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Does True Altruism Exist? Research Paper

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Updated: May 15th, 2019

Issue Summary

The selfless intention to help others otherwise known as altruism has been a subject of discussion for many social psychologists over the years. In the process, the issue whether true altruism exists or not has attracted both proponents and opponents in the same measure.

In the current issue, Daniel C. Batson and his colleagues propose an experiment in which they show evidence to suggest that people can help others for altruistic reasons in some circumstances.

Here, the proponents argue that empathic feelings play a role in creating altruistic behaviors towards those suffering. In their experiments, Batson and his colleagues hypothesize that the empathic feelings form part of the core motivators of helping, which may be purely altruistic.

The empathy-altruism (model) hypothesis is then tested in an experimental design whereby the researchers propose that a bystander observing a suffering person is bound to react in either of the two ways: by helping or escaping the situation (Batson et al., 1981, pp. 290-302).

Accordingly, the experiment entailed subjects observing a person in pain before choosing either the difficult way (helping the victim by enduring the pain on her behalf) or the easy way (escaping the situation without helping) out of the situation. Further, the researchers utilized a factorial design in which two levels of empathy (high or low) were crossed with two levels of escape (easy or difficult).

Generally, it was expected that the egoistically-motivated bystanders will choose the easy way out while the altruistically-motivated bystanders will be primarily concerned with the welfare of the victim, and thus, they will choose the difficult way.

As a result, the researchers presented evidence to support the empathy-altruistic hypothesis by showing that many subjects showing high empathy participated in helping the victim as opposed to their counterparts with low empathy (Batson et al., 1981).

On the other hand, Robert Cialdini and his colleagues decided to critically analyze Batson and his colleagues’ experimental results particularly those showing elevated helping scores for subjects expected to show high empathy according to the experimental design.

As a result, the opponents claim that empathy is not the only motivation for helping because people can sometimes help others in order to reduce their own distress as opposed to reducing other people’s distress. Furthermore, Cialdini and his colleagues argue that Batson’s experimental results do not conclusively show that pure altruism exists.

Here, Cialdini and his colleagues propose that the empathic orientation shown by the subjects may not necessarily lead to altruistic helping, but it helps to create temporary sadness or sorrow, which will then increase the chances that the subjects will help the victim through the difficult way (Cialdini et al., 1987, pp. 749-758).

As a result, the subjects in Batson and his colleagues’ experiments may have helped the victim out of egoistic reasons.

Therefore, in their experiment, Cialdini and his colleagues sought to separate the feelings of sadness from those of empathy among the subjects in order to assess the reliability of the findings of the former experiments by Batson and others.

As a result, the researchers replicated the earlier experiments by introducing some manipulations such as rewarding the subjects to relief them of the empathy-driven sadness during the experiment.

In the long run, the experimental results in Cialdini and his colleagues’ experiments supported their Negative State Relief Model, which suggests that helping can result from an egoistic interest to manage one’s feelings of sadness (Cialdini et al., 1987).


Batson and his colleagues have demonstrated an in-depth understanding of the issue of altruism in their discussions. From the issue discussions, it is apparent that the researchers understand the need to show the conceptual difference between egoism and altruism in order to suggest a behavioral difference between altruistically-motivated and egoistically-motivated helping.

Furthermore, Batson and his colleagues have shown the empirical ways of determining whether the behavior of helping others is either altruistically- or egoistically-oriented.

Moreover, the experimental design used to address the research question in Batson and his colleagues’ experiments is appropriate and sufficient enough to test their hypothesis. However, the experiments presented by Batson and his colleagues are limited by the fact that confounding factors such as induced sadness during the experiment are not controlled.

Conversely, Cialdini and his colleagues have also presented an equally strong case in which they seek to poke holes into the earlier experiments by Batson and others. The experimental model proposed by the researchers is appropriate and effective in showing other underlying factors that could influence the behavior of helping among the subjects besides empathic feelings.

Furthermore, the manipulations introduced by the researchers to Batson and his colleagues’ experiments are valid in determining other factors contributing to the subjects’ behaviors.

However, from Cialdini and his colleagues’ experiments, one can not determine conclusively whether the subjects’ behavior of helping is either altruistic or egoistic upon controlling for the underlying factors such as sadness. This limitation is apparent upon consideration of the unique nature of individual subjects, time, and other prevailing circumstances.

Overall, the concept presented by Batson and his colleagues is appealing in many aspects. First, the researchers provide a unique way of characterizing human behavior particularly the act of helping.

Secondly, the idea presented by the researchers in determining whether people’s behavior of helping is either altruistic or egoistic is clearly illustrated considering that Batson and his colleagues provide the conceptual and empirical basis of their argument.

However, it is important to factor in Cialdini and his colleagues’ contributions. Here, it is important to note that proper consideration of other confounding factors in Batson and his colleagues’ experiments will make the conclusions provided by the researchers more reliable in future studies.


Batson, C.D., Bruce, D.D., Ackerman, T.B., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 290-302.

Cialdini, R.B., Schaller, M., Houlihan, D., Arps, K., Fultz, J., & Beaman, A.L. (1987). Empathy-based helping: Is it selflessly or selfishly motivated? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(4), 749-758.

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