Altruism: Myth or Reality?

There are three conspicuous self-benefits of empathy-induced helping, producing three egoistic alternatives to the empathy-altruism hypothesis: aversive-arousal reduction, punishment avoidance, and reward gain. Advocates of the empathy-altruism hypothesis do not deny that relieving the empathy-inducing need is likely to enable the helper to reduce aversive arousal, avoid punishments, and gain rewards. However, they claim that these self-benefits are not the ultimate goal of empathy-induced helping, only unintended consequences. Advocates of the egoistic alternatives disagree. They claim that one or more of these self-benefits is the ultimate goal of the motivation to help produced by empathy.

The (Psycho)Logical Puzzle: Inferring a Person’s Ultimate Goal

If empathy-induced helping benefits both the person in need and the helper, how are we to know which is the ultimate goal? This puzzle has led many scientists to give up on the question of the existence of altruism, concluding that it cannot be answered empirically. Their surrender seems premature. Often, we can make informed judgments about people’s ultimate goals. We can tell whether a student is really interested or only seeking a better grade (What happens to the student’s interest after the grades are turned in?), why a friend chose one job over another, and whether politicians mean what they say or are only after votes. And we can tell why someone does us a favor or is kind. 

Four principles are important when attempting to determine the ultimate goal of empathy-induced helping. First, simply asking people why they helped will not work. Especially in a value-laden area like helping, people often do not know—or will not tell—their ultimate goals (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Second, goals are not directly observable; we must infer them from behavior. Third, if we observe a behavior (helping) that has two potential ultimate goals ( altruism, egoism), the true ultimate goal cannot be determined. It is like having one equation with two unknowns. Fourth, if we change the situation so that this behavior is no longer the best route to one of these goals (the grades are in), and we still observe the behavior (interest), then that goal (a better grade) is not ultimate. We can cross it off the list of possible ultimate goals.

Testing the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis and the Egoistic Alternatives

Following this logic, we and other social psychologists have conducted a series of experiments to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis against the three egoistic alternatives. Typically, research participants are given an opportunity to help a person in need for whom they have been led to feel low or high empathic concern. A cross-cutting variable is manipulated that changes whether helping is the most effective means (a) to reach the altruistic ultimate goal of removing the other’s need or (b) to reach one or more of the possible egoistic ultimate goals. This procedure allows us to test competing empirical predictions from the empathy-altruism hypothesis and the egoistic alternatives. 

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