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Doris and Stitch: Moral psychology

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Doris and Stitch. 2006. Moral psychology: Empirical approaches. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology.

Section 5: Egoism vs Altruism

In Brief

We know that people behave in ways that benefit others, but the critical question is why: "Are their motives really altruistic or is their behavior ultimately motivated by self-interest?" Egoism holds that all human motivation ultimately is self-interested.

Experimental Psychology's Perspective

"[T]he core idea is that altruism is often the product of an emotional response to the distress of another person." (16). Batson labels this "empathy," which he characterizes as "an other-oriented emotional reaction to seeing someone suffer," and terms the traditional idea that empathy leads to altruism the "empathy-altruism hypothesis." The hypothesis: when people feel empathy, they will desire to help those who evoke the emotion, and thus will be more inclined to engage in helping behavior than people who do not feel empathy; in addition, the stronger the empathy the more likely it is that they will engage in helping behavior.

However, Batson argues that the fact that empathy leads to helping behavior does not tell us about the motivation for the helping behavior that empathy evokes. In other words, the motivation could still be attributed to egoism. First, people may engage in helping behavior because they fear that other people will (socially) punish them if they do not--particularly when empathy for the person is high. This is the 'social punishment hypothesis'. Second, empathy might simply be or cause an unpleasant experience, and people are motivated to help because they believe this is the best way to stop the unpleasant experience that is caused by someone else's distress. This is the 'aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis'. The authors test the empathy-altruism hypothesis against each of these egoist hypotheses in turn.

The Social Punishment Hypothesis versus the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

There were multiple groups in which Batson manipulated the level of empathy that the subjects felt for the target and the likelihood that anyone else would know whether the subject had opted to help the person in need.

The "social punishment" hypothesis predicts that subjects who exhibit a high degree of empathy on a given occasion will be more likely to help when they believe that others will know if they fail to do so. Thus, high empathy + high potential for negative social evaluation (PNSE) makes you more likely to help than high empathy + low potential for negative social evaluation. By contrast, the empathy-altruism hypothesis predicts that you are more likely to help as empathy rises--regardless of the probability that others will know what you chose.

Critique: I question how they measured the level of empathy. To create a "high" empathy condition, they tell the subjects to take the perspective of the person who wrote the letter, while those in the low empathy group were told to read the letter objectively, as if they were performing a literary critique. Can we really manipulate empathy levels so easily? (The literature seems to think so.)


Low Empathy High Empathy
High PNSE 0.67 1.71
Low PNSE 1.29 2.44

The results are peculiar under either hypothesis. If the empathy hypothesis were correct, one would expect the right column to have higher values than the left column (it does), and for the first row and second row to not differ much (there are differences, though). And if the social punishment hypothesis were correct, we would expect the first row to have much higher values than the second row, and the upper-right cell to have the highest values of all; since we observe the opposite, we can reject the social punishment hypothesis.

The Aversive-Arousal Reduction Hypothesis versus the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

Two experimental conditions: easy escape or difficult escape from watching somebody suffer. The AAR Hypothesis predicts that high empathy + difficult escape makes helping more likely than high empathy + easy escape. The empathy hypothesis predicts that in high empathy, people will help regardless of whether the escape is easy or hard.


Low Empathy High Empathy
Easy Escape 0.18 0.91
Difficult Escape 0.64 0.82

Sure enough, people help more when they can't just leave, at least when empathy is low. But when empathy is high, they help regardless of how easy it is to help, and oddly, they help the most when empathy is high and escape is easy (though the differences when empathy is high are slight).

Comments and Criticism

I have some issues with what they say the hypotheses are. I don't understand the statement that "Altruism and egoism both allow that even in the absence of empathy, an emotionally disturbing need situation will produce feelings of personal distress, thus they would both predict that people in a low empathy condition will be more inclined to help when escape is difficult, and less inclined when escape is easy." (20). Shouldn't the empathy hypothesis predict a non-statistically significant difference between low empathy + easy escape and low empathy + difficult escape?

In addition, another problem is that a high level of empathy is said to be induced if the person who is in distress is similar to you (more specifically, has similar values and interests). They are essentially measuring empathy as similarity. But if we only help people who are similar to us, is that really altruism? What exactly do we mean by "altruism," then?

Furthermore, if the idea is that altruism is the product of an emotional response to the distress of another person, this implies that the reaction is spontaneous. Is there really a difference between a spontaneous emotional reaction based on a desire to help another person who is in pain and a spontaneous emotional reaction based on the unpleasantness one feels from seeing another human being suffering?

Finally, if, as the authors say, empathy might simply be or cause an unpleasant experience, then what are we really testing with the "empathy-altruism" hypothesis?