Altruism: Myth or Reality?

If empathic concern produces motivation with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare, the dominant Western view must be replaced by a more complex view that allows for altruism as well as egoism. Such a shift in our view of human motivation requires, in turn, a revision of our views of human nature and human potential. It implies that we humans are more social than we have thought. Other people can be more to us than sources of information, stimulation, gratification, and reward as we each seek our own welfare. We have the potential to care about them for their sakes, not simply for our own. (One might wonder how empathy-induced altruistic motivation evolved. Recent evidence suggests that it rests on cognitive generalization of the complex, emotion-based human instinct to provide parental care).

Practical Implications

What are the practical implications of this discovery? They are wide-ranging; some are surprising. One implication is that people may at times wish to suppress or avoid feeling empathic concern. Aware of the extreme effort involved in helping, or the impossibility of helping effectively, caseworkers in the helping professions, nurses caring for terminal patients, and pedestrians confronted by homeless persons may try to avoid empathic concern in order to be spared the resulting altruistic motivation. That is, there may be an egoistic motive to avoid altruistic motivation. Research supports this suggestion ( Shaw, Batson, & Todd, 1994). Research also supports the idea that empathy-induced altruism can, at times, produce immoral rather than moral behavior, as when it produces unfair partiality toward the target of concern. Further, fund raisers or advertisers can exploit the potential of empathic concern to produce altruistic motivation, using it to get us to contribute to causes, noble or otherwise. 

More positively, empathic concern has been found to direct attention to the long-term welfare of those in need, producing more sensitive care (Sibicky, Schroeder, & Dovidio, 1995). Empathy-induced altruism has also been found to improve attitudes toward stigmatized groups, including racial minorities, people with AIDS, the homeless, even convicted murderers and drug dealers. And it has been found to increase cooperation in potentially competitive situations. In schools, empathy-based training has been used to increase mutual care among students (e.g., the Roots of Empathy project— Gordon, 2007). In conflict resolution workshops, participants (e.g., Israelis and Palestinians) are encouraged to express their feelings, their hopes and fears, and to imagine the thoughts and feelings of those on the other side. The result is increased perception of one’s opponents as in need and adoption of their perspective, two conditions that, in combination, produce empathic concern. These programs reveal techniques to stimulate empathic concern and, thereby, altruistic motivation. (For research related to each of these implications, see Batson, Ahmad, & Stocks, 2004.)

Clearly, altruism is no myth. It is a reality the power of which we are only beginning to recognize.


Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

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