Daniel Batson is of the opinion that true altruism exists. He believes that people’s empathy towards others enables them to help. He admits that the egoistic orientation towards helping others should not be dismissed lightly. This is where people help others so that they can reduce their own distress and this is not considered true altruism. The problem of identifying true altruism stems from the fact that empathy and egoism are motivational concepts and they are therefore not easily observed. Evidence to show empathy as a cause of true altruism can be acquired from observing the differences in behavior between egoistic and altruistic interpretation. Egoistic helping is when a person helps another so that he or she can get personal gains such as praise, material rewards and self-esteem, or so that the person can avoid personal pain such as guilt, shame, punishment and social castigation (Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, & Birch, 1981).
True altruism increases the other person’s welfare by reducing his distress or increasing his benefits. Altruism can result to the benefiting the person who is helping but the benefit experienced should be unintended. Providing a way of escape can help determine whether the person offering help is doing so for his own benefit or he is truly altruistic. When the chance for motivating is egoistic, the helping rate is determined by the ease and cost of escape. In this case, the chance for helping will be low when the difficulty for escape is easy. However, a person who has a more difficult chance of escape will feel compelled to help. When the motivation for helping is altruistic, the ease or cost of escaping does not determine whether a person will be of help to another person. People are more likely to identify with those who are similar to them and they will feel more empathy for them (Batson et al., 1981).
In arguing against true altruism, Cialdini observed that people who help others because they are altruistically motivated feel enhanced sadness when they see the victim suffering. This sadness and sorrow is what compels them to help the individual. The helpers help for egoistic reasons, mainly to relieve the sadness they are feeling. Helping has a rewarding component and it is used to restore a person’s mood. Not all negative moods are restored or increased by helping. Gratifying events such as praise and money reduces the sadness that the person is feeling but it does not increase empathic concern. Cialdini noted that persons who had high empathy showed high scores of helping but this changed when they received a sadness cancelling reward such as money. He concluded that the reason why people were compelled to help others was so that they could reduce personal sadness but not that they were empathetic (Caldini, Schaller, Houlihan, Arps, Fultz, & Beaman, 1987).
Distress and empathy are not the only motivators that compel people to help others. For instance, in an accident scene, a person may be moved to help the victim by calling an ambulance. In this case, there is no distress or feelings of sadness felt by the person. He or she may simply be late for work and the accident may be causing a traffic jam. He or she may also help because he sees other people helping. It does not matter whether he feels any compassion for the victim or whether he is saddened by the event. Money and praise cannot act as sadness cancelling rewards in all circumstances. There are instances where they will not work and they may even seem as an insult. For instance, a person who decides to rescue a child from a burning building may just decide to do so because he or she pities the child and does not want him to come to harm.
Religion also plays a role in pro-social behavior. Some people help because they are required to do so by their religion. Helping the poor is common among major religions such as Christianity and Islam. It does not involve reducing sadness or sorrow; rather the believers are convinced that they have to do this to fulfill their religious obligation. This can best be illustrated by the work of mother Teresa who helped the poor for no benefits but she did so as a way of fulfilling her religious beliefs. People who have experienced trauma usually find comfort in helping others (McGinley, Carlo, Crockett, & Raffaelli, 2010). People who have undergone various tragedies in life such as those who have been victims of rape and drunk driving establish organizations and groups where they help other people who are undergoing similar circumstances. This helps them to overcome the trauma they faced. While they seek to benefit psychologically, they do not do this out of self-interest, but rather they help others so that they can help them heal and in the process, they also benefit.
Scholars have developed different theories to help explain why people help others. Egoistic motives are explained by social exchange theory, which asserts that people help others when the rewards they are expecting are greater than the costs. Helping other people is usually costly even if it is done for selfish reasons. Costs include things such as time and putting oneself in danger. Wealthy people who help others financially also experience a loss since they could have spent their money on other things. Costs can also include shame and embarrassment, depending on the circumstances. It may also involve some element of pain such as when one is burnt or chocked as he or she tries to rescue someone in a burning building. The social norm theory proposes that people learn pro-social behavior through socialization. Sometimes, people help others so that they can in turn be helped by others in future. They see helping others as a future investment, which will bring in returns in future.
People can help strangers or the people they know. Social responsibility compels people to help strangers and other people that they might never meet. For instance, a person may feel compelled to help someone who knocks on their door on a rainy night and the same person may donate to a charity that helps people in poor countries to get medicine. People are more likely to help their relatives than strangers. Parents are more altruistic towards their children than children are towards their parents. While this may be because of different reasons such as life experience and responsibility, it may also be explained by the fact that parents believe that their genes will survive as long as they help their children. Describing pro-social behavior from an evolutionary perspective can help one to understand this fact (Larsen, Ommundsen & Veer, 2008).
As the debate of pro-social behavior continues, it has become quite difficult to find the real motive why people seek to help others. Helping others is a personal decision and preference. The difficulty in finding the real motive comes from the fact that individuals are all different. Faced with similar circumstances, people will react differently to a situation. In many cases, people are led by both altruistic and egoistic motivators. Someone may decide to donate blood purely for the sake of helping another person. After donating blood, the person feels satisfied knowing that he will help a life somewhere. If that person is given some money at the end of the exercise, he may accept the money and he will benefit in this way. Money did not determine whether he will give blood but it was an unexpected benefit.
Serving humanity seems to be a more important issue than finding the reasons why people do it. Those who choose to help others help to make the world a better place. They ease human suffering by assisting those people who are in need. They might be doing so for purely selfish reasons such as recognition, but in the end, their actions have served humanity. Others may help for purely selfless reasons and they may never receive recognition for what they do. For instance, people who donate their money to charities anonymously, or those who dedicate their lives to serve the people in the most remote areas on earth may not be known elsewhere. They however continue to serve irrespective of the differences they have and this selfless act serves humanity. True altruism exists in a few people but those few continue to make the world a better place and they are a source of hope to those who would want to emulate them.
Batson, D. C., Duncan, D. B., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40 (2), 290-302
Cialdini, B. R., Schaller, M., Houlihan, D., Arps, K., Fultz, J., & Beaman, L. A. (1987). Empathy-based helping: Is it selflessly motivated? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (4), 749-758
Larsen, S. K., Ommundsen, R., & Veer, K. (2008). Being human: Relationships and you: A social psychological analysis. Netherlands: Rozenberg Publishers
McGinley, M., Carlo, G., Crockett, J. L., & Raffaelli, M. (2010). Stressed and helping: The relations among acculturative stress, gender, and Pro-social tendencies in Mexican Americans. The Journal of Social psychology, 150 (1), 34-57