Altruism: Myth or Reality?

The most popular egoistic alternative is aversive-arousal reduction. This alternative claims that to feel empathic concern is distressing, and we help those for whom we feel empathy because doing so eliminates the stimulus causing our concern.Mandeville’s account of why we save the innocent babe is an aversive-arousal reduction explanation. 

Is this why people who feel empathic concern help? To find out, we need to vary the situation so that empathic concern can be eliminated in a less costly way than by helping. One way to do this is by varying whether the potential helper can—without helping—easily escape continued exposure to the other’s suffering, the stimulus causing empathic concern. If the ultimate goal of empathy-aroused helping is to remove the empathic concern ( egoism), then people who can easily escape should help less than those who cannot. If, on the other hand, the ultimate goal is to reduce the other’s suffering ( altruism), they should not help less. Reducing the empathic concern without helping does nothing to reduce the other’s suffering.

Over a half-dozen experiments have been conducted employing this logic. (To imagine yourself in one, see Box 1.) Results consistently reveal that when empathic concern is low, the rate of helping is lower when escape is easy than when escape is difficult, which suggests egoistic motivation to relieve one’s personal distress. However, when empathic concern is high, the rate of helping is high even when escape is easy, which suggests motivation to relieve the other’s suffering, not the empathic concern. These results clearly contradict the aversive-arousal reduction explanation. They support the empathy-altruism hypothesis instead.

Following a similar logic, experiments have tested the other two egoistic accounts proposed to explain empathy-induced helping—avoid social or self-punishments (shame, guilt) and gain social or self-rewards (praise, esteem-enhancement). In all, more than 30 experiments have now been conducted to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis against the egoistic alternatives. With remarkable consistency, results have patterned as predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis, not the alternatives (seeBatson, 1991, for a partial review). This evidence has contributed to what Pilivian and Charng (1990) described as "a “paradigm shift” away from the earlier position that behavior that appears to be altruistic must, under closer scrutiny, be revealed as reflecting egoistic motives. Rather, theory and data now being advanced are more compatible with the view that true altruism—acting with the goal of benefiting another—does exist and is a part of human nature."(p. 27)

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