Do truly altruistic motives exist?
This is one of those late-night Starbucks conversations. Do we ever do anything purely for selfless motives? Or, are all our motives to help governed by self-interest?
Christians hear this a lot from critics of religion. The criticism basically states that because Christianity has external punishments (hell, God’s disapproval) and rewards (heaven, God’s approval) for pro-social behavior this undermines the Christian standard of agape (self-sacrificial) love. Specifically, if pro-social behavior is motivated to either avoid hell or gain heaven then the motive is selfish and, thus, isn’t self-sacrificial or altruistic.
This dilemma is only slightly changed if we try to internalize the motives. Few of us explicitly consider heaven or hell as we make pro-social choices. Rather, we respond out of our character, from feelings of sympathy, pity, shame, or guilt. Lots of behavior is motivated by shame and guilt, a feeling of not being able to live with ourselves if we didn’t help. But again, getting right within yourself might be a fine motive to help but it is still, at root, a selfish motive.
But the question, although acute for the Christian, can be generalized to all forms of pro-social behavior. How do we know if selfishness isn’t at the root of all pro-social behavior? If we are misanthropic or cynical (two temptations of mine) we can dismiss all acts of helping, even Mother Teresa’s, as so much self-interest. We can ask, darkly, would Mother Teresa do what she did if a life with God weren’t in the offing?
Motivations are tricky things to study. How could you tell if your motives are pure or mixed, selfish or altruistic? Self-report is woefully inadequate for this type of research. People are generally either self-deluded or unreliable reporters of their true motivations. To complicate things, we rarely act from a single motive. When we help we are motivated by a host of factors. If so, can selfish and altruistic motives both be in play when we offer aid? Does the mere presence of a selfish motive contaminate the altruistic motive rendering the whole self-interested? Or can the selfish and altruistic motives stand apart, even when co-occurring?
But here’s the deal. Human motivations are not the stuff of theology and moral philosophy. The existence altruistic motives isn’t a theological or philosophical question. It’s a psychological question. If you want to know if altruism exists then you had better leave the library and the Starbucks. This issue cannot be solved philosophically. You have to take it to the laboratory.
The person most responsible for taking this question to the lab is social psychologist Daniel Batson. Batson has summarized his years of research on the subject of altruistic motivation in his book The Altruism Question.
The long and the short of it is this, due to some ingeniously designed experiments Batson and his colleagues have been able to dissect motivations in the laboratory, teasing apart self-interest and altruism. They do this by allowing subjects, under a variety of conditions, to “escape” from various potential helping situations or to work to participate in a helping activity. Typical manipulations involve escaping in the face of social observation versus being unobserved. Subjects are exposed to helping under high-cost and low-cost manipulations. More specifically, this is the “cost” of not helping. For example, a “high cost” for refusing to help would be having to see the person you didn’t help the very next day in a face-to-face encounter and they know you didn’t help them (awkward!). A “low cost” manipulation allows you to pass on helping but no one knows you could have helped (you can see that person the next day with no social “cost”). Batson has also measured how hard someone will work to either help or qualify to help. This last is important for teasing apart internalized motives such as shame from truly altruistic motives. Specifically, in some studies subjects were exposed to a “qualification condition” manipulation where they could work to qualify to help a person. The experimenters varied the standard the subjects would have to reach to qualify to help. Psychologically, the logic for this manipulation is as follows. When the standard is set very high (i.e., it is hard to qualify to help) the subject is given an “out.” That is, they can try to qualify but there is no shame/guilt if they cannot, most people don’t qualify. Thus, the experimenters were able to “turn off” the internal guilt/shame mechanism, that notorious motive of self-interested action.
Generally, we suspect altruism is present when someone:
1. Works very hard to qualify to help
2. When the standard is very high
3. When no one is watching and there is no cost for not helping
Think this about this list and the situation it describes. No one is watching you. No one knows if you are helping or not. Thus, you pay no social cost for not helping and no one will pat you on the back if you do. Further, if you fail to qualify to help you can easily explain your failure: The standard to qualify was too high. You tried your best, right?
So, can you see that situation? Well, Batson and colleagues put people in that situation and they watched them try to qualify. And guess what, some people work their butt off in that situation. Killing themselves to get a chance to help.
Now why would they do this? You will get no social gain for helping or stigma for refusing to help. You’re alone in this. Further, why chase after that ridiculously high qualifying standard? Why push so hard?
The only plausible answer seems to be this: Altruism. You simply want to help for no other reason than wanting to help. The motive isn’t selfish, internally or externally. Externally, the carrots and whips have been removed. And internally, you’ve been given every reason to expect to fail to quality, the perfect out for all that shame/guilt standing at the ready.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, guess what. What do you think produces those altruistic motives?
Over many studies Batson has clearly linked empathy with altruism. In our textbooks it is called the empathy-altruism model. And it basically says this: When we empathize with a person in need our altruistic motives increase. When we feel empathy we simply want to help. For no other reason than to help. In the language of the studies, we’ll work crazy hard to help when no one is watching, when we’ll get no reward or punishment, and when we’ve been given every reason to think that we’ve done enough.
Altruism. Apparently, it exists. And empathy is what makes it go.
Do truly altruistic motives exist?