|Path Home: Empathy, Altruism and Agape | Presenters or Itinerary
Why do we humans spend so much time, money, and energy to benefit others? Is our goal ever more than self-benefit; are we capable of caring about another persons welfare as an ultimate goal? This is the altruism question. The empathy-altruism hypothesis offers an affirmative answer to this question. It claims that empathic emotion (an other-oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another individual) evokes altruistic motivation (a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing the others welfare).
I wish to outline the logic of a program of research designed to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis using laboratory experiments on humans. Variables are manipulated to test competing predictions of the empathy-altruism hypothesis and one or more egoistic explanations of the motivation to help evoked by empathy. Three general classes of egoistic explanation have been considered: (a) reward seeking--including material, social, and self-rewards; (b) punishment avoiding--including material, social, and self-punishments; and (c) aversive-arousal reduction--reducing the arousal produced by witnessing another in need. To date, more than 25 experiments have been conducted. Results of these experiments have failed to support any of the egoistic alternatives; instead, with remarkable consistency results have patterned as predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis. To the best of my knowledge, there is at present no plausible egoistic explanation of the motivation to help evoked by empathy. The results of these experiments lead me to suggest tentatively that the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true. Empathy-induced altruism is part of human nature.
I also wish to describe several directions for current and future experimental research on empathy, altruism, and related phenomena. First, not only are there broad theoretical implications of the evidence for the empathy-altruism hypothesis, there are broad practical implications as well. For example, experimental research indicates that people may at times be motivated to suppress or avoid empathic feelings in order to avoid altruistic motivation. Empathy avoidance may be a factor in burnout in the helping professions, in difficulty caring for the terminally ill, and in callousness toward the plight of the homeless. More positively, inducing empathy for a member of a stigmatized group (people with AIDS, the homeless, etc.) has been found to improve attitudes toward the group. Empathy has also been found to increase cooperation in potential conflict situations.
Further, experimental methods are being used to test whether there are sources of altruistic motivation other than empathy. The sources being considered include certain personality attributes, values, and ways of being religious. Finally, these methods are being used to test for the existence of prosocial motives other than egoism and altruism. Motives being tested include motivation to benefit a group and motivation to uphold moral principles.
This experimental research has limitations, both logical and methodological. Moreover, it raises difficult issues about research ethics that need careful consideration. These limitations not withstanding, I think experimental research has and will continue to make an uniquely valuable contribution to our understanding of the motivation that leads one person to care for another. To understand what leads one person to care for another is knowledge our society desperately needs.
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