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Altruism and Empathy in Prosocial Behaviour Essay


The heroism which some individuals demonstrate in the face of critical social situations continues to amaze people from every social and economic background. Nowadays, the actions associated with empathy and altruism confuse many researchers in the fields of the social studies and biology, and they thus now regard this phenomenon as a “persistent puzzle” (Simpson & Willer, 2008).

In other words, prosocial behaviour (PB) is not consistent with the traditional evolutionary theoretical framework scientific and the evidence accumulated in the previous investigation of human nature and the behaviour of biological organisms. PB contradicts the well-known theory of biological evolution, which is grounded in the idea that only the strongest and the most ruthless survives in the highly competitive and dangerous environment.

The phenomenon of PB began to draw the attention of social psychologists in 1660’s when the murder of Kitty Genovese took place in New York in 1964. The researchers became interested in the fact that the murder was witnessed by thirty-seven people, but nobody had called the police or made any effort to help the young woman (Griggs, 2015). The lack of witnesses’ response to the situation was called the bystander effect or the Genovese syndrome.

The experts explained the passivity of the woman’s neighbours by introducing the concepts of urban citizens’ alienation and lack of common identity. And since then, the psychologists began to investigate the conscious and unconscious motives of individuals that stimulate them to help others in more or less risky situations.

The concept of PB includes a spectrum of individual’s actions varying from small-scale acts, such as the assistance for an elderly person in crossing the street, and the large-scale acts, such as the attempts to rescue another person’s life at the expense of own welfare or safety. The researchers make significant efforts to explore the major constituents of PB, and it is considered that empathic and altruistic concerns support the individuals’ PB formation and motivate them for helping others (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005).

There is no doubt that the expressed empathy and altruism have multiple favourable effects on the well-being of both parties, the helping one and the one that is being helped. It is also possible to say that PB motivated by empathic concerns contributes to the increase in the social cohesion and overall quality of social performance within the community. Therefore, the further investigation of PB, empathy, and altruism is of significant importance because the future findings will help to identify the stimuli of PB and will support the promotion of the favourable behaviour in the society.

The purpose of the paper is the evaluation of the role of empathy and altruism in PB formation. The study is aimed to analyse the major motives that make people help others and identify the principal qualities of PB. The research has many social and ethical implications, and the findings may help to promote the emphatic and altruistic qualities among the members of the community. By addressing the issues of PB, emphasising the empathic considerations and altruistic concerns of human behaviour within the education systems and mass media, it is possible to foster the positive social transformation that will lead to the acceptance of the concept of common good in the social consciousness.

Literature Review

Altruism and Empathy

Nowadays, it is believed that PB is motivated either by altruism or empathy. Psychological altruism is a type of behaviour in which a person tends to help others on the voluntary basis at the expense of his/her well-being (Stich, 2016). Altruism is considered a social phenomenon, and although it can be defined through the opposition to egoism, it is not necessarily related to the expression of emotional warmth to another person. According to distinct theoretical perspectives, altruism may be regarded as an innate evolutionary mechanism aimed to preserve the genotype, or a form of social regulation supporting the principles of reciprocity and social responsibility (Simpson & Willer, 2008).

It is considered that the main driving force of any altruistic behaviour is a desire to improve the well-being of another person without waiting for any reward in return. At the same time, altruism is understood as a moral action (Buck, 2002). In this context, altruism is regarded as a set of specific actions helping to fulfil the certain social standards of goodness or morality. But according to Batson and Powell (2003), it is inappropriate and methodologically wrong to reduce altruism to morality – unlike the moral motivation, the altruistic motivation produces behaviour that may be moral, immoral, or completely irrelevant to the concept of morality.

Although the social and moral standards play a significant role in the behavioural development, empathy influences human decisions the most. To some extent, it is possible to say that altruism and empathy are the interrelated phenomena. Altruist reacts to the situation according to his/her ethical values and norms. The ability to empathise to a person who is in need is one of the crucial intrinsic features of the altruistic individual. The more emphatic abilities are developed, the more readiness to help is expressed by the person in a particular case.

Overall, empathy is the ability to comprehend the psychological state of others, and the emotional receptiveness towards the feelings of others (Mathur, Harada, Lipke, & Chiao, 2010). Although some individuals may be predisposed to an early expression of empathic feelings, the skills of empathy are usually developed in person gradually, through the accumulation of social experience. Empathy has emotional, cognitive and predictive implications – an emphatic person can feel with another individual, provide psychological support, and, based on the personal experience, provide the personal resources for the relieve of negativity (Mathur et al., 2010).

Since emphatic attitude is largely associated with the personal emotional or psychological identification, it is observed that people tend to help those who are related to them. The sense of shared affinity increases the opportunity for the development of empathic motivation. People are more perceptive towards the pain of their ingroup relatives, and, as a result, the emphatic motivation for the ingroup PB is usually greater (Mathur et al., 2010).

Batson and Powell (2003) consider that the authentic PB should include the conscious orientation to the achievement of benefits for others, and the conscious prosocial actions are thus conceptually different from accidental or unintentional PB. The source of the conscious motivation may be both the empathic concern or the altruistic concern (Batson & Powell, 2003). Empathic concern is defined as the response to the perceived suffering endured by another individual and the appropriate subjective assessment of pain. It occurs when a person puts self in the position of another person, and it requires a subjective evaluation of the psychological or physical state of others.

Emphatic concern implies the generation of such senses as sympathy, compassion, tenderness, etc. The concept emphasizes the idea that the emphatic concern stimulates the altruistic motivation actualizing PB. The given theoretical framework was empirically proved in the multiple research studies where the sample participants were ready to receive the electric shock in return for helping others while knowing about the opportunity to refuse provision of aid and avoid the shock. The findings make it clear that the emphatic concern in an essential element of PB and its ultimate goal is the creation of altruistic motivation aimed to achieve the improvement of the well-being of others.

Mechanisms Triggering PB

According to a common academic point of view, PB may be actualized by the egocentric and altruistic motivational state, or it may be comprised of both of these motivational aspects (Batson & Powell, 2003). It is possible to distinguish between the specific features of PB’s motivational content by introducing the terms of ultimate and instrumental goal where the instrumental goal is regarded as a mean for the achievement of the ultimate goal (Batson & Powell, 2003).

While the emphatic concern stimulates for the achievement of the ultimate goal that is the creation of benefits for others, in the egoistic motivation, the well-being of another person is the instrumental goal and the achievement of personal benefits is the major goal (Batson & Powell, 2003).

According to the theory of social reciprocity, altruism implies a certain amount of selfishness because the attempts to comply with the moral standards is motivated by the anticipation of direct or indirect reward. In the case of “kin selection,” the members of a tribe or family do not hesitate to help their group members because the benefits of performing this type of action are direct and familiar to them (Mathur et al., 2010). When it comes to the indirect reciprocity, the perception of the expected reward often remains unclear, and yet, the strangers or those who are not affiliated with a tribe or community may perform the altruistic actions because they know that the reward will follow.

The politicians who perform the principles of PB for their constituents fall under this category. A politician is not related to the recipient of a humanitarian action, and yet the given politician makes that particular sacrifice because he/she knows that when election time comes, he/she can count on the prosocial and altruistic actions that were made previously.

The same thing can be observed when the businessmen invest in charity or development of education programs for the underprivileged students. It is another good example of indirect proximity. Business leaders cannot observe an immediate tangible effect of their actions, but, after some time, the recipients of the scholarship program may become psychologically indebted to the investors who helped them to graduate and will be thus stimulated for working in the company that supported them in pursuit for a college diploma.

Development of PB

PB is perceived as a type of behaviour acquired through the experience of social interrelations and various learning processes so that it becomes a part of individuals’ culture and behavioural standards (Thompson & Gullone, 2003). As a consequence, when an opportunity or an emergency situation arises, the learned behaviour and social values create an arousal that compels the person to react to the given stimulus (Buck, 2002).

It is important to highlight the fact that the identification of a potential reward as a consequence of an altruistic or humanitarian action plays a crucial role in the realisation of a certain PB. However, the numerous cases of individuals’ performance beyond the call of duty and expectation of reward were reported (Sze, Gyurak, Goodkind, & Levenson, 2012). In this case, it is possible to say that the triggering mechanism is rooted in the empathic concern.

For instance, some medical specialists move to the remote areas to be able to provide the services to the patients on the everyday basis. It is possible to say that, in this case, the physician’s motivation for PB is largely influenced by the feeling of compassion and personal ethical values.

The physicians who decided to live in the poorest regions of the world will likely not be completely compensated by the material rewards for all the challenges that they need to overcome in the regions associated with the highest levels of poverty or the severe military conflicts. The examples demonstrate that there is a necessity for the development of PB motives categorisation that will include empathic motivations along with the frameworks of reciprocal altruism and indirect reciprocity.

Nowadays, the researchers suggest that some individuals have an innate predisposition towards PB development due to the intrinsic emphatic motivation (Batson & Powell, 2003). It is considered that those who are predisposed to this type of behaviour are devoted the other people’s welfare and well-being (Burks & Kobus, 2012). The idea does not fit well with other findings in the field of social science. The researchers argue that a person can be devoted to others and at the same time value himself above all else. In other words, the individuals characterised with the innate qualities of generosity and altruism struggle with the same problems of selfishness.


The current “persistent puzzle” contradicts the evolutionary view of human and animal behaviour which implies that a healthy dose of selfishness and self-centeredness is necessary for the individual development (Simpson & Willer, 2008). The researchers emphasize the important role of cultural and social environments in the formation of individual behaviours and formation of personal values (Sze et al., 2012; Thompson & Gullone, 2003).

People adopt the social norms and standards through the process of education and social interrelations that teach them to recognize the potential consequences of the altruistic and emphatic performance (Thompson & Gullone, 2003).

However, the researchers still fail to give a rational explanation to the voluntary work of the social activists and other professionals such as doctors in the remote and underdeveloped regions for the improvement of the adverse conditions and the increase in the quality of life of the local inhabitants. Although some researchers consider that the expression of empathy may be largely influenced by the innate nature of individuals, the scientific community needs an alternative and systematic explanation of the phenomenon.

According to the accepted point of view, the motivation for doing humanitarian and voluntary work is associated with a kind of intangible reward, such as the formation of positive social and self-identity (Burks & Kobus, 2012). The reward, in this case, is not material and is not represented as something that will directly benefit the performer of PB. However, it is still a reward, because the ultimate goal of the given prosocial actions is the achievement of personal content and pleasant feelings.

Most of the people do not will to help strangers because they do not see the potential for the achievement of personal benefits. On the other hand, there are multiple intangible and non-material benefits that communities or individuals can acquire if they decide to choose to lend a helping hand for those who are in desperate need. For example, In the long run, the acts of helping the victims of accidents can help to establish a culture based on altruism.

Therefore, the individual who expressed empathy and helped others despite the potential threats to personal well-being may be similarly rewarded by receiving aid from the unfamiliar people in times of future crises or danger. For example, in the context of the Syrian conflict, the refusal to help the refugees can provoke the development of hostile attitude towards the West, and it thus beneficial for the European and American officials to be altruistic as it will help to reduce the threat of the further international conflict outburst.

There is no doubt that the manifestation of PB principles in the everyday life creates a chain reaction of positive events, and, as a result, the positive social transformation takes place at the global scale. It is mutually advantageous to promote PB for all nations. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the triggering mechanisms, such as altruistic and empathic concerns, that lead to PB development. By focusing on the scientific evidence of behavioural mechanisms activation, it will be possible to encourage the sound global development.


The literature review helped to reveal the major elements that contribute to the formation of PB: empathy and altruism. It is observed that people may have various motives for helping others. The individual’s behaviours are influenced by the personal characteristics and largely depend on the social contexts and particular cultural backgrounds as well. It is possible to assume that in the different macro- and micro-social environments, PB will be defined by distinct motivational concerns: the expectation of material and non-material rewards, attempts to comply with the social norms of behaviour, development of positive self-identity, or the attempts to fulfil the urge for empathic feelings expression.

The researchers suggest that emphatic concern is the essential part of PB development as it implies the focus on the achievement of benefits for others. In this way, emphatic concern involves the realisation of the common good concept which emphasises the significance of social equality and shared advantages and wealth among the community members.

The significant observation is made by the researchers who claim that the sense of empathy and altruism may be greater developed in the contacts with the ingroup members. The findings make it clear that the majority of people tend to empathise to those with whom they can be easily associated (culturally, psychologically, and socially). Thus, there is a greater possibility for PB to be developed or adopted in the communities with a high level of communion or cultural/social identification.

It is observed that PB has multiple positive impacts on society at the local levels, but the achievement of sustainable large-scale favourable results is possible only in case the empathic and altruistic aspects of behaviour are taken into consideration and addressed by the forces responsible for the development of social structure. Moreover, it is possible to say that the promotion of values of equality and acceptance of social diversity may facilitate the shaping of PB patterns because the ethical principles contribute to the increase of social cohesion and tolerance.

Through discussion of PB issues in schools and other educational institutions, promotion of empathic and altruistic concerns in mass media, it is possible to raise public awareness and integrate PB qualities into the social consciousness. And, as a result, it may lead to the improvement of the quality of social performance at the global scale.


Batson, C. D., & Powell, A. A. (2003). Altruism and prosocial behavior. Handbook of Psychology. Web.

Buck, R. (2002). “Choice” and “emotion” in altruism: Reflections on the morality of justice versus the morality of caring. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25(2), 254-255. Web.

Burks, D. J., & Kobus, A. M. (2012). The legacy of altruism in health care: The promotion of empathy, prosociality and humanism. Medical Education, 46(3), 317-325. Web.

Griggs, R. A. (2015). The Kitty Genovese Story in introductory psychology textbooks: Fifty years later. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 149-152. Web.

Mathur, A., Harada, T., Lipke, T., & Chiao, J. Y. (2010). . NeuroImage, 51(4), 1468-1475. Web.

Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A., & Schroeder, D. A. (2005). Prosocial Behavior: Multilevel Perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology Annual, 56(1), 365-392. Web.

Simpson, B., & Willer, R. (2008). Altruism and Indirect Reciprocity: The Interaction of Person and Situation in Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychology Quarterly, 71(1), 37-52. Web.

Stich, S. (2016). Why there might not be an evolutionary explanation for psychological altruism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 56, 3-6. Web.

Sze, J. A., Gyurak, A., Goodkind, M. S., & Levenson, R. W. (2012). . Emotion, 12(5), 1129-1140. Web.

Thompson, K. L., & Gullone, E. (2003). Promotion of empathy and prosocial behaviour in children through humane education. Australian Psychologist, 38(3), 175-182.

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