The Greatest Virtue, Part 4: Altruism Exists

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.

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5 thoughts on “The Greatest Virtue, Part 4: Altruism Exists”

  1. I'm not convinced. You lost me at #3, "when no one is watching and there is no cost for not helping."

    For Christians, there may well be a sense that Someone is watching even when no humans are known to be watching. Christians want that look good in front of that Someone. Talk about social gain.

    But I have even more trouble with teasing out "no cost for not helping." Sure, there are costs like you describe -- awkward to run into someone who knows you could have helped them and knows you chose not to -- but there are much more subtle forms of "cost" than this.

    I'm thinking about, e.g., someone who goes out of her way to help others because it gives her a sense of group belonging, or a feeling of being liked or admired or needed, or because she believes that if she helps someone else that they (or someone) will help her when she needs it.

    This kind of 'social gain' and reward for helping others may be simply part of a story inside one's head, or it may turn out to be true, but in any case, if I believe it, I will do my utmost to help, believing that if I sacrifice myself for you, I will be building up a store of good will towards me that I can use later. If I don't help, even if no one knows, I will miss an opportunity to build up this store of goodwill.

    The goodwill might be particular, in a local community or circle of friends, or it might be more on the level of karma, stemming from an assumption that if I am good to others, others will be good to me, even if they are different others than those I helped.

    In any case, I don't think you can baldly assert that "The only plausible answer seems to be this: Altruism."

    Thanks for your postings. Really enjoyed (possibly not the most accurate word) the ones on evil :-)

  2. 1 John talks about how can the love of God be in us when we see our brother in need and we ourselves have material possesions and then have no "pity" on him. But isn't that just it, I mean when I see a man holding a sign on the side of the road, I have NO PITY for him. Why? Because first of all I don't know the man and from my judgmental opinion he probably got himself into this mess in the first place and shouldn't be standing on the side of the road begging for my hard earned money. I work for my money so he should get a job too. And if there is no job for him there are other ways to provide for yourself than beg. I remember collecting aluminum cans as a little girl with my grandpa to help pay for the grocery bill. And maybe because of that experience, I tend not to have any pity on the one who doesn't have. I am probably the worst Christian in the world, because according to that passage I do not have the Love of God within me. :(

    But this makes me think of something else that was brought up in another comment in the last post about how God had to become Jesus to better understand humans so that he can have more empathy on us....I'm not sure if that is true because Jesus was perfect in all he did. It almost makes me think that there would be no empathy from God because he would look at me and say, "Jesus was able to overcome that temptation so you should too...or Jesus was able to posses empathy so should you...etc." And this kind of thinking causes tons of guilt.

    But then there is that haunting verse where Jesus seperates the goats from the sheeps and he tells the goats, when I was hungry you looked the other way, and their response was, "WHEN, when did we see you hungry??? "And then when he tells the sheep, when I was hungry you gave me something to eat, their response was the same, "WHEN, when did we see you hungry?" It looks like to me that those people who were giving to the hungry had no reward in mind. They were not doing thier benevolence to recieve some kind of reward, in other words they really did have the other person's interest in mind, and not their own. I don't know about you but when I do something nice for someone for the sake of getting something out of it or some kind of reward, they can see right through that. I mean I think of all the programs this country has, like the Salvation Army, and United Way, Welfare and Food stamps etc., and as good as those programs may be for those who are at the bottom of the pit like the man standing on the side of the road, what about those who really don't qualify for those programs but are still in need? I suppose, that if Christians like myself, and I am only speaking of myself, possesed empathy and I consider others more important than myself, than I would know who was in need of food and then feed them, as if they were my own child. But it is hard for me to have empathy, because in a lot of ways, I feel that empathy was not really given to me and my family then and now and it sort of causes my heart to hardened. I mean I had to learn and work on my own to get where I am, and I figure that others can too.... I mean it's hard to not ask, "what about me?" Just some thoughts.... I am in a bitter mood so sorry for the tone...

  3. Hi mw,
    I understand your being unconvinced. But, just to clarify, my bald assertion isn't really MY assertion. It's a summary of many, many empirical studies on the question. I'm just summarizing a conclusion from the literature. If you want to dip into that literature directly I'd search Daniel Batson in Google Scholar.

    I appreciate your honesty. When we are hurting it is hard empathize with others. There is a time for everything, a time to give empathy and a time to receive it. And I hope you do receive some.

    And I also think you make a good point about empathy and expectations. There is a time to stop taking and to start working, striving, and giving back. When is that point? Again, I think empathy (as in perspective-taking) is what is needed. If we understand people very well, from the inside-out as it were, we are better able to judge the correct timing of this transition. Without empathy/perspective-taking we'll insist on "standing on your own two feet" either too soon or too late.

  4. I appreciate the info on Batson's studies. Definitely a "late night Starbucks conversation."

    So, if I may throw in some thoughts onto the table: I wonder if the imaginative leap to empathize, thereby, taking another's perspective, includes an imagined melding of identity. Because if it does, then I wonder if the helping of the "other" person would have an unconscious feeling of helping one's self.

  5. Jerry,
    That is an excellent point and is a point of contention in interpreting the Batson studies. Batson has done some work addressing that issue. See: Batson, et al. (1997). Is Empathy-Induced Helping Due to Self-Other Merging? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 495-509.

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