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Explaining Altruism

The evolutionary theory VS the empathy-altruism theory

Altruism is the behaviour of helping others without a reward or even at a cost to the individual who performs it. For instance, volunteering in a soup kitchen to help feed those in need. This article aims to explain altruistic behaviour using the evolutionary and the empathy-altruism theories.

The evolutionary theory, originally proposed by Darwin, is based upon three pillars: variation of genes within a species, heritability of those variations to the next generations and differential fitness, also known as survival and reproduction. Evolutionary theory suggests that the degree of relatedness – the extent to which the person being helped carries copies of the altruist's genes – and reproductive value – the extent to which the relative can pass on their genes down to future generations – are the two determining factors in an individual’s decision on whether to help someone in need. 

Burnstein et al. (1994) conducted a study presenting participants with hypothetical situations involving altruism, in which they manipulated the degree of relatedness, health of the target and the context in which help was needed. They found that in both life-or-death and everyday situations individuals were more likely to help close kin than distant kin and strangers. Additionally, in everyday situations, participants helped ill people more. However, in life-or-death situations, they tended to help healthy people more, proposedly due to their higher reproductive value. Therefore, these findings indicate that altruistic behaviour depends on the degree of relatedness between the individual helping and the individual being helped, and the latter individual’s reproductive value.

The empathy-altruism theory is based on the notion that pure altruism can only occur due to empathy – the ability to identify with and experience another person’s emotional state. The empathy-altruism theory suggests that if the altruistic person does not feel empathy, help would only be given if it is in the individual’s interest, also known as the social exchange view. However, the theory suggests that if the altruistic person does feel empathy, help would be given regardless of self-interest and even when costs outweigh the rewards. 

Toi & Batson (1982) conducted a study in which they manipulated two factors: the empathy felt by participants towards the hypothetical victim by giving them different prompts and the cost of helping the victim by telling the participants whether they will ever come in contact with the victim again. The researchers found that the participants with induced empathy were likely to engage in altruistic behaviour regardless of personal cost and were motivated by an altruistic concern for the victim’s welfare, whilst the individuals in the low empathy condition were more likely to help the victim if the personal costs of seeing the victim again were high. Therefore, the empathy-altruism model has empirical support and is suitable for explaining individual differences in altruistic behaviour.

The evolutionary and empathy-altruism theories both suggest that personal gains can motivate altruistic behaviour. In the evolutionary theory, those gains consist of passing the altruist’s genes down to the next generations. In the empathy-altruism theory those gains are the personal interests and cost when the altruist does not feel empathy towards the target. However, the empathy-altruism theory also proposes that when the individual feels empathy towards the target, personal gains are irrelevant to their decision on whether to help them. Therefore, the theories propose two different perspectives on the individual differences in altruism. 

Whilst the evolutionary theory has significant explanatory value for altruism, there is evidence that emotional closeness is a mediating factor for altruism in kin. Korchmaros & Kenny (2001) found that among genetically related individuals, the tendency to display altruism was affected by their emotional closeness with the specific relative being helped. Therefore, the degree of relatedness alone cannot fully explain the individual differences in altruistic behaviour, and the empathy-altruism theory might be a more suitable explanation because the level of empathy felt by altruists increases with the levels of closeness the individual feels towards the target.

Additionally, the evolutionary theory suggests that people rarely help strangers in need, which is overly reductionist and incorrect. Worldwide, many volunteers help people they are unfamiliar with. The empathy-altruism theory is more holistic and, therefore, might be a more appropriate theory for altruism, as many studies have found that empathy can be experienced towards complete strangers. Moreover, even if empathy is not experienced, the empathy-altruism theory explains altruism towards strangers through the social exchange view. Consequently, the empathy-altruism theory explains a wider range of behaviours and individual differences in altruistic behaviour than the evolutionary theory.

Therefore, while both theories provide wide descriptions of individual differences in altruism, I think that the empathy-altruism theory provides a more comprehensive explanation for individual differences in altruism than the evolutionary theory. The empathy-altruism model accounts for not only the role of emotional closeness and empathy in motivating altruism towards kin, but also why people help strangers by highlighting how empathy can induce altruistic acts even without genetic relatedness or reproductive value incentives. By encompassing a wider range of situational and psychological factors influencing our decisions to help others, the empathy-altruism theory represents a more complete account of the complex phenomenon of altruism.

Written by Aleksandra Lib

Related article: The endowment effect


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