dispelling a negative mood.

Additional theories of egoistic motivation for helping propose that many forms of selfishness can lead to helping. For example, motives to maintain a positive mood state, avoid guilt for failing to help, and gain social approval have been suggested to promote prosocial behavior.

In general, theories of egoistic motivation for helping resolve the altruism paradox by proposing some form of self-benefit that motivates seemingly self-sacrificial behavior. In contrast, theories of altruistic motivation for helping propose that individuals do engage in behavior that benefits another, irrespective of any benefit to themselves. Such theories generally concur in assuming that empathy—an identification with another produced by similarity or attachment—is an important source of altruistic motivation, if it exists.

Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

Conceptions of empathy, however, vary greatly. Although all assume that empathy involves identification with another, different approaches emphasize the cognitive, affective, or behavioral components of empathy, or some combination of each. In the study of the possibility of genuine human altruism, empathy is typically conceived as an emotional response to another’s suffering that is characterized by feelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like. The suggestion that this emotional response leads to prosocial behavior motivated by unselfish concern for the other’s welfare has come to be called the "empathy-altruism hypothesis."

The research efforts of C. Daniel Batson and his colleagues beginning in the 1980s are largely responsible for the advancement of the empathy-altruism hypothesis from a theoretical possibility to a plausible explanation for some, but certainly not all, prosocial behavior. Through their efforts, empathy has been shown to be an emotional response to another’s suffering that is distinct from aversive arousal or temporary depression and that leads to motivation to help that is different from egoistic motivation to reduce aversive arousal or to relieve negative mood. A major challenge is to determine whether empathy leads to motivation to help that is different from all possible egoistic motives for acting prosocially.

Prosocial Motivations

The study of prosocial behavior has led to important insights into the determinants of the amount and the type of help that an individual provides to another when given the opportunity. Individuals often act apathetically or even antisocially toward one another because they lack sufficient incentives for acting prosocially. Competitive relationships involve situations in which one individual’s gain is incurred at another individual’s expense, so self-interest is best served by exploiting the other. Competitive relationships therefore often lead to antagonism and antisocial behavior. If it is possible to change the reward structure, however, this behavior can be changed. Instituting a superordinate goal, defined as a shared goal that can be achieved only through cooperation among individuals, reduces the antisocial behavior and increases the prosocial behavior of individuals in formerly competitive relationships. Prosocial behavior can be increased simply by making it more rewarding for individuals to act positively toward one another and less rewarding for them to act negatively toward one another. Researchers study how religion encourages a shared prosociality to assist others, including strangers, finding that people vary in their response to sacrifice and conform with group expectations to maintain their reputation by proving spirituality and commitment to religious ideas and practices.

Prosocial behavior can be increased by a variety of explicit material rewards (for example, money) or social rewards (for example, praise), but it also can occur in the absence of explicit rewards. For example, a bystander is often likely to intervene in an emergency when the emergency is unambiguous and there are no other potential helpers present. Research on the bystander effect, the phenomenon in which the presence of others decreases helping, has revealed several factors that contribute to the lack of responsiveness of large groups of bystanders. These factors include increased uncertainty about the need for help, potential embarrassment about offering help, and diffusion of the responsibility for helping. The absence of these factors, however, is insufficient for explaining the responsive behavior of a single witness to an emergency. If there are no material or social rewards for helping, and no punishments for not helping, why would an anonymous witness to an emergency stop to help?

One way to explain bystander intervention in the absence of explicit rewards for helping is to acknowledge that a victim’s current state can affect the bystander’s own state. Interestingly, the capacity to be affected by another’s current state appears to be inborn. Even newborn babies respond emotionally to signs of distress in others. They often cry when they hear other babies cry. Adults also become more physiologically and emotionally aroused when exposed to another in need. The theory that arousal reduction serves as motivation for helping builds on the fact that people do respond emotionally to another’s need. As the theory would predict, there is considerable evidence that people help rapidly and more vigorously the greater the arousal they experience in emergency situations. Intense crises, such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, provoke large-scale altruism responses as people, often in shock, strive to regain a sense of community, security, and ensured survival.

There may be innate sources of motivation to help in emergencies, but much prosocial behavior occurs in nonemergency situations. The motivation to help in nonemergency situations is often assumed to result from socialization. In general, children become more helpful as they grow older. Developmental theories of prosocial motivations suggest that children’s helpfulness is first encouraged by material rewards, later by social rewards, and finally by self-rewards produced by the internalization of social norms advocating helpfulness. The ability to reward oneself for helping leads the socialized individual to act prosocially even in the absence of explicit material or social rewards, because helping is accompanied by the positive feelings that become associated with doing good deeds during socialization. Helping thus acquires reinforcing properties and becomes particularly likely to occur when individuals are in need of reinforcement. It is well known that people self-indulge when they are saddened or depressed. People often treat themselves to a favorite dessert, a shopping trip, or a television show when they are sad, because self-indulgence relieves depression. Developmental theories of prosocial motivation would suggest that socialized individuals also use acting helpfully as a form of self-indulgence. Consistent with this suggestion, and with the prediction of the negative state relief explanation for helping, adults often act more prosocially when they are temporarily saddened than when they are in a neutral mood.

Egoistic Motivations

Given that there are both innate and socialized sources of motivation to help, it may seem curious that people do not always act prosocially. Egoistic theories of motivation to help, however, point out an important exception to the rule that people will help others to benefit themselves: helping will occur only if it is a relatively noncostly, gratifying way to benefit the self. Thus, if helping is a more costly behavior than putting the victim’s suffering out of sight and out of mind by leaving the scene, helping should not occur. Similarly, temporarily saddened individuals facing the prospects of large costs and small rewards for helping would not be expected to help because it would not be perceived as gratifying overall. Helping would be expected to occur only when the self-benefits of helping outweigh the costs. Egoistic theories of motivation for helping therefore provide a way to explain not only why people do help but also why they do not.

A problem for egoistic theories of motivation for helping is to explain the effects of feeling empathy (sympathy, compassion) on helping a person in need. Heightened empathy leads to increased prosocial behavior across a wide variety of both emergency and nonemergency situations. Furthermore, research testing the empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that empathy does not lead to any of the more common types of egoistic motivation for helping. If the empathy-altruism hypothesis is valid, unselfish motives, as well as selfish ones, must be included in theories of why people act prosocially.

Emergence of Social Psychology

Social psychology emerged as a distinct field of psychology after World War II, during the years in which behaviorism was the dominant theoretical perspective in psychology. Initially, social psychologists devoted little attention to the study of prosocial behavior, perhaps because it was assumed that the general determinants of individual behavior would also apply to interpersonal behavior, as behaviorist theory would dictate. During the 1950s, some research on prosocial behavior was initiated. This research tended to focus on cooperation, however, to the exclusion of other forms of prosocial behavior. Behaviorist principles were often applied to determine, for example, if rewarding cooperation made it more likely to occur and competition less likely to occur.

In 1964, a troubling murder captured the attention of social psychologists and spurred interest in studying emergency intervention and other forms of prosocial behavior. In March of that year, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked on the street near her home late at night. The attack continued for more than an hour and her screams woke many of her neighbors, but none of them left their homes to help her. Interest in the behavior of the unresponsivebystanders during this attack prompted social psychologists to investigate factors that lead people not to intervene in emergencies. This research led to demonstration of the bystander effect and revealed a number of factors that contribute to the unresponsiveness of groups of bystanders who witness an emergency.

Research on bystander intervention also revealed that certain circumstances make it quite likely for a bystander to offer help. The decline of behaviorism by the early 1970s provided a climate in which researchers could explore the effects of internal motives as well as external reinforcers on helping. Several influential egoistic theories of motivation for helping were developed during the 1970s. By the end of the decade, these theories had clearly displaced earlier behaviorist theories as prominent explanations for prosocial behavior.

Study of Empathy

Another trend to develop in the 1970s was the study of the effects of empathy on helping. By the 1980s, several theorists were proposing that empathy for a person in need leads to genuinely altruistic motivation for helping. Research during the 1980s quite consistently showed that empathy leads to helping even in situations in which egoistic motivation would not be expected to lead to help. Demonstrating that humans are capable of transcending selfishness and acting out of concern for another’s welfare would have profound implications for psychological theories of motivation and views of human nature. It would be necessary to acknowledge that human behavior can be influenced by unselfish motives as well as by selfish ones.

Interdisciplinary and Biological Research

In the early twenty-first century, prosocial research benefited from interdisciplinary approaches. Experts in various fields, ranging from genetics to economics, supplemented psychologists’ work in previous decades. Researchers sought answers to such questions as whether any genes could be linked to altruistic behavior or to shaping prosocial behavior. They used evolutionary psychology methodology to study altruism. Some scholars applied game theory, posing hypothetical dilemmas, to assess altruism and cooperation behavior according to which choices are beneficial to the altruistic players and recipients of generosity or assistance.

In addition to these academic analyses, advances in medical technology and cognitive neuroscience enabled scientists to use brain scans and computer simulations to seek biological bases for altruism. A 2007 Nature Neuroscience article reported that scientists at Duke University Medical Center conducted brain scans with fMRI of forty-five test subjects while they interacted with a computerized game, either playing directly or observing the computer playing, to acquire money to donate to charities. An fMRI study at the University of Oregon differentiated between pure altruism and actions that gave participants what researchers referred to as a "warm glow." Nineteen women played a game in which they made donations to a food bank. In the game, altruism was voluntary or mandatory when government assistance funded that charity with the players’ taxes.

By early 2007, Duke neuroscientist Scott A. Huettel and his colleagues hypothesized that altruistic thoughts were associated with the brain’s posterior superior temporal sulcus, which became most active in subjects who exhibited the greatest selflessness and generosity to donate funds. Participants also answered a survey regarding their altruism, but scientists emphasized that measuring altruistic behavior with interviews might be skewed by subjects providing exaggerated responses. Researchers theorized that people’s attitudes and perceptions instigate altruism instead of their behavior and stated that altruism research might aid scientific comprehension of antisocial or autistic people.

A 2007 National Institute of Mental Health study suggested that people’s recognition of fear in others’ expressions motivated altruistic responses. Many test participants responded to fearful faces by offering to give money and assist perceived victims. In the study’s report, Abigail Marsh hypothesized that amygdala deficiencies in brains might prevent people from detecting fear and hindering their ability to be empathetic and altruistic.

Researchers have investigated possible health benefits from altruism, examining how helpfulness and empathy are associated with endorphins and opiates being released, which might reinforce immune systems, quicken healing, and extend life spans. Some scientists have studied the role of the hormone oxytocin with altruism and whether it might cause helpful behavior or be produced because of generosity. Likewise, studies conducted in the late 2000s found that dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for a person's feelings of pleasure, were associated with prosocial behaviors that avoid inflicting harm.

Psychology and neurobiology researchers such as Barbara Oakley have also begun to examine pathological altruism, which is often characterized by unintended harm, rather than benefit, to the recipient and may be harmful to the giver as well. Pathological altruism has been linked to such phenomena as survivor's guilt, codependency, and battered person syndrome.


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