Empathic Concern and Altruism in Humans

We humans spend a remarkable amount of time, money, and energy to benefit others, including family, friends, and strangers. Why do we do it? Do we ever care about others for their sakes and not simply for our own? Is our ultimate goal always and exclusively self-benefit, or are we capable of caring about another person’s welfare as an ultimate goal? These questions are asking about the existence of altruistic motivation in humans.

Dan Batson delivers an address on empathy at the 2007 Autonomy Singularity Creativity conference.

The orthodox answer to such questions, at least in Western thought, is clearly stated by La Rouchefoucauld: “The most disinterested love is, after all, but a kind of bargain, in which the dear love of our own selves always proposes to be the gainer some way or other.”

The empathy-altruism hypothesis offers a very different answer. It claims that empathic concern (other-oriented emotion felt for someone in need—sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like) produces altruistic motivation (a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing the other’s welfare). Over the past 35 years, other researchers and I have attempted to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis using laboratory experiments and have, overall, found quite strong support (for a partial review see Batson & Shaw, 1991; Batson, forthcoming provides a more complete review). Altruistic motivation does seem to be within the human repertoire. Of course, fundamental questions remain: What produces empathic concern? Can we give a plausible account of the evolution of empathy-induced altruism? What are the practical and theoretical implications if empathy-induced altruism exists?

In everyday life, empathic concern seems to be a product of (a) perception of another as in need and (b) intrinsic valuing of that other’s welfare. Contrary to what is often thought, empathic concern is not a product of perceived similarity of the other to the self. We do not simply feel for ourselves in the other. We can feel empathic concern for a wide range of others in need, even dissimilar others, as long as we value their welfare.

In terms of evolutionary history, I do not think that reciprocal altruism, inclusive fitness (kin selection), or group selection in its various forms can account for empathy-induced altruistic motivation in humans. Rather, generalized parental nurturance now seems the most likely evolutionary basis of empathic concern—even for strangers. Human parental nurturance is far more flexible and future-oriented than the parental instincts found in most—perhaps all—other mammalian species. It is need-oriented, emotion-based, and goal-directed. And it can be generalized well beyond our own children—in the case of pets, even to members of other species. If parental nurturance is the prototype for empathy-induced altruism, then the intensity of tender, empathic feeling for strangers should vary with perceived similarity to progeny, not perceived similarity to self. Is this true?

Colleagues and I sought to address this question with an experiment (Batson, Lishner, Cook, & Sawyer, 2005). Undergraduate women were asked to read a pilot article for a new feature for the Daily Kansan, the local university newspaper. The feature was called “Helping Hands,” and was to run articles in which students described their volunteer experiences in the local community. Some of the women read about a female student helping Kayla, a university student much like themselves, with rehabilitation exercises after a severely broken leg. Others read about exactly the same volunteer experience, except that Kayla was a child, a dog, or a puppy. This variation produced four experimental conditions:

  • Student: “a badly hurt and struggling 20-year-old junior at KU”
  • Child: “a badly hurt and struggling 3-year-old child”
  • Dog: “a badly hurt and struggling 5-year old adult dog”
  • Puppy: “a badly hurt and struggling 4-month-old puppy”

After reading, the women were asked to rate the similarity to themselves of Kayla. As you would expect, the student-Kayla was rated as more similar than the child, and far more similar than the dog and puppy. But when the women reported the empathic concern they felt for Kayla, it was significantly lower for the student-Kayla than for the other three. Clearly, the reported empathic concern was not tied to perceived similarity to self. Rather, it was tied to Kayla being more progeny-like, either as a child or as a pet.

Empathic Concern in Each Experimental Condition

  • Student: 4.25
  • Child: 5.42
  • Dog: 5.22
  • Puppy: 4.84
(Empathic concern was measured on a 1-7 scale, with 1 = not at all, 7 = extremely.)

Results of this experiment underscore the need for increased attention to the classical, but currently neglected, suggestion that empathy felt for strangers is based on cognitive generalization of the human parental instinct that is so vital for the survival of children.

The extensive evidence for the empathy-altruism hypothesis supports the conclusion that the human motivational repertoire is broader than self-interest (egoism). When we feel empathic concern, we can care for the welfare of others (altruism) and not simply for “the dear love of our own selves” (egoism). Indeed, the human motivational repertoire may be broader than egoism and altruism combined. We may also care for the welfare of a group or collective (collectivism), and we may be motivated to uphold moral principles such as justice or fairness (principlism). One implication of this broadened motivational repertoire is that we cannot justify our callousness by an appeal to human nature; we are capable of more. Another implication is that we have more motivational resources than self-interest in our attempts to address important social problems. We are no longer limited to the carrots and sticks of egoism.


  • Batson, C. D. (forthcoming). Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Batson, C. D., Lishner, D. A., Cook, J., & Sawyer, S. (2005). Similarity and nurturance: Two possible sources of empathy for strangers. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 15-25.
  • Batson, C. D., & Shaw, L. L. (1991). Evidence for altruism: Toward a pluralism of pro-social motives. Psychological Inquiry, 2, 107-122.

28 comments to Empathic Concern and Altruism in Humans

  • Identification is the window, the “portal” to empathy. The portal is always open for those whom are close to us (e.g. spouse, children, parents, friends) but for those more distant, the portal may be only slightly ajar, and for some it may be firmly closed. This is true for most outsiders. So, even though I believe empathy is an automatic response, and is as old as mammalian maternal care, it has its own filters that make that it is activated only when certain preconditions are met. This is already true for mice. It has been found that mice have an increased sensitivity to pain when they have seen another in pain, but that this mechanism operates only between mice who know each other. Tested with strangers, mice fail to show the same empathetic response.

    Mouse empathy:

    I remember that when the Tsunami struck Indonesia, the Swedes gave a lot of money, more than the rest of the world combined, and presumably this is because there were far more Swedes in Indonesia and Thailand, so they had more reason to identify with the victims, even with victims of other nationalities, than did the rest of the world.

    Identification makes the situation of the other to some extent one’s own. This is where I may differ with Dan’s models, which try to tease apart whether empathy is other-oriented or self-oriented. I think it is almost always both. The beauty of the empathy mechanism to explain altruism is that the other’s situation becomes partly our own, it resonates within us, which makes the distinction between self and other a secondary issue. This is nicely captured in mirror neurons studies (mirror neurons make us react similarly to our own actions as to the perceived actions of others), which neurons seem to erase the self-other distinction.

    And please remember, mirror neurons are not limited to our species. They were first discovered in macaques. Animal empathy is sometimes overlooked by those who emphasize the cognitive side of how we relate to others. But however cognitively advanced one’s reactions may be, if there is no emotional component added to it, we would never call it empathy. For example, a psychopath like Bernie Madoff also was able to put himself in the shoes of others, to understand what they wanted, so as to better exploit them. He showed all the cognitive components of empathy, but the emotional connection and interest in the other were simply not there, which is why we would not call him an empathic person. The role of basic motor and emotional connections is explained in the following excerpt from my new book, “The Age of Empathy”:

    Dan’s emphasis on the parental instinct makes enormous sense to me, fits well with biology, may explain sex differences in empathy, known effects of oxytocin on trust and prosocial behavior, and so on. This is not necessarily in competition with reciprocity and kinship explanations of the evolution of empathy, however, because in order for a parenting-based psychological and physiological mechanism to be extended to non-offspring, such as unrelated adults, one still needs to postulate survival advantages. The mechanism may derive from parental care, but the applications found in the larger society still require the advantages evolutionary theorists struggle to explain.

    • Dan Batson

      Thanks to Frans for his most useful comment. It raises three issues that are important in any consideration of empathy-induced altruism in humans.

      First is the issue of what one means by empathy. Frans and I are not, I think, referring to the same phenomenon. As in my Posting, I am referring to what I have called empathic concern—other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of a person in need. This empathic concern involves feeling for the other and includes feelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like. I think Frans would call this other-oriented emotion sympathy. The label one chooses is not crucial. It is, however, crucial to distinguish what I am calling empathic concern from feeling as another feels, which it what I believe Frans means by empathy. In his Russian doll model, automatic emotional resonance—feeling as—lies at the core with sympathy (i.e., empathic concern) as an overlay. His model implies that feeling as is a necessary condition for empathic concern, feeling for. I doubt this is true. Think of concern felt for an unconscious accident victim or for a friend who tells us she just lost her job. We can feel empathic concern in these situations without feeling as the other feels. Adding to the potential for confusion, the term empathy has also been used for two different forms of perspective taking—imagining how the other is feeling (an imagine-other perspective) and imagining how you would feel in the other’s situation (an imagine-self perspective). In research, an imagine-other perspective has been found to induce empathic concern, but it should not be confused with the empathic concern it induces. Especially in situations in which we have limited information about what the other is feeling, we may employ an imagine-self perspective to provide clues. In this way, an imagine-self perspective may provide a stepping-stone to other-oriented empathic concern. But this stepping-stone is slippery. We may get so wrapped up in our own reactions to the other’s situation that we lose sight of the other and his or her need. It is important to emphasize that the experimental evidence for the existence of empathy-induced altruism to which I referred in my Posting supports the claim that other-oriented empathic concern (Frans’s sympathy) produces altruistic motivation. I know of no evidence that the other phenomena called empathy do, except as they promote empathic concern.

      This leads me to the second issue Frans raises, identification and making “the situation of the other to some extent one’s own.” He is quite right that we differ about the necessity of projecting ourselves into the other’s situation in order to appreciate the other’s plight. As above, I think this is a possible sequence but, at least in humans, by no means a necessary one. Our difference here also leads us to place different weight on the role of mirror neurons in empathy-induced altruism. I doubt they play much role in the experience of empathic concern or in the altruistic motivation it produces. I believe the recent neuroscience work of Jean Decety and others supports this skepticism.

      Third, Frans quite rightly points out that if generalized parental nurturance provides the evolutionary substrate to empathy-induced altruism in humans, there must not be strong selective pressure against it. (I am recasting his point in a less adaptationist form.) In this regard, I found Sarah Hrdy’s recent On the Human Forum Posting especially helpful. She points to the important role of alloparenting and cooperative provisioning among early humans and among certain other primate species. Assuming that alloparenting reflects generalized parental care, it takes us an important step toward the generalization empathic-concern-based altruistic motivation to nonkin, even to other species.

  • I’m working on a documentary about empathy and hope to be able to interview you both (Dan Batson and Frans de Waal) at some point for the project.

    President Obama has talked repeatedly about the importance of empathy. He said for example, “the ability to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, and to stand in somebody else’s shoes. And that strikes me as the most important quality that we need in America right now and around the world right now”. I’ve put together a video of Obama talking about empathy complied from his speeches. He has mentioned it over 50 times in speeches and interviews and continues to talk about it. There’s video and transcripts at this url. See


    If you see the video I think it makes the case that he ran for office on the value of empathy and won a national mandate for it’s promotion in our society.

    I was wondering how you see your work connecting with Obama’s call for more empathy?
    (Dan, for example, which of your 8 uses or definitions of the word empathy do you think he is referring to?)


    Edwin Rutsch


    • Dan Batson

      Edwin, many thanks for sharing your great collection of video clips and quotes from Obama speeches in which he emphasizes the importance of empathy and speaks of the “empathy deficit” in the U.S.! The term empathy as Obama uses it in the quotes almost always seems to refer to imagining how one would think or feel in another’s place—what I have called an imagine-self perspective. As I said in response to Frans, this form of perspective taking can serve as a stepping stone to provide insight into the situation of another person (especially if that person’s situation is relatively foreign to us) and to how he or she is affected by that situation—the sensitive understanding that I have called an imagine-other perspective. This sensitive understanding can, in turn, lead to the empathic concern (synonymous, I believe, to what Obama calls compassion) that has been found to produce altruistic motivation. I think it is this sequence that Obama has in mind in his references to empathy and our empathy deficit.

      But this sequence is not the only possibility when we use our “ability to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, and to stand in somebody else’s shoes” (i.e., use our ability to adopt an imagine-self perspective). Let me mention two other possibilities. First, it is possible to empathize in this sense in a competitive situation in order to anticipate your opponent’s moves and thwart his or her interests, as a skilled chess player or negotiator does. Adam Galinsky and Nick Epley have each done interesting and valuable research on the role of this kind of perspective taking in bargaining and negotiation situations. Second, it is possible to imagine yourself in others’ shoes to compare and contrast your reaction to their’s. If you judge them to be reacting less appropriately than you think you would—or did—then this form of perspective taking may provide the basis for censure, condemnation, and rejection. I do not think Obama had either of these last two sequences in mind. However, their existence highlights the complexities of perspective taking and the fact that it is a skill that can be used either to bring us into alignment with the interests of others or to drive us farther apart.

  • Luis Oceja

    As researcher in social psychology, I’m currently very intrigued by the possibility of widening the human “motivational repertoire” beyond egoism, and I find Batson’s approach very useful to deal with that enterprise. So, leaded by an egoistic motive, I’d like to bring up some questions and invite Professor Batson and other participants in this forum to address them.

    I agree that trying to clarify the ultimate goal may be the better way of, first, proposing a new motive (let’s say “Xism”) and, second, discriminating it from other possible motives. Regarding this issue, and bearing in mind the logic proposed by Batson, should we always start by putting face to face “Xism” and egoism? Assuming a positive answer, and optimistically imagining that we found empirical support, should we then confront “Xism” with altruism?; and what about other possible motives such collectivism and principlism? Is there an end in this way of proceeding? I’m not trying to complain, I’d just like to know colleagues’ opinion about these concerns.

    Regarding the “confrontation logic”, I agree with the four-step logic proposed by Batson, but I’d like to mention another possible step: we could first activate a specific motive (e.g., either altruism or collectivism), then manipulate the direction of the helping behavior (e.g., the beneficiary is either only the person in need or only a specific group), and subsequently test if people offer more aid when there is a congruence/matching between the previously elicited motive and the direction of the helping behavior. Does this step make any sense?

    Finally, in order to propose a new motive, should we look for evidence for the cognitive, affective and motivational components stated in McDougall’s approach? Are all of them necessary? Is the affective component the crucial one?

    • Dan Batson

      Luis has raised a series of both important and difficult questions. I fear that cannot do them justice in a brief response, but let me at least offer a few comments.

      First, in proposing a new motive (Luis’s Xism) I think the first question that arises is whether any behavior that we think is a product of Xism may actually be a product of some other motive. If, for example, we wish to claim altruism is within the human motivational repertoire, we need to consider other possible motives that might account for behavior we might attribute to altruism, behavior such as dramatic cases of heroic, self-sacrificial helping. Given the wide range of egoistic motives, it is natural to consider one or more of them as possibilities. But I would not suggest always starting with egoistic alternatives. Instead, I think we need to think about whatever may be the most plausible alternatives. If careful tests lead us to reject these alternatives, then we move on to test other plausible alternatives. Only when we have ruled out all plausible alternatives do we have good empirical justification for concluding Xism exists. Obviously, this can be a long, torturous process. Worse yet, we can never be certain that we have considered all plausible alternatives. (This is what I have called the “open set” problem.) Therefore, our conclusion must remain provisional and tentative. On the other hand, as the evidence consistent with Xism becomes more extensive and diverse, the likelihood of new plausible alternatives declines to the point that it seems only prudent to act on the assumption that Xism exists.

      Second, the idea of varying the type of helping to discern the nature of the underlying motive seems a good strategy for testing an altruistic motive against certain egoistic alternatives (e.g., a self-reward for helping alternative). However, I would consider it an expression of the fourth step of the four-step logic, not an additional step. As nice example of the use of this strategy is the research by Mark Sibicky and his colleagues, in which helping brought short-term benefit, but, for half of the participants, it also brought the potential for long-term harm. Among these latter participants, those induced to feel empathic concern for the person in need helped less, not more. This was as predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

      Third, McDougall’s instincts each had a cognitive, affective, and conative (motivational) component. Goal-directed motives are, in my view, best thought of as forces directed toward removing a discrepancy between one’s current state and some valued state. Thus, in order to propose a new motive, I would look for evidence that the specified goal (and value) exists. I would consider cognitive and affective components as McDougall thought of them to be potential antecedents of the motivational state, but not components of the motive itself.

  • Eric Stocks

    Dan and Frans have made interesting and important points in their forum posts, and their contributions to the study of empathic responding are noteworthy. I am in the awkward position of thinking that both men are quite on target, but that Dan’s target is very different from Frans’ target.

    Dan is studying the causes and consequences of a very specific, nurturance-based vicarious emotional response that can be – and often is – quite different from what the target is feeling (e.g., we can feel empathic concern for a tree, if we are so inclined). Frans is studying the causes and consequences of what I would call emotion matching (or contagion, catching, mimicry, etc.). These two types of empathic responses are different, and likely have different causes and consequences.

    Research suggests that one cognitive-perceptual antecedent to Dan’s “empathic concern” is to adopt an “imagine-other” perspective toward the other. This perspective has been shown to produce relatively pure empathic concern, and can be construed as eliciting an approach orientation (e.g., a desire to help).

    One cognitive-perceptual antecedent to Frans’ “empathy” (emotion matching or contagion) is to adopt an “imagine self” perspective. My colleagues and I have studied both perspectives, and our research suggests that unlike adopting an imagine-other perspective, imagining oneself in the victim’s shoes typically produces a vicarious version of whatever the target is feeling (be it sadness, embarrassment, guilt, anger, etc.). To the degree that the vicarious emotion “caught” from the other is unpleasant, it is not associated with an approach orientation or helping behavior – unless there is no easier way of ridding oneself of the emotion, in which case the aversive nature of the vicarious emotion can evoke an independent egoistic motive to help (e.g., Stocks, Lishner, Decker, 2009, EJSP; Stocks, Lishner, Waits, & Downum, in press, JASP).

    From my point of view, the issues highlighted by Dan’s and Frans’ posts stem from a lack of research on both the cognitive-perceptual antecedents of “empathic” responding and how these processes potentially differ depending on the context or relation between empathizer and victim. At this point, it is unclear which antecedent of perspective taking (valuing, similarity, identification, genetic relation, familiarity, etc.) produces each of these perspectives. It is also unclear if these perspectives operate the same way in the context of close relationships vs. non-close relationships.

    One way to resolve these issues is to track the full pathway from cognitive-perceptual processes (along with their antecedents), through the specific type of “empathic” responding they elicit, and on to the specific goals associated with each type of empathic response. It would also be necessary to investigate how these processes operate in the context of close-relationships and non-close relationships. Until such research becomes available, issues like those highlighted in this forum will be difficult to resolve.

    • Dan Batson

      The ambitious research agenda that Eric outlines is, I believe, a bit different from the one that I have been pursuing and is the subject of my posting. I have been attempting to answer a rather specific question: Does empathic concern produce altruistic motivation? The research agenda Eric outlines seems to involve a comprehensive empirical mapping of the relations of cognitive-perceptual processes (specifically, various forms of perspective taking), their antecedents, their emotional, motivational, and behavioral consequences, and how these relations may vary depending on the nature of the relationship between the perspective taker and the person whose perspective is taken. To have such a mapping would indeed be quite useful, although I must confess to some skepticism about whether it is really possible to get a comprehensive (or even a close to comprehensive) mapping. Additional factors and qualifiers would seem to crop up endlessly. To have such a map is not, I think, necessary to answer the specific question posed by the empathy-altruism hypothesis. On the other hand, even a partial map might be useful in specifying how one might most effectively induce empathic concern under various circumstances. So, each approach can make a contribution, but I would caution against substituting one for the other.

  • David Lishner

    It’s certainly nice to see that theorists and researchers are moving beyond the question of whether human altruism exists and are beginning to ask more substantive questions about its origins, causes, and consequences. Dan’s proposal that the emotional antecedent of altruism, empathic concern, arises from a psychological mechanism, or set of mechanisms, that promotes parental care of young is a welcome change of pace from the prevalent view that empathic concern emerges from a shared experience with or perceived similarity to a person in need. Along with some of the research mentioned by Dan, similarity of experience and target certainly can’t explain why I get a surge of empathic concern, but not fear, when my 2 year-old becomes fearful in response to a sudden, harmless noise, or why listening to the contended snoring of my portly pug evokes a feelings of tenderness and compassion.

    The suggestion that empathic concern is a form of generalized parental nuturance raises interesting possibilities for research. For example, perhaps the underpinnings of human empathic concern can be found in subcortical neural systems similar to those known to regulate parental behavior in other non-human mammals. If so, how do such systems interact with “higher” cortical systems to produce the flexible and generalized forms of nurturant care found among humans? The perception of vulnerability in another must surely play a central role in evoking empathic concern, but how does one’s developmental environment and culture impact one’s conceptualization of vulnerability and, in turn, tendency to experience empathic concern? Are there certain nonverbal physical or vocal characteristics that trigger empathic concern relatively automatically (e.g., infant-like facial or vocal characteristics)? What new insights would a generalized parental nurturance explanation of human altruism bring to the table in helping us to conceptualize various psychopathologies that appear to indicate a compromised capacity for feeling empathy or for caring about the welfare of others?

    Regardless of its source (generalized parental nurturance or similarity), a number of fundamental assumptions regarding the intrapersonal and interpersonal antecedents and consequences of empathic concern still remain unclear despite their continued discussion in the literature. For example, does empathic concern inhibit aggression? Are there really genuine sex differences in the capacity to experience empathic concern, and consequently, to become motivated to increase another’s welfare as an end in itself? How does one assess individual differences in the capacity to experience genuine empathic concern? How is conflict between altruistic motivation and egoistic motivation managed, both psychologically and behaviorally, and what would this tell us about traditional conceptualizations of the distinction between approach and avoidance? What happens when altruistic motivation to benefit one person conflicts with altruistic motivation to benefit another person? To my knowledge no strong experimental evidence exists that provides clear answers to these questions. Fortunately, the movement away from, “Does it exist?” to “What are the implications?” suggests that we may find answers to these questions sooner rather than later.

    Dan, what do you think are the important questions about empathic concern and altruism that future research should seek to answer?

    • Dan Batson

      Great set of questions, David! What can I add? I certainly share your interest in knowing more about the neuroscience of empathic concern and altruistic motivation, both the neurophysiology (e.g., the role of the anterior insula, the anterior cingulated cortex, the temporal-parietal juncture, and various prefrontal regions, as well as the possible role of the large spindle—von Economo—neurons) and neurochemistry (especially the role of oxytocin—and vasopressin). I lack the expertise and facilities to pursue such research on my own but would be delighted to serve as a collaborator. I would also like to know about the existence (or non-existence) of empathic concern and altruistic motivation in other species—most obviously, in other primate species but also in elephants, dolphins and whales, and dogs. (What does your portly pug feel—anything?—when listening to your contented snoring?) In this regard, I think it would be especially important to remain focused on empathic concern and altruistic motivation, avoiding the temptation to substitute other forms of empathy (e.g., emotional resonance) and other notions of altruism (e.g., costly helping behavior). Again, I lack the expertise and access to potential participants to do such research on my own, but I would be delighted to collaborate. Finally, there are a host of application questions. If, as I think the evidence now clearly suggests, empathy-induced altruistic motivation is within the human repertoire, how can we use this resource in creating a more caring, humane society? There is at least preliminary evidence that it can be used to increase cooperation in competitive situations, improve attitudes toward and action on behalf of stigmatized groups, and produce more satisfying interpersonal relations. Programs and policies that capitalize on this potential should be developed—and evaluated.

  • Empathy may also come from groups

    By Paul van Lange, VU University, Amsterdam

    When a young child watches the movie Bambi, the child is very likely to share in many ways the feelings ascribed to the lovely deer. The child probably feels sad, experiences distress, and perhaps even fear – but also realizes that it is Bambi’s mother, not his or her own mother that was killed. If the child could help Bambi, for example, by comforting Bambi by donating some of his or her more precious toys, would the child do so? Of course, this is an empirical question, but my bet is that most children do. This bet is based in part on an impressive program of research by Dan Batson and colleagues, and I think the Bambi example is illustrative of two further points.

    The first is that, as much research suggests, automatic, neurological responses prepare people for empathic concern and altruistic motivation. A child does not choose to cry when watching Bambi, it simply does, and often before the child “knows”. This is different from some other routes to helping, where at least some reasoning seems relevant – as in moral judgment in complex situations where more than one moral rule may be applied.

    Second, there is recent evidence that empathy promotes the goal “to increase the outcomes for the other” (which may be referred to as altruistic motivation) and does not reduce the goal to increase outcomes for self (egoistic motivation). So, empathy seems to add altruistic motivation to an already existing egoistic motivation (see Van Lange, 2008). This means that when empathy is activated, it is typical that people are both altruistically and egoistically motivated. So, whether the child will give up precious toys will depend on the strength of both altruistic and egoistic motivation.

    Evolutionarily, it makes sense that empathy felt for strangers is based on a generalization of the human parental instinct. But why would that be the only evolution-based mechanism? Most research on the empathy-altruism model has used others similar to the self, such as fellow students. And this research has demonstrated the power of empathy in promoting altruistic motivation. While the survival of offspring may give an extra push to altruistic motivation, the survival of groups may provide the evolutionary basis for the tendency to empathize with most other strangers. After all, groups would not do very well if their members were not equipped at all with an empathy-based mechanism that helps them to help other members in danger – and do so in a quick and automatic manner.

    Van Lange, P. A. M. (2008). Does empathy trigger only altruistic motivation – How about selflessness and justice? Emotion, 8, 766-774.

    • Dan Batson

      Before I comment on Paul’s very useful two further points and on his suggestion that survival of groups may provide the evolutionary basis for the tendency to empathize with most strangers, let me briefly raise some doubt about whether the child watching Bambi shares Bambi’s feelings. I do not doubt that the child may feel sad, distressed, and afraid, but are these feelings “caught” from Bambi (emotional contagion) or are they feelings for Bambi. For example, would the fear arise while watching a predator stalk a blissfully unaware Bambi or only after Bambi sees the predator and reacts? My guess is the former, and that the child is afraid for Bambi, wanting to warn and provide protection. If so, the feelings are in the class I have called empathic concern.

      Paul’s two further points are well taken. First, there are indeed many reasons for helping, including a desire to be (or at least to appear) moral. If it is true that empathy-induced altruistic motivation has its roots in generalized parental nurturance and feelings of tenderness, sympathy, and compassion, then it seems quite distinct from moral motivation. Consistent with this possibility, colleagues and I have found evidence that empathy-induced altruistic motivation can lead people to violate their own moral standards. Second, Paul is quite right that egoistic and altruistic motives, although distinct (because of their distinct goals), are not mutually exclusive (i.e., altruism as I have defined it is not the same as selflessness). They can exist in the same person simultaneously, as in the research Paul cites. Colleagues and I found much the same thing in social dilemmas.

      Finally, the suggestion that group survival may provide a second evolutionary basis for empathy-induced altruism, one more relevant to strangers, is an interesting thought and certainly worth exploring. Personally, I have my doubts. I suspect that whatever evolutionary roots of group promotion there may be (still a point of controversy, I believe) lie in reciprocity and loyalty (coalition formation) rather than in empathy-induced altruism. So, Paul, given our different hypotheses, any interest in trying to pursue this possibility empirically?

  • Carolyn Zahn-Waxler

    Mammals of all sorts respond to the distress cries of their young. These cries are primary, powerful stimuli that call for parental care. MacLean’s (1985) theory of the triune brain was one of the first to consider neural underpinnings of empathy in mammals. Here, mammalian parental investment in offspring, the nurturing and nourishing of the young, was seen as the foundation for generalized empathy. This view thus emphasized empathy as a quality that we humans share with other mammals. There is now an established field of social neuroscience that identifies brain regions associated with apparently automatic neural resonance to the distress of others.

    Batson’s position that generalized parental nurturance is the most likely evolutionary basis of empathic concern is compatible in some respects with MacLean’s theory. Where it differs, however, is in its requirement that this (uniquely or predominantly human?) empathy produce a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. This would appear to dichotomize goal-directed and reflexive empathy with a lesser role for the latter and to set us further apart from other animals than may be warranted. Empathy begins very early in humans (Zahn-Waxler, 2000). During the first two years of life it evolves from a more reflexive emotional response to one that also includes more purposeful caring actions. The reflexive crying of infants in response to others’ distress (viewed by many as a precursor of empathy) gradually diminishes over time and more regulated expressions of concern become linked to caring actions. But the vestiges of this emotional reflexive connection to the distress of others remain (to greater or lesser degrees in different individuals) and provide a more automatic motivational force for empathy-based prosocial actions. In this view, reflexive or automatic reactions (which some view as egoistic) remain important in human empathy. Feeling the distress of another is intrinsically a part of our nature and we would do well not to forget the potential it provides for reaching out to others in need.

    If we wish to learn more about what produces empathic concern (a remaining fundamental question according to Batson) we need to further explore the intersections of nature and nurture in expressions of empathy and prosociality from a developmental perspective. Empathy and caring actions are in place early in life and decades before parenthood. Parental nurturance can facilitate empathy in children but it does not necessarily provide the primary motivation. Rather, I would argue, children are to varying degrees intrinsically motivated to care for others. When we better understand the role of genetics, temperament, and other biological processes that interact with the different circumstances under which children are reared we will come a long way in understanding what motivates our capacities for compassion.

    The intriguing study described by Dan raises several questions especially about the role of gender. It is interesting that female undergraduates reported more empathic concern for progeny-like victims than similar victims. This does not, however, rule out the importance of similarity as one motivating factor. Would findings be even stronger is parents were studied? It would also be important to know whether the generalizations would apply to male participants. Is this a theory of parental nurturance a theory about parenthood or motherhood? For many reasons males more often are viewed both as less nurturant and less empathic than females. This too can be seen in the earliest years of life. To better understand the role of parental nurturance in the development of empathic concern for others it is necessary to bring the child into the equation and to understand the dynamics of parent-child interaction that are implicated in this development.

    • Dan Batson

      Carolyn, thanks for adding a valuable and needed developmental perspective—especially valuable since it comes from such an expert. You raise an interesting issue in noting, quite rightly of course, that empathic concern is present well before parenthood. But I would suggest that human parental nurturance is too. Not only do older children alloparent their younger sibs, but they “parent” pets and dolls (even other toys and plants). So I would still suggest that human parental nurturance may lie behind your observation that “children are to varying degrees intrinsically motivated to care for others.”

      The gender issue is also interesting and important. My proposal is, as you suspect, that parental nurturance may underlie empathy-induced altruism in both men and women. I think both sexes are capable of tender, compassionate feelings for their progeny—and their pets (and plants?). At the same time, the proposal certainly raises the question of gender differences. In our research, we sometimes find gender differences in reported empathic concern; we sometimes do not. When we do, women always report more empathy than men. Of key importance, however, we have never found a gender difference in the nature of the motivation produced by empathic concern. Insofar as I can tell, empathic concern may be aroused more easily in females than males, at least in some situations, but once aroused, it produces altruistic motivation similarly in males and females.

      Finally, let me just note that you are right to accuse me of questioning the established orthodoxy that empathic concern (or sympathetic concern) emerges out of personal distress and emotional resonance. I am suggesting that empathic concern and personal distress may have different developmental (and evolutionary) trajectories. Whether this is right remains to be seen.

  • Nadia Ahmad

    An intriguing aspect of the Kayla study is the inclusion of conditions in which Kayla is described as a dog/puppy, in addition to the condition in which Kayla is described as a child. Is it counterintuitive from the perspective of evolutionary psychology that people express more empathy for dogs than an adult human in need? I would think that the evolutionary perspective would predict greater concern for others with whom we share greater genetic overlap (i.e., members of our own species). The Kayla findings seems to indicate that there are variables that trump genetic overlap as a instigator of concern.

    I find myself wondering if pets appropriate the human tendencies evolved in order to nurture human offspring, or if dependent animals trigger a concern in humans that was selected for during the course of our hunter-gathering and pastoralist pasts. What happens if we broaden the idea of nurturance beyond simply the parent-child bond? Are the caring emotions that can be triggered by other species misfirings of the parental nurturance system, or are humans specifically wired to be attuned to and feel concern for animals?

    Human beings have, after all, relied upon animals for their own survival over the span of human history, rendering a sensitivity to animal cues adaptive. Paying attention to the signals of smaller animals with perhaps keener senses may have given humans early warning of predators, and enhancing their own chances of survival. For pastoralists reliant on livestock as a primary source of food, long-term care of animals would have required long-term sensitivity to animal need cues to ensure that animals survived long enough to propagate and provide a continued source of food.

    • Dan Batson

      Nadia, I think you are right about what most evolutionary psychologists would predict—indeed, what many have predicted. One can trace the idea that perceived similarity is a phenotypic marker for genetic relatedness and kin selection all the way back to Richard Dawkins’s (1976) “Green Beard Effect.” As for your question about whether the caring emotions that can be triggered by other species are misfirings of the parental nurturance system, or whether humans are specifically wired to be attuned to and feel concern for animals, that is intriguing. Perhaps I am simply showing a preference for parsimony, but my inclination is to think that these emotions are a product of, while not misfiring, cognitive generalization of parental nurturance rather than of a specific genetic inclination to be sensitive to and concerned about the welfare of certain other species. The cognitive generalization view offers an account not only of care for animals but also for humans who are not progeny. However, I cannot think of any data that clearly count against your alternative. Can any else?

  • One of Batson’s great contributions to the debate about the nature and sources of human motivation is his rigorous experimentation on the effects of empathic concern on pro-social behavior. He argues, rightly I believe, that we can be, indeed we often are, motivated by concerns that are not purely egoistic. For certain construals of evolutionary theory, this has proven to be quite a puzzle. Darwin famously thought group selection could take care of this problem, but since group selection has fallen out of grace, kin selection has been thought to be a more promising approach. Batson, however, favors the idea that altruism descends from parental care (generalized parental nurturance hypothesis). The experiment he summarizes is supposed to provide some initial support for this idea.
    The results of the experiment are intriguing, but I wonder whether they are well interpreted as supporting the generalized parental nurturance hypothesis. For while it is certainly true that the most empathic concern is experienced for the child in need people appear to experience less concern for a puppy than for a grown dog. But on the generalized parental nurturance hypothesis, we should expect them to feel more empathic concern for the puppy, which is more like an infant, than the dog. Another concern about the conclusion is that Batson appear to assume that empathic concern reflects intrinsic valuing of the person. However, empathic concern is a product both of valuing the other person’s welfare and perceiving the other as in need. Plausibly, children are more in need of assistance in general than students. The fact that students are the ones that are empathized with the least may be an artifact of them being the most self-sufficient group represented. This explanation, of course, does not explain what goes on with respect of the puppy vs. dog empathy, but in this respect the explanation is no worse off than the one fitting the generalized parental nurturance hypothesis.
    In general, it is a very interesting question what to make of situations in which we would expect people to experience empathic concern but they do not. Is it that they do not intrinsically value the welfare of the other or is it, rather, that they do not perceive the other as in need? There is some indication that people often fail to fully recognize that others are in need when it would be costly for them to help them. For instance at least some of the unhelpful seminarians in Batson’s and Darley’s Good Samaritan study reportedly failed to “perceive the scene…as an occasion for ethical decision” (Darley & Batson 1973, 107-8). For the seminarians themselves, this was a happy situation insofar as it freed them to hurry to their presentation. Might this failure to recognize others’ need be one way in which our more egoistic impulses counteract our more altruistic tendencies? Might this tendency serve as a check on altruism?
    Another thing that intrigues me about Batson’s work is what to make of ‘intrinsic valuing of another’s welfare’? What makes us value someone’s welfare, we may ask? Might it be the fact that their welfare is importantly related to ours? If so, we may worry that some degree of egoism or hedonism is re-introduced via this route. And there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that we experience more empathic concern more often for those that are closer to us, than we do for strangers. So might some degree of identification be built in here? If association matters to the degree to which we value someone’s welfare, and association often involves some degree of identification (although identification may be a result of association), does identification then not also matter to valuing someone’s welfare and, thus, affect empathic concern? Of course, even if this is true, Batson has certainly demonstrated that identification on the basis of close similarity is not required for, perhaps not even central to, empathic concern.

    • Dan Batson

      Thanks, Heidi, for a careful and thoughtful critique of the little similarity vs. nurturance experiment reported in my posting. Although the difference in reported empathic concern for Kayla the dog and Kayla the puppy was not statistically significant, I too wondered what (other than chance variation) it might mean. My best guess, admittedly post hoc, is that some participants may have thought the 4-month-old puppy either would miss being at home less or would be more pliable and resilient than the 5-year-old dog.

      However, if this was true, it was not reflected in ratings of perceived need. This speaks to your second point. As you quite correctly observe, I have suggested that the psychological antecedents of empathic concern are (a) perception of the other as in need and (b) intrinsic valuing of the other’s welfare. We measured perception of need in the reported experiment and found no reliable difference across the four conditions. Means ranged from 7.06 to 7.38 on a 1-9 scale, F (3, 60) = 0.13, p > .90, with higher numbers reflecting greater need (see the original research report). So, the differences in reported empathic concern in this experiment are not easily attributed to differences in perceived need.

      That said, I quite agree that differences in perception of need can, at times, account for differences in empathic concern. Indeed, David Lishner and I found that it is important to distinguish two forms of need: current need and potential need (need for protection). The child, dog, and puppy in our experiment may have been perceived, as you suggest, as more vulnerable to potential need. If so, even in the absence of current need—when, for example, sleeping peacefully—these targets should evoke some empathic concern, specifically, feelings of tenderness, warmth, and soft-heartedness (but not sympathy). Less vulnerable adult targets should evoke these empathic emotions only when in current need. (Current need implies potential need.) Across four experiments, David has found support for these predictions.

      Third, I would take your suggestion that failure to recognize need may be one way in which our more egoistic impulses counteract our altruistic tendencies one step farther. Laura Shaw and her colleagues found evidence of empathy avoidance, an egoistic motive to avoid empathic concern and the altruistic motivation it evokes. Thus, not only oversight but also active avoidance may come into play as we attempt to protect ourselves from our altruistic inclinations. Think, for example, of crossing the street to avoid having to encounter a homeless person.

      Finally, by “intrinsic” valuing I mean that the person’s welfare is valued as an end in itself not as a means to some self-serving end (which would be extrinsic or instrumental valuing). I do think it is possible that intrinsic valuing of another’s welfare can emerge out of extrinsic valuing. Gordon Allport spoke of this as functional autonomy. But this is by no means a necessary progression. We can value the welfare of even close others extrinsically, in which case their need is likely to produce self-oriented feelings of personal concern and distress rather than other-oriented feelings of empathic concern. Of course, both forms of valuing—and emotion—can co-exist, although there is some evidence that when they do, the extrinsic is apt to undermine the intrinsic.

  • I have two things to say about the very interesting posting from Dan, whose work I admire enormously. The first is more of a comment, and the second is more of a question.
    First, Dan says that the empathy-altruism hypothesis ‘claims that empathic concern (other-oriented emotion felt for someone in need—sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like) produces altruistic motivation (a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing the other’s welfare)’. What is important to appreciate here is just how much Dan has built into his notion of empathy, compared with, for example, Frans De Waal and those who have a notion of empathy merely as a kind of resonance mechanism, or merely as a kind of perspective-taking. But perhaps in one sense Dan has not built in enough into his notion. What he says is that empathy *produces* altruistic motivation, but in fact the concept of empathy (understood in his way, as sympathy, compassion, and so on) is one that already *involves* altruistic emotion. In other words, we would think it requires explanation if someone genuinely felt empathic concern, and yet failed to be motivated to help the other person; if they were not moved at all to help, then we would begin to doubt whether they really did feel any concern (of course the altruistic motivation might not be sufficient for action, but that is a quite different point). So I think Dan’s claim is better understood as a claim that *there is such a thing as empathic concern*, that empathic concern exists in humans, rather than the claim that empathic concern produces altruistic motivation in humans, for already built into the concept of empathic concern is the idea that recognizing another’s suffering gives rise to motivation to alleviate that suffering. (There’s a paper by me, called ‘Compassion: a natural, moral emotion’, in which I discuss these things; it can be downloaded from my website.)
    Secondly, the question. The posting from Frans De Waal shows that there is still enormous potential for misunderstanding of Dan’s claim. (I think this is in large part because Dan uses the term ‘empathy’ rather than ‘compassion’ or ‘sympathy’, and this so easily confuses people; labels do matter.) But the substantial challenge from Dan (and me) to those who consider perspective-taking to be the basis of morality can be derived from his example of the unconscious accident victim. It is a very familiar point that we feel altruistic concern and motivation in such cases, where the other is not aware of his ‘difficulties’; the person with Alzheimer’s, the person with terrible brain damage, the person who doesn’t yet know that he has cancer, or that his son has died, the child who is too young to know how ill he is. Indeed, as Hume pointed out, we often feel *more* concern when the other is not aware of his difficulties: ‘[H]istorians readily observe of any infant prince, who is captive in the hands of his enemies, that he is more worthy of compassion the less sensible he is of his miserable condition (Treatise, p. 371; note that Hume is talking here of compassion, not of sympathy as he understands it). In such cases, of course, perspective-taking simply cannot deliver up recognition of the other’s difficulties, and yet empathic concern can; perspective-taking is neither sufficient nor necessary. The question, then, is whether Dan has done any systematic studies focusing precisely on such cases: for example, of the differences in subjects’ responses to the unconscious accident victim and the conscious accident victim.

    • Dan Batson

      Peter has raised several key issues. Concerning his first point, I agree that it is possible to define empathic concern (or whatever label one chooses for other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of a person in need) as including altruistic motivation. Lauren Wispé, for example, defined sympathy in this way. I have not included motivation in the definition of the emotion because (a) I think emotion and motivation are distinct psychological states, and (b) I believe that to include motivation in the definition of the emotion obscures the empirical question of the nature of the motivation this other-oriented emotion produces: Is it egoistic or altruistic? Should one fail to find evidence that the motivation was altruistic one would simply conclude that the experienced emotion must not have been “true” empathic concern. In effect, this simply shifts the empirical question from the nature of the motive to the nature of the emotion. No one, insofar as I know, doubts that we humans can feel sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like, but now we would have to distinguish pseudo versions of these emotions from the real thing. I think that to address the empirical question at the level of motivation rather than emotion keeps us focused on the heart of the problem.

      There is, however, another level of complexity here. If, as I have suggested, intrinsic valuing of the other’s welfare is an antecedent of empathic concern, then one might say that at least potential altruistic motivation precedes the experience of empathic concern. Kurt Lewin, whose general field-theory model I employ, suggests that values or valued states have the status of power fields in that they have the capacity to induce force fields (goals) and goal-directed forces (goal-directed motives). I have inserted emotion into Lewin’s model as a source of (a) information about where we stand in relation to valued states and (b) amplification of goal-directed motives. But without the valued states—potential motivation—there would, presumably, be no empathic concern.

      I agree with Peter that empathic concern felt in response to a need of which the target is unaware creates serious problems for any model that claims that emotional resonance lies at the core of all empathic/sympathetic emotion. Insofar as I know, there has been relatively little research specifically addressing the conscious vs. unconscious or aware vs. unaware victim distinction. Usually, the point that humans are capable of feeling empathic concern for a target unaware of his or her need is made by citing examples that are deemed sufficiently convincing to suffice—e.g., see Hoffman. David Lishner did look at the awareness issue in an experiment in which participants watched a video clip of an infant who was either laughing or crying and who was described either as normal and healthy or as having a painless but terminal heart condition. As you would expect, reported feelings of sympathy and concern tracked the need, not the perceptual display.

  • The results of Dan’s ingenious experiments are philosophically intriguing as they put claims advocated by various moral philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith in favor of sympathy as the basic underlying psychological principle of moral judgment on a sounder empirical footing. Yet in light of the various aspects of empathy related phenomena that have been emphasized in different philosophical and psychological research traditions (See Stueber Rediscovering Empathy 2006 and Stueber at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2008/entries/empathy/), Dan’s work and posting give rise to two particularly important questions: First, how exactly should we, from a developmental perspective, understand the underlying psychological mechanism that give rise to empathic concern associated with altruistic motivation. We know that children about 2 years old start showing empathic concern for others and demonstrate helping behavior. Dan’s appeal to evolutionary considerations and arguments about parental nurturance does not seem to address this question. One suggestion that deserves further exploration has to do with the fact that from very early on mechanisms of mirror neurons or what I call mechanisms of basic empathy (Stueber 2006) allow the infant to perceptually grasp that the other person is like him or her. This basic experience of like-mindedness suggests that the other is also, like me, an entity that I can be concerned about. That obviously does not mean that all instances of empathic concern are due to stimulation of mirror neurons. It merely suggests that the other as an object of my genuine concern is possible only because of a prior experience of like-mindedness. Some research on autism further supports this hypothesis as infants with autism do seem to show deficits in interpersonal engagement, deficit in joint attention, and reduced empathic concern later on. (See Hobson et. al. in Developmental Science 12, 2 2009).
    My second question is whether altruistic motivation should be as strictly distinguished from motivation associated with upholding moral principles as Dan suggests. Philosophers such as Adam Smith were quite aware of the fact that empathic concern for others is biased toward persons whom one is familiar with and so on. Yet Smith also emphasized, in my opinion quite correctly, that the justification and the application of those moral principles remains intimately connected to our capacity for sympathy. What gives rise to morality for Smith is the fact that the biases of natural sympathetic impulses are constrained and mediated by the perspective of the impartial spectator. From this perspective, to use one of Dan’s examples, it would be indeed unfair to put a person ahead on the list of candidates waiting for a liver transplant just because one has empathized with that particular person. But the recognition of the unfairness of that action does not seem to be completely independent from our empathic responsiveness. Rather it is unfair in light of the recognition that I would have the same empathic response towards all the other people on the list if I would just bother to find out more about them. Moreover, mature moral judgments show a certain amount of flexibility in the application of moral rules due to our empathic responsiveness to the specificity of a particular situation. Without it our morality would be a form of unhealthy moral fetishism. It would lead to the “tyranny of reason,” a deficit that Hegel saw as the cause of all the atrocities associated with the French Revolution. Again, the understanding of moral principles by autistic persons seems to support such a view. They do grasp the distinction between moral and conventional principles. Yet they have a rather rigid understanding of moral principles, which does not allow them to understand that there is a moral difference between somebody who steals out of greed and somebody who steals because he is in desperate circumstances and has a hungry family to feed.

    • Dan Batson

      Karsten, you are certainly right to take me to task for a conspicuous developmental “missing link” in my posting. Fortunately, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler’s comment helpfully addresses this omission.

      My own position on the issue of how we get to the place of grasping that others have values, intentions, goals, and feelings relies more heavily on the work of Michael Tomasello than on mirror neurons. Along with a seemingly innate capacity and tendency to imitate or mimic, human (and other primate) infants very early on seem to differentiate animate objects from inanimate objects—those that move themselves from those that do not. Infants also soon pick up patterns in the activity of animate objects, developing expectations. The next step is to recognize that the behavior of others is goal directed, that if one attempt to reach a goal fails another will be tried. What species other than humans take this step is, I think, still a matter of controversy, but it clearly is within the normal human repertoire. Regarding mirror neurons, it is my understanding that it is now recognized that these neurons selectively fire when observing goal-directed behavior, not purposeless movement. This leads me to think that the mirroring process is not as automatic and bottom-up as was originally claimed. Instead, it may be a component in a more top-down process of understanding what the other is doing. My analysis here is admittedly speculative. I hope we shall learn more about exactly how all this works in the next few years. It is an active area of research.

      Your question about whether altruistic motivation should be as strictly distinguished from moral motivation as I have suggested is both key and challenging. As you point out, Adam Smith’s analysis of moral judgment has us operating in the role of an impartial spectator who sympathizes (or not) with the motives of an actor and with the reactions of those affected by the action, leading to sentiments of approbation or disapprobation. How does that analysis relate to what I have suggested about the independence of altruistic and moral motives? First, I think it is important to recognize that Smith’s sympathy is not the same as my empathic concern. His sympathy seems closer to emotional resonance. I think he might instead use the terms pity or compassion for what I am calling empathic concern. (Please correct me if I am wrong here; you have a far better handle on Smith than I.) Second, the goal of Smith’s impartial spectator is moral judgment, determination of whether an action is morally right or wrong. My focus is instead on the motivation for action, whether one’s ultimate goal is to increase the welfare of another for whom empathy is felt (altruistic motivation) or to uphold some moral standard, principle, or value (moral motivation). I might arrive at my judgment of what is moral in a given situation by the process Smith describes, and this judgment might then feed into my motivation (presumably, in this case my judgment would be about what it is moral for me to do). If acting in accord with this judgment is an ultimate goal, I am morally motivated. Still, I would suggest that this motive is conceptually and empirically distinct from a motive with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare—an altruistic motive. Indeed, I would suggest this even if in a given situation the two motives lead to exactly the same behavior.

      Finally, let me add that to what degree people actually follow Smith’s strategy for making moral judgments is an empirical question—a descriptive rather than a normative question. It is a question on which I wish we had far more data than we do (or at least than I know about).

  • Suppose we have the goal of producing a decent world in which everyone has a set of life opportunities that is above a certain minimum threshold. To reach it, we must harness whatever motivational equipment human beings have so that they are willing to support the policies that would bring us to this goal. Dan’s work provides both hope and caution. It is clear from Dan’s classic experiments at the University of Kansas that students may help strangers. But students are more likely to help if they have heard the stranger’s story with great vividness, if they are physically close to the stranger, and if there is something they can actually do to help. But how far does altruism reach when these conditions do not obtain? What if the students do not know the strangers’ stories, are a great distance from them, and assistance requires some effort?

    As I am interested in our educational systems, I’d like to pose a question to Dan: If you could build a curriculum that would assist teachers in helping young people to expand their emotional repertory so as to be prepared to address global problems, what would you advise? Based on what you know about our natural equipment, as it were, how should we change our approach in the schools?

    • Dan Batson

      Great—and daunting—questions! I would love to have better answers than I do, and there is the temptation to shrink behind the excuse that I am a basic researcher not a practitioner. Let me try to resist that temptation and stick my neck out—at least a bit.

      First, it seems to me that a lot of literature and drama is written with the intent of trying to get the reader to take the perspective of and care for a member of some out-group. Not all, of course, but a lot. Colleagues and I got interested in this possibility a few years ago and wondered whether we could, by asking people to imagine the situations of others, induce empathic concern for members of stigmatized out-groups and, thereby, improve attitudes toward the group as a whole. We found that this could be done; indeed, it was not particularly difficult. We were able to induce increased empathic concern for a young woman with AIDS and for a homeless man, and this empathic concern, in turn, led to more positive attitudes toward people with AIDS and the homeless in general. Encouraged by that, we decided to up the stakes and try to induce empathy for a convicted murderer serving life without parole. The empathy we got was substantially lower than we got for the young woman with AIDS or the homeless man, but we found a significant increase. And this empathy led to more positive attitudes toward convicted murderers in general. Interestingly, the more positive attitudes did not appear in the immediate lab situation. But several weeks later, a phone survey that had no apparent connection to our experiment revealed more positive attitudes toward convicted murderers among those induced to feel empathy for the murderer in the lab. In a follow-up study we found that empathic concern induced in this way for a heroin addict and dealer led to both to more positive attitudes and more willingness to allocate funds to help other drug addicts. So, I think there are some possibilities in making more use of this kind of literature and drama in educational settings.

      Second, cooperative learning programs such as Elliot Aronson’s Jigsaw Classroom show promise of increasing perspective taking and compassion across racial and ethnic lines. In such a classroom, students spend part of their school day in racially/ethnically mixed groups (ideally, five to six students per group). Each group is given a learning task, and each member of the group has one, but only one, part of the information the group needs to complete the task. As a result, each person in the group must rely on the contribution of every other person to succeed. After about 8 weeks the groups are dissolved, new groups are formed, and each student must learn to work effectively with 4 or 5 more students in a new racially/ethnically mixed group. After another 8 weeks, new groups are formed again, and so on. There is evidence that increased inter-group liking and friendship, and increased perspective-taking skill, can result.

      Third, especially interesting in light of the possibility that generalized parental nurturance may provide the genetic substrate for empathy-induced altruism is the Roots of Empathy project developed in Canada by Mary Gordon. The core of the program is visits to a primary-school classroom (kindergarten through Grade Eight) monthly throughout the school year by a mother (or sometimes a father—or both) and infant from the community. Pupils ring a green blanket on which the parent places the infant. They observe the infant and the parent-infant interaction, interact with the baby themselves, and ask the parent questions about what the infant has learned since the last visit. The idea is that the relationship between the parent and child serves as a template for positive, empathic human relationships and that observing the baby’s development and the parent-infant interaction will encourage perspective taking and valuing of the infant’s welfare. A trained Roots of Empathy instructor guides the family visits and meets with the class prior to and after each visit, providing basic information about infant development, encouraging pupils to imagine what the infant is thinking and feeling, and extending this perspective taking to the pupils themselves and to peers. When a Roots of Empathy classroom is racially or ethnically diverse, explicit attention is given to bringing in parents and infants from the different groups represented in the class in order to provide a basis for inter-group perspective taking and affection.

      Finally, I would suggest that we think about orchestrating pro-social motives. Different pro-social motives have different potential strengths and limitations. An empathy-induced altruistic motive can be quite powerful, but it is limited in scope. It tends to be bounded to those for whom you particularly care. On the other hand, moral motivation is broad in scope. Most moral principles are universal and impartial. Yet moral motivation is, at least in the research my colleagues and I have done, disturbingly weak. It doesn’t have a strong emotional base (in spite of some current claims to the contrary). Perhaps because it lacks an emotional base, moral motivation seems extremely vulnerable to rationalization. Recognizing this reciprocal pattern of strength and weakness for empathy-induced altruism and moral motivation, suggests the possibility of trying to orchestrate these two distinct pro-social motives. If, for example, we can evoke a compassionate response to the victims of injustice then we may be able to capitalize on the strengths of both altruism and moral motivation. Jonathan Kozol’s writing seems designed to do precisely this, in spite of the fact that he has denied it. His denial not withstanding, I believe he orchestrates pro-social motives admirably. I think we can—and should—do more along these lines.

  • Batson’s elegant work on empathic concern helps address some of our most profound questions about empathy and altruism. In these comments, I will take the liberty of expanding the conversation beyond his careful research to discuss one of the largest problems that human beings face, the problem of preventing recurrent wars by generating true social reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict. Batson has given us an empirical foundation for an attitude that has been credited as playing an important role in social reconciliation.

    The literature on social reconciliation after war is largely aspirational, and emphasizes an attitude of forgiveness that sounds like Batson’s empathic concern. In the few actual examples, it seems that this forgiveness is inspired by seeing that the perpetrator has been made vulnerable and weak. For example, Pumla Gobodo-Maidikizela writes about two South African women whose husbands were murdered by Eugene de Kock. Visiting him in prison in South Africa, they see de Kock chained and despairing. They are overwhelmed by protective, tender feelings (“I would like to hold him by the hand”), and this moves them to trust his apology as genuine. Yet perhaps they ought to have been more skeptical, and perhaps feeling empathic concern interfered with their developing appropriate skepticism.

    On the other hand, Batson’s empathic concern seems to play a crucial role in genuine social reconciliation when people truly share commitments of nurturance. Parents, especially mothers, who have lost children in wars, have developed alliances with former enemies to locate their children’s bodies. For example, Bosnian, Serb and Croatian mothers have worked together for over a decade to locate and build proper memorials for all of their sons. Interview studies suggest that some of these women eventually develop a different, less tender form of empathy, one defined more by engaged curiosity about each other’s distinct experiences.

    Batson’s work prompts the need for inquiry into whether feelings of parental nurturance for each other’s lost children can be the initial motivation for helping people work together in the aftermath of war. The bonds formed in working together may then lead to the development of other forms of empathic regard that help stabilize reconciliation over time, thus potentially decreasing the risk of future conflicts.

    Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2002) Remorse, Forgiveness and Rehumanization: Stories from South Africa, 42. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 7 (2002).
    Halpern, J. and Weinstein, H. (2004) Rehumanizing the Other: Empathy and Social Reconciliation, Human Rights Quarterly. August 26 (3) (2004): 561-583.
    Halpern, J. (2001) From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, Oxford University Press.

    • Dan Batson

      This is a very challenging and vitally important problem. I trust Jodi’s insight here far more than mine. Still, let me offer a few thoughts. First, I think the two women Jodi describes are exceptional, wonderfully exceptional. It is very hard to accept the humanity of a person who has inflicted such damage and pain. Once you accept his humanity—his vulnerability, his fallibility—you are well on the way to placing some intrinsic value on his welfare, leaving yourself open to empathic concern and the altruistic motivation that follows. This is, I think, one of the main reasons we demonize and dehumanize our enemies. In such situations, empathy avoidance (an egoistic motive to avoid empathic concern and the altruistic motivation it produces) is likely to be quite strong.

      So, is it possible to use empathy-induced altruism to address the problem of reconciliation in the aftermath of war or genocide? I think there is some encouraging evidence that it can at least play a role. For example, consider peace workshops and peace camps, which are typically designed for the young people (teenagers) of warring factions. Participants from the two sides of the conflict live together, spend free time together, exchange views in dialogue sessions under the direction of trained leaders, take part in structured exercises, and share cultural experiences. These activities provide personalizing contact, awareness of out-group needs, and cooperative experiences. They encourage cross-group friendships, and seem to induce imagine-other perspective taking and empathic concern for out-group members. One well-known example is the workshop program for Jewish and Arab youths at Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam (the Hebrew and Arabic names for the same community) in Israel (Bargal & Bar, 1992). Less well-known, but quite interesting because of a one-year follow-up assessment of attitudes and behavior toward the out-group, was a 4-day peace workshop in Sri Lanka that brought together Sinhalese (majority) and Tamil (minority) youth (Malhotra & Liyanage, 2005). After one year, participants in this workshop expressed more understanding of and empathic concern for the members of the other group than did either of two comparison groups—(a) youth who were nominated for the workshop but did not take part due to budget cuts and (b) youth from demographically similar schools not involved in nominating students. Compared to these non-participants, workshop participants also voluntarily donated a larger portion of the money they received for completing the follow-up questionnaire packet to help poor children of the other group.

      An intriguing variation on the peace workshop model is the storytelling method used in a year-long class with Jewish and Palestinian students at Ben Gurion University in 2000-2001 (Bar-On & Kassem, 2004). Bar-On had previously used this method in Germany to facilitate dialogue between children of survivors of the Holocaust and children of perpetrators. The method involved having students in the class audiotape interviews in which family members from their parents’ or grandparents’ generation told their life story. These interviews were then played for the entire class and served as a springboard to reflection and discussion under the guidance of a Jewish and a Palestinian facilitator. Such a method seems to capitalize on much the same process Jodi pointed to in the Bosnian, Serb, and Croatian mothers: humanizing the enemy and evoking tender, nurturant feelings for common suffering.

      Finally, let me mention an ambitious year-long field experiment in Rwanda to test the effect of a radio soap opera designed to promote reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu (Paluck, 2009). This experiment tapped the empathy-inducing capacity of fiction I mentioned earlier in my response to Martha. The story-line of the soap opera featured the struggles of a young cross-group couple who pursue their love in the face of community disapproval and start a youth coalition for peace and cooperation. The young couple’s struggles seemed to produce both perspective taking and empathic concern for both the man and woman. Follow-up measures indicated that these effects generalized, producing increased perspective taking and feelings of concern for a range of people in Rwandan society, including members of the out-group.

      Bargal, D., & Bar, H. (1992). A Lewinian approach to intergroup workshops for Arab-Palestinian and Jewish youth. Journal of Social Issues, 48, 139-154.
      Bar-On, D., & Kassem, F. (2004). Storytelling as a way to work through intractable conflicts: The German-Jewish experience and its relevance to the Palestinian-Israeli context. Journal of Social Issues, 60, 289-306.
      Malhotra, D., & Liyanage, S. (2005). Long-term effects of peace workshops in protracted conflicts. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49, 908-924.
      Paluck, E. L. (2009). Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict using the media: A field experiment in Rwanda. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 574-587.

  • Dan Batson’s research is a convincing demonstration how empathy can induce people to act on behalf of others, and have provided experimentalists with an extremely useful tool to rule out alternative explanations suggesting that these behaviors are be motivated by selfishness. Moreover, it seems to be a plausible hypothesis that the psychological mechanisms we find in human adults may have emerged in the context of parental care—and once in place were co-opted to generate altruistic behaviors in other circumstances. However, it is not a trivial question to determine how this generalization occured evolutionarily (extending beyond inclusive fitness benefits among kin) and how the proximate mechanisms accounting for parental care have been transformed into the psychological characteristics accounting for the various altruistic behaviors we find in mature humans.

    For example, how does Batson’s approach account for the abundant findings from behavioral economics that people will forego a selfish advantage—even in experimental situations such as the dictator game in experimenters have attempted to reduce the influence of cues that typically induce empathy as much as possible. That is, these types of experimental tests typically minimize direct interaction, occur under conditions of anonymity, and have an absence of distress-cues. One possibility is that human behavior in these contexts are due to generalizations from situations typically inducing empathic concern or are these behaviors due to a separate process (such as what is referred to in the post as “principlism”)?

    More generally, it seems to me that experiments from both social psychology and behavioral economics make a strong case that our behaviors cannot be easily explained by selfish motives alone. In recent years, the study of altruism has been enriched by new experimental methods that enable us to not only study adults, but also children’s development of altruistic behaviors and various nonhuman primates (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009). The new challenge appears to be to account for the variety of these altruistic behaviors that humans (and in some circumstances their evolutionary relatives, such as chimpanzees) engage in—even in cases where empathic responses as typically defined may play no role in motivating the altruistic behaviors observed. Furthermore, a major challenge will be to assess the extent to which behaviors such as sharing resources or alleviating another person’s emotional distress are components of a common psychological mechanism that comes into play across very different aspects of human social interactions, or separate psychological mechanisms that have evolved for different functions.

    Warneken F Tomasello M. Varieties of altruism in children and chimpanzees. Trends in cognitive sciences. 2009 Sep;13(9):397-402.

    • Dan Batson

      Felix is quite right that if the possibility that the evolutionary basis for empathy-induced altruism lies in generalized parental nurturance is to be taken seriously, there are many questions to answer and much work to do. As always, the devil is in the details. At this point, all I can say is that the popularity of ideas of inclusive fitness (kin selection) and reciprocal altruism have so dominated recent thought about the evolutionary roots of altruism that the generalized parental nurturance account has been largely ignored. (Care for progeny increases rather than reduces one’s relative reproductive fitness, so it does not fall within the purview of the problem that Hamilton, Trivers, and others were trying to solve.) I very much hope that the possibility of generalized parental nurturance is taken sufficiently seriously that people want to get down to the devilish details. Felix, you would be an ideal person to undertake the task. If you are interested, I would be happy to provide whatever support I can.

      On interpretation of the behavioral economics findings, I follow the separate-process option Felix outlines. I agree with Felix that empathy-induced altruistic motivation is likely to play little role in most behavioral economics experiments, for the reasons he outlines. Instead, because of the emphasis on transparency and full disclosure, such experiments are likely to evoke strong normative and self-presentational concerns, producing egoistic motivation associated with gaining social and self-rewards and avoiding social and self-punishment. Behavioral economists call such motives altruistic if they lead participants to act contrary to material self-interest. I consider such motives subtle forms of egoism.

      Turning to children and nonhuman primates, I would be delighted to have more careful research on the nature of the motivation to help in children and nonhuman primates. Because developmental psychologists and primatologists usually adopt behavioral rather than motivational definitions of altruism, equating need-directed helping (“targeted helping”) with altruism, their research rarely addresses the question of the goal-directed motives behind such helping. Felix, your work with Michael Tomasello is probably the best I know (e.g., Warneken, Hare, Melis, Hanus, & Tomasello, 2007). Still, I do not think it clearly and systematically addresses the full range of possible egoistic alternatives. I would love to see (even to collaborate on) some research that systematically goes after the motivational alternatives in nonhuman primate sharing, helping, consoling, etc.

      Finally, as you quite rightly point out, much of the helping by children and nonhuman primates is likely not empathy based. That raises two possibilities. First, the helping is not altruistically motivated. Second, the helping is altruistically motivated but empathic concern is not the source of the altruism. Clearly, much helping is not altruistically motivated, so the first possibility is a very plausible alternative that must always be considered. Whether there are sources of altruistic motivation other than empathic concern is, at this point, less clear, but that possibility is certainly worth exploring. The empathy-altruism hypothesis makes no claim about being the only source of altruistic motivation.

      Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children. PLoS Biology, 5, e184.