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The word prosocial does not appear in most dictionaries; it was created by social scientists as an antonym for antisocial. Prosocial behavior covers the broad range of actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself— behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, and cooperating. The word altruism has at times been used to refer to a subset of these behaviors—for example, self-sacrificial helping or helping in the absence of obvious, external rewards. Such usage seems inappropriate, however, because altruism is a motivational concept. Altruism is the motivation to increase another person’s welfare; it is contrasted to egoism, the motivation to increase one’s own welfare (MacIntyre, 1967). There is no one-to-one correspondence between prosocial behavior and altruism. Prosocial behavior need not be motivated by altruism; altruistic motivation need not produce prosocial behavior.
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Why Do—And Don’t—People Act Prosocially?
Addressing the question of why people act prosocially may seem natural and necessary for social psychologists. Indeed, in the field’s first text William McDougall (1908) made this question focal: “The fundamental problem of social psychology is the moralization of the individual by the society into which he is born as a creature in which the non-moral and purely egoistic tendencies are so much stronger than any altruistic tendencies” (p. 16). When Kurt Lewin, his students, and his colleagues ushered in modern social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s, however, other questions took precedence. These were the pressing social-problem questions provoked by the rise of Nazism, two world wars, the Holocaust, the advent of the nuclear age, the Cold War, and racial injustice. Attention was directed to totalitarian and autocratic leadership, conformity and obedience to authority, aggression, prejudice, ethnocentrism, interpersonal and intergroup conflict, propaganda, persuasion, and attitude formation and change.
The 1960s brought the question of why people act prosocially to the fore once again. This question did not replace the social-problem questions; it was added to the list. Several shocking cases in which bystanders failed to help persons in desperate need raised concern about the breakdown of social structure and social decency, especially in urban environments. Best known is the case of Kitty Genovese, whose brutal stabbing and eventual death was witnessed by 38 of her neighbors in the Kew Gardens area of Queens, New York. Her murder took more than half an hour, and despite her pleading screams, no one intervened; no one even called the police. More heartening were the courageous acts of Freedom Riders and other civil rights workers, Black and White, who suffered beatings, imprisonment, and in some cases death to further the cause of racial equality in the American South. Youth were in the streets to protest the Vietnam War and to proclaim the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The times they were a-changin’. Social psychologists were asked, Why do— and don’t—people act prosocially?
Before attempting to offer an answer to this question, one should probably inquire of the questioner, “Why do you ask?” This response is necessary because the question has been asked for two very different reasons. Some have asked in order to reach the practical goal of encouraging prosocial behavior; others, in order to challenge currently dominant theories of social motivation. The dominant motivational theories in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science are firmly founded on assumptions of universal egoism (Mansbridge, 1990; Wallach & Wallach, 1983). Can one account for all prosocial behavior in terms of egoism, or must one make room for altruism as well? Might there be other forms of prosocial motivation besides egoism and altruism?
These two reasons for asking why people act prosocially beg for very different answers. So, if one is not clear which reason lies behind the question, the answer provided may appear irrelevant and the research on which it is based misguided. To avoid such confusion, this research paper addresses the two concerns in turn—first the practical, then the theoretical.
Psychologists pursuing the practical concern of promoting prosocial behavior usually employ one of two strategies: (a) a variance-accounted-for empirical analysis or (b) application and extension of existing social psychological theory. One view of science that has long been popular among psychologists, especially psychologists with an applied orientation, is empirical prediction and control. From this perspective, promoting prosocial behavior requires, first, identification of its most powerful predictors. Then one can engage in social engineering, creating an environment that optimizes these predictors and, thereby, prosocial behavior. The logic seems straightforward. Its apparent simplicity has, however, proved deceptive.
Dispositional Versus Situational Determinants
Operating with an implicit variance-accounted-for model, several investigators around 1970 attempted to determine whether dispositional or situational factors were better predictors of prosocial behavior.The dispositional variables studied include anomie, authoritarianism, autonomy, deference, intelligence, Machiavellianism, nurturance, religiosity, self-esteem, social desirability, social responsibility, submissiveness, and succorance. Not one of these, by itself, was a clear predictor. In contrast, situational factors—ambiguity of need, severity of need, physical appearance of victim, similarity to victim, friendship, number of bystanders, location (urban vs. rural), cost of helping, and so on—seemed powerful. These results led several reviewers (e.g., Huston & Korte, 1976; J.A. Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner, & Clark, 1981) to conclude that situational variables are better predictors of prosocial behavior than are dispositional variables.
Soon, however, this conclusion was challenged as part of the general counterattack by personality researchers against situationist critiques. Staub (1974) found that an aggregate dispositional measure, a prosocial orientation index (combining measures of feelings of personal responsibility, social responsibility, moral reasoning, prosocial values, and a low level of Machiavellianism), was a reasonably good predictor of helping across several different measures. Rushton (1980) reanalyzed previous research (notably, the classic studies by Hartshorne and May in the late 1920s) by computing aggregate measures of prosocial behavior and found far better evidence of cross-situation consistency than had analyses based on individual measures.
Other researchers pointed to the greater predictive potential of dispositional factors for the higher cost, nonspontaneous, longer term helping that occurs in the natural stream of behavior outside the psychological laboratory. For example, Oliner and Oliner (1988) conducted a major study using interviews and questionnaires to identify predictors of acting to rescue Jews in Nazi Europe. They claimed evidence for the predictive power of three dispositional factors: (a) a proclivity to feel empathy for those in need, (b) sensitivity to normative pressure from social groups, and (c) adherence to inclusive, universal moral principles such as justice or care. Presumably, better prediction is possible outside the laboratory because the more reflective decision process involved in planned (nonspontaneous) helping permits more chance for personal values, attitudes, and dispositions to come into play.
Still other researchers argued that it was an oversimplification to expect a personality variable to relate to helping in all situations. Many pointed to the greater success of predicting prosocial behavior using disposition-situation interactions (e.g., Romer, Gruder, & Lizzardo, 1986). For example, self-confidence and independence seem to correlate with helping in emergency situations, especially dangerous ones, but not in response to a request to contribute to the United Way (Wilson, 1976). Snyder and Ickes (1985) suggested that the predictive power of dispositional factors should be manifest only when situational pressure is weak, not when it is strong. Carlo, Eisenberg, Troyer, Switzer, and Speer (1991) claimed support for this distinction between weak and strong pressure when predicting prosocial behavior. Within these more recent studies, then, dispositional predictors have fared better than in earlier work. Still, correlations between personality measures and prosocial behavior—however measured—rarely rise above .30 to .40, leaving 85% to 90% of the variance unaccounted for.
At the same time that dispositional predictors were being revived, the health of situational predictors took a turn for the worse: Their ecological validity was questioned (Bar-Tal, 1984). Could one expect a situational predictor of single-act helping by college students in a controlled laboratory experiment to be equally powerful in predicting naturally occurring prosocial behavior outside the lab, such as volunteerism (Clary & Snyder, 1991)?
Proliferating Predictors and Predictions
Since 1970, proposed predictors of prosocial behavior have proliferated well beyond the initial dichotomy between dispositional and situational factors. Krebs and Miller (1985) presented an interlocking three-tier classification. Most distal from the specific prosocial behavior are biological and cultural predictors (see also Fiske, 1992). These predictors combine to produce enduring dispositional characteristics, which are more proximal. Dispositional factors then combine with situational factors to produce cognitive and affective reactions, which are considered the most proximal predictors of prosocial behavior. Within each of these broad classes, numerous specific variables can be identified.
In additions to proliferating predictors, there are also many different forms of prosocial behavior to be predicted, and the variables that predict one form may not predict another. For example, within the domain of helping are rescuing, donating, assisting, volunteering, and giving social support (Pearce & Amato, 1980). Moreover, each of these categories includes a wide range of specific behaviors. One can assist by holding a door, answering a request for directions, splinting a broken leg at the scene of an automobile accident, securing false papers for a Jew in Nazi Europe, or enabling a suicide. One can volunteer to serve on the board of directors for the local symphony, to call potential blood donors, to be a buddy for someone who has AIDS, or to join the rescue squad. Critics claim—and research supports the claim (Levine, Martinez, Brase, & Sorenson, 1994; Omoto & Snyder, 1995)—that variables accounting for variance in one form of prosocial behavior in one setting are not likely to account for the same amount of variance (if any) in other forms of behavior or in other settings. Talk of prediction based on interactions among person, situation, and behavior has become common (e.g., Bandura, 1991; Carlo et al., 1991).
One need not pursue this logic very far—adding predictors, behaviors to be predicted, situations in which prediction can be made, and populations for which predictions can be made—to realize that a general variance-accounted-for answer to the question of why people act prosocially is impossible. All one can hope for is the identification of predictors that account for a specific prosocial behavior in a specific situation for a specific population at a specific time (Snyder, 1993). Although useful to address some applied questions, such research is apt to become ideographic rather than nomothetic (Allport, 1961), with very little generalizability.
Application and Extension of Existing Theory
Well aware of the limited, ad hoc nature of a varianceaccounted-for approach, Lewin (1951) reminded us, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” (p. 169). In opposition to the Aristotelian approach to science that guides the variance-accounted-for strategy, in which the scientist’s goal is to identify essential features to predict outcomes, Lewin advocated a Galilean approach. Galileo’s goal was to identify underlying genotypic (conditional-genetic) constructs and the highly general—even universal—relations among them that account for observable phenotypic events. Lewin was convinced that explanatory theories developed and tested following Galileo are of far more practical value than are explanations developed following Aristotle, even though the Galilean model relies on contrived laboratory experiments rather than on direct, real-world observation.
Psychologists approaching the study of prosocial behavior from Lewin’s Galilean perspective are not likely to look to empirical research to identify predictors accounting for the most variance. They are likely instead to look to existing theory about genotypic psychological processes, using research to illustrate and document the relevance of these processes to understanding prosocial behavior. At least seven broad theoretical perspectives have been applied in this way: social learning, tension reduction, norms and roles, exchange or equity, attribution, esteem enhancement/maintenance, and moral reasoning. Let us briefly consider each of these.
Social learning theory suggests that if you want to know why people act prosocially, you should consider their learning history. You should consider not only the rewards and punishments received following helping (or not), but also the relative rewards—the benefits minus the costs. You should consider observational learning or modeling that comes from watching the actions of others. You should consider selfrewards. Much research has supported asocial learningexplanation of prosocial behavior (for reviews, see Bandura, 1977; Rushton, 1980). Integrating and coordinating social learning principles, Cialdini, Baumann, and Kenrick (1981) proposeda three-step developmental sequence: (a) In the young child prosocial behavior is a product of material rewards and punishments; (b) in the preadolescent it is a product of social as well as material rewards and punishments; and (c) in the adolescent and adult it is a product of internalized self-reward, as well as social and material rewards and punishments.
Building on the idea that helping can be a basis for selfreward, Cialdini, Darby, and Vincent (1973) proposed a negative-state relief hypothesis: that adults are more likely to help when they feel bad. The reason is that adults have learned that they can reward themselves for helping and so feel better.
Not only does helping have reward value for people who feel bad, but it also seems rewarding for people who feel good. Indeed, the effect is even clearer for good mood. Across a range of studies (e.g., Isen & Levin, 1972; Weyant, 1978), people induced to feel good have been more likely to give help to good causes.
What accounts for this pervasive reward value of helping for people in a good mood? One possibility is a desire to maintain the good mood. Seeing another person in need can throw a wet blanket on a good mood, so one may help in order to shed this blanket and maintain the mood (Wegener & Petty, 1994). Isen, Shalker, Clark, and Karp (1978) suggested a second possibility: Being in a good mood may bias one’s memories about and attention to the positive and negative aspects of various activities, including helping. When in a good mood, a person is more likely to recall and attend to positive rather than negative aspects of life. Applied to helping, a good mood makes people more likely to remember and attend to the positive, rewarding features and less likely to attend to the negative features, such as the costs involved.
Social learning theory finds itself in an awkward position in contemporary social psychology. There seems little doubt that the theory is in large measure correct. However, perhaps because of its relatively straightforward explanation of behavior, without the ironic twists and the revelations of subtle faux pas for which cognitive explanations have become renown, social learning theory generates little excitement. The direct focus on behavior and reinforcement history seems almost unpsychological in its lack of nuance. Even with the added emphasis on self-reward, cognitive representation, self-regulation, and reciprocal determinism (Bandura, 1977, 1991), social learning theory seems bland. Still, were one forced to choose a single theory to explain why people do—and do not—act prosocially, social learning theory should almost certainly be the choice. “As Einstein has emphasized, the goal is to account for the most facts with the fewest principles” (Dollard & Miller, 1950, p. 6). Social learning theory has probably come closer to this goal than has any other theory in the history of social psychology.
Tension reduction has long been a popular explanation of why people help others in need, especially others in obvious pain or distress. The general idea is that people find it upsetting to see another person suffer and that preferring not to be upset, they relieve the other’s suffering.
Perhaps the best way to describe the relationship between tension reduction, which is a form of motivation, and social learning is to say that they are related by marriage. Social learning can exist without tension reduction, as in the pure operant theories descendant from Watson and Skinner. Tension reduction can exist without social learning, as in reactions to pain, extreme temperatures, hunger, thirst, and other physiological needs. Yet social learning and tension reduction lived together for many years in relative harmony, housed within Hull’s (1943) general learning theory and its descendants, including Dollard and Miller’s (1950) version of social learning theory. In response to the current cognitive zeitgeist, social learning theory has of late been less attached to tension reduction, showing more interest in cognitive processes (Bandura, 1977, 1991). Whether this philandering is grounds for divorce is hard to say. In any case, tension reduction has also been seen stepping out without operant processes by its side, most notably in dissonance theory—at least as originally conceived by Festinger (1957).
Why should the suffering of others upset someone? Most straightforward is the answer proposed by J. A. Piliavin et al. (1981), among others. They suggested that witnessing another’s distress evokes vicarious distress that has much the same character as the victim’s distress, and the witness is motivated to escape his or her own distress. One way to escape is to help because helping terminates the stimulus causing the distress. Of course, running away may enable the witness to escape just as well and at less cost, as long as the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” works.
Variations on the theme of aversive-arousal reduction have been provided by Hornstein (1982), Reykowski (1982), and Lerner (1982). Focusing on the self-other relationship, Hornstein suggested that when certain others are in need— specifically, those whom one cognitively links to self as “us” and “we” rather than “them” and “they”—one experiences a state of promotive tension in which one is “aroused by another’s needs almost as if they were one’s own” (Hornstein, 1982, p. 230). Once so aroused, one is motivated to reduce this tension by aiding the fellow “we-grouper.”
Reykowski’s (1982) proposed explanation, though quite different, also involves reduction of aversive tension: “The sheer discrepancy between information about the real or possible state of an object and standards of its normal or desirable state will evoke motivation” (p. 361). Reykowski applied this general principle to prosocial motivation as follows: If a person perceives a discrepancy between the current state and the expected or ideal state of another person (i.e., perceives the other to be in need), cognitive inconsistency and motivation to reduce this aversive inconsistency will result. Relieving the other’s need is one way to remove the inconsistency and escape the situation. Another, less prosocial way is to change one’s perception and decide that the other’s suffering is acceptable, even desirable.
Lerner’s (1980, 1982) just-world hypothesis led him to an explanation similar to but more specific than Reykowski’s. Lerner suggested that most people believe in a just world—a world in which people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. The existence of a victim of innocent suffering is inconsistent with this belief. In order to reduce the arousal produced by this inconsistency, a person may help another in need. Alternatively, the person may derogate the innocent victim, making the suffering appear deserved.
At first glance, Cialdini’s negative-state relief model may appear to be another example of aversive-arousal reduction. In fact, it is not. Although it too begins with the proposition that seeing someone in need evokes a negative affective state, from this common starting point the two explanations diverge. The negative-state relief explanation claims that the goal of helping is to obtain mood-enhancing self-rewards that one has learned are associated with helping; aversive-arousal reduction explanations claim that the goal of helping is to eliminate the mood-depressing stimulus. Negative-state relief is a social learning explanation that assumes that the increased need for some type—any type—of mood-enhancing reward motivates helping; aversive-arousal reduction explanations make no assumptions about prior learning history but focus instead on reduction of current tension.
Norms and Roles
Theories that seek to explain prosocial behavior in terms of norms and roles often make heavy use of social learning principles. Yet norm and role theories are not direct descendants of classic learning theory and behaviorism. Instead, they trace their ancestry to symbolic interactionism and its analysis of social behavior using a dramaturgical metaphor (cf. Goffman, 1959; Mead, 1934). Within this metaphor, norms provide the script of the social drama, specifying what should be done and said when; roles are the parts to be played. (More formally, norms are a group’s written or unwritten rules of appropriate behavior for those occupying particular roles; roles are behavior patterns that are characteristic, and expected, of a person who occupies a particular position in a social structure.)
In both developmental and social psychology, norms and roles have been adopted into the social learning family; it is assumed that people learn the norms and roles appropriate to a given situation through social reinforcement and modeling. At the same time that people are learning that acting prosocially can bring rewards, they are also learning the norms for prosocial behaviors that should be performed by individuals in various roles in different social situations. These norms dictate that one should help people in need—at least some people under some circumstances—to avoid social or selfadministered sanctions.
One prosocial norm that has been studied extensively is reciprocity. Gouldner (1960) suggested that this norm tells people both that they should help people who help them and that they should not injure these people. He believed that this norm was universal,animportantpartofthemoralcodeofeveryculture. He also believed that the pressure on a person to comply with the norm of reciprocity depends on the circumstances under whichtheinitialhelpwasgiven—including(a)howbadlyone needed help, (b) one’s perception of how much the other person gave relative to his or her total resources, (c) one’s perception of the other person’s motives for helping (was it a bribe?),and(d)whethertheotherpersonhelpedvoluntarilyor was pressured into it. Much evidence supports the claim that people are motivated to comply with the norm of reciprocity (e.g., Wilke & Lanzetta, 1982).
A second norm that psychologists have suggested motivates helping is social responsibility. This norm dictates that one person should help another in need when the latter is dependent on the former—that is, when others are not available to help and thus the second person is counting specifically on the first. Although this norm does seem to exist, its effect on helping has been surprisingly difficult to demonstrate. After more than a decade of research attempts to do so, Berkowitz (1972) concluded, “The findings do not provide any clear-cut support for the normative analysis of help-giving. . . . The potency of the conjectured ‘social responsibility norm’ was greatly exaggerated” (pp. 68, 77).
Why has evidence that the norm of social responsibility leads to prosocial behavior been so elusive? Darley and Latané (1970) suggested that this norm may be at once too general and too specific. The norm may be too general in that everyone in our society adheres to it. If this is true, it cannot account for why one person helps and another does not. On the other hand, the norm may be too specific in that it comes with a complex pattern of exceptions, situations in which an individual may feel exempt from acting in accordance with the norm.Thenormmaybecharacterizednotsimplybyarulethat says, “If someone is dependent on you for help, then help,” but by a more complex rule that says, “If someone is dependent on you for help, then help, except when . . .” There may be individual differences in readiness to accept exceptions—that is, to deny responsibility (Schwartz, 1977). Moreover, exceptions may vary for individuals in different roles and in different social situations. One advantage of remembering the dramaturgical roots of the concept of norms is that it makes explicit their role specificity.
Darley and Latané (1970) also pointed out that in addition to norms for helping, there are norms for not helping. A person may be taught, “Help those in need,” and at the same time, “Mind your own business.” Which norm is the one to follow? If the former, one may help; if the latter, probably not.
Effects of Race and Sex
Exceptions to and conflicts among norms may account for the highly inconsistent effects on prosocial behavior of demographic variables such as race and sex. It has sometimes been foundthatsame-racehelpingismorefrequent(e.g.,Gaertner& Bickman, 1971), sometimes that cross-race helping is more frequent(Katz,Cohen,&Glass,1975),andsometimesthatthe race of the victim or helper makes no difference (Wispé & Freshley, 1971). Similarly, sometimes men help more than women (West, Whitney, & Schnedler, 1975), sometimes women help more than men (Wegner & Crano, 1975), and sometimes the sex of the helper makes no difference (J. A. Piliavin&Piliavin,1972).Itdoesappear,however,thatwomen are generally more likely to be helped than are men (Gruder & Cook, 1971).
How can we account for these seemingly contradictory findings? One possibility is that given their different social roles in different situations, Blacks and Whites—and men and women—may feel more or less obligated to help a dependent other. For example, Black students on a predominantly White campus, acutely aware of their minority status, may feel strong responsibility for helping a fellow Black student but very little responsibility for helping a White student; White students may be more likely to help a Black student when failure to do so clearly violates norms proscribing racial prejudice. Helping may be more normative for men than for women in one situation—for example, intervening in a potentially dangerous emergency. Helping may be more normative for women than for men in another situation—for example, providing sympathy and support after a friend’s breakup with her fiancé (Eagly & Crowley, 1986). A rolesensitive normative analysis renders the apparent inconsistencies comprehensible.
Some researchers have suggested that the problem with social norms lies in norm salience and focus of attention. Only when attention is focused on the norm as a standard for behavior is concern about violating it likely to affect behavior (Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1991). Consistent with this suggestion, Gibbons and Wicklund (1982) found that if normative standards of helpfulness were salient and thus a focus of attention, then focusing on oneself increased helping. Presumably, being self-focused when the norm was salient highlighted the threat of sanctions for failing to act in line with personal standards. In the absence of salient standards for helpfulness, however, self-focus led to less helping; it seemed to inhibit attention to others’ needs (see also Karylowski, 1984).
Because broad social norms like social responsibility have limited ability to predict whether a person will help, Schwartz (1977) proposed a change of focus in thinking about norms. Rather than thinking about social norms, Schwartz suggested that we should think of more specific, personal norms. By personal norms he meant internalized rules of conduct that are socially learned, that vary among individuals within the same society, and that direct behavior in particular situations.
Applied to helping, a personal norm involves a sense of obligation to perform a specific helping act. For example, people may say (either publicly or to themselves), “I ought to give a pint of blood in the blood drive.” Such statements appear to be far more predictive of whether a person will give blood than are statements of agreement with broad social norms like the norm of social responsibility—at least if the person in question is one who believes in acting responsibly (Schwartz & Howard, 1981). Specific statements like this are particularly powerful as predictors when one also takes into account extenuating circumstances, such as whether an individual was in town during the blood drive, had no major scheduling conflicts, and was physically able to give blood (Zuckerman & Reis, 1978). At this level of specificity, however, it is not clear whether the statement about giving blood reflects a sense of personal obligation stemming from an internalized rule of conduct (i.e., a personal norm) or simply an intention to act in a particular way.
Exchange or Equity
Perhaps the most direct extension of social learning principles into interpersonal relations is exchange or equity theory. When developing exchange theory, Homans (1961) explicitly and proudly declared his agenda to be the reduction of social relations—including cooperation, helping, and other prosocial behaviors—to reinforcement principles operating within the individual. Equity theorists were not so reductionist. They considered social relations to have emergent properties that were irreducible to the benefits and costs for the individuals involved. In their view, social learning teaches one to value equitable relations, in which the ratio of outcomes to inputs is equal for the relating individuals. Walster, Berscheid, and Walster (1973) claimed that equity theory was a general theory that subsumed social learning theory (and psychoanalytic theory). Although this may seem a myopic inversion, equity theory does add an important dimension to the understanding of prosocial behavior by introducing both social comparison and distributive justice. Needs and benefits are no longer defined by looking at the individual alone; the definition is broadened to include needs based on relative deprivation (Adams, 1965).
Homans (1961) pointed out that if a recipient of help cannot return the favor in a tangible way, then he or she must return esteem and deference. Otherwise, the relationship will not remain beneficial to both parties and thus will not continue. Walster et al. (1973) argued that not only the relatively underbenefited but also the relatively overbenefited are motivated to restore equity (although they acknowledged that inequity in one’s favor is more tolerable than the reverse). Acting prosocially to redistribute resources more fairly is one way to restore equity—but only one. Equity may also be restored psychologically by enhancing the perceived inputs of the advantaged or devaluing the inputs of the disadvantaged, thereby justifying the difference in outcomes.
Attribution theory concerns inferences drawn about the causes of events (Heider, 1958; Jones & Davis, 1965). Attributions can affect prosocial behavior in two major ways. First, attributions about why a person is in need are made not only by potential helpers and bystanders but also by the person in need, with consequences for each. Second, attributions about the character of a person who helps are made not only by the helpers themselves but also by the persons helped, again with consequences for each.
Attributing the Cause of Others’ Needs
People are far more likely to help innocent victims than to help those who bring their troubles on themselves (Weiner, 1980). Although this relationship is no surprise, the reason for it is not entirely clear. Perhaps causing one’s own need (or not working to prevent it) violates ingrained standards for self-sufficiency and prudence; perhaps causing one’s own need but not suffering the consequences violates our sense of justice; perhaps it seems inequitable to those who perceive themselves to have exerted effort to avoid need. In any case, people are less likely to help those who bring their troubles on themselves, even though the explanation for this behavior has never been carefully explored.
Attributing the Cause of One’s Own Need
People in need may be predisposed to attribute their need to situational causes, as something thrust upon them by unavoidable circumstances and carrying no implications about personal ability or worth. This attribution may, however, be hard to sustain when the need is produced by failure on a task that one expected to perform successfully, especially when comparable peers succeed (Fisher, Nadler, & WhitcherAlagna, 1982). To avoid an esteem-damaging dispositional attribution, the person in need may attempt to deny the failure and not seek or appreciate help (Nadler, 1991).
Attributing the Cause of Help
Helpers make attributions about the nature and cause not only of others’ needs but also of their own helping. A helper may ask, “Why did I help in this situation?” Possible answers include the following: (a) because I am a kind, caring, helpful person—a dispositional attribution likely to be self-rewarding and encourage one to help in a range of situations in the future; (b) because I am the kind of person who helps in this particular situation (e.g., I am a blood donor; J. A. Piliavin, Callero, & Evans, 1982)—a dispositional attribution likely to encourage one to help again in this situation; (c) because of situational pressure—a situational attribution not likely to increase helping in the future, at least not when situational pressure is absent; and (d) because I am a compliant schnook and a pushover who cannot say no—a dispositional attribution likely to be self-punishing and to discourage future helping. Grusec (1991) traced the development and demonstrated the prosocial benefits of children attributing their helping to a broad disposition to be helpful.
An attributional analysis suggests a complicating limit on the effects of social learning. To the extent that subsequent helping is mediated by self-attributions of helpfulness, inducing help by providing material or social rewards in the form of incentives or salient models, norms, and so on may actually diminish rather than increase subsequent helping, much as providing extrinsic incentives can diminish activity based on intrinsic motivation (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). Consistent with this possibility, research suggests that providing incentives—whether money, models, or norms—reduces self-perceived altruism following helping (e.g., Thomas, Batson, & Coke, 1981).
These results reveal a dilemma. One important source of motivation to help, the external reward that comes from payment or praise for helping, actually undermines a second important source of motivation to help, the self-reward that comes from seeing oneself as a good, kind, caring person. Consider the long-term consequences. As self-reward is undermined, additional external pressure may be necessary to coerce the person to help. This additional external pressure further erodes the helper’s chances for self-reward. Over time, the result may be a slide toward a more and more cynical self-concept, in which personal kindness plays an increasingly minor role and help is offered only for a price.
The person helped is also likely to make attributions about why the helper acted. The most obvious and most frequently studied attributions for helping are that the helper acted (a) out of concern, with no strings attached, or (b) in order to indebt, control, or demean the recipient. Attributions of the second kind may be especially problematic when made by recipients of international aid. Research by Greenberg and his colleagues (e.g., Greenberg & Frisch, 1972) demonstrated, as expected, that aid is not appreciated to the degree that it is perceived as an attempt to control. In return, the benefactor is likely to receive hostility rather than gratitude (Tesser, Gatewood, & Driver, 1968).
Models of esteem enhancement/maintenance have been both popular and numerous in social psychology since about 1980. As an explanation for prosocial behavior, these models generally assume that people act prosocially to enhance or recover self-esteem (Brown & Smart, 1991).
One might expect perceptions of the esteem-enhancing potential of helping to follow the same three-step developmental sequence outlined by Cialdini et al. (1981). For the young child, gaining material rewards for doing good enhances esteem; for the middle child, social approval enhances esteem; by adolescence, self-directed and uncoerced—even anonymous—help may be necessary to feel good about oneself.
Not only benefactors, but also recipients, may act and react with an eye to their self-esteem. Fisher et al. (1982) proposed an esteem-loss explanation for recipients’ negative reactions to receiving aid. Consistent with the comparative aspects of self-esteem, Nadler, Fisher, and Ben-Itzhak (1983) found that when individuals were having trouble on a task that reflected on their abilities, receipt of help from a friend produced more negative self-evaluation than did receipt of help from a stranger.
DePaulo, Nadler, and Fisher (1983) pointed out that concern over loss of esteem both in others’and in one’s own eyes may go a long way toward explaining reticence to seek help when in need. To seek help is to admit that you lack the competence, knowledge, or other valuable resources necessary to cope and, moreover, that the person from whom you seek help has these resources. Consistent with this analysis, people are less likely to seek help to the degree that they hold themselves in high esteem and do not anticipate a chance to reciprocate the help (Nadler, 1991).
This analysis must be qualified by roles and norms, however. For the young child, seeking help from his or her parents is not likely to be upsetting or damaging to self-esteem. For a middle-level executive who finds himself out of a job, the thought of applying for welfare assistance to feed his family may be devastating.
Moral reasoning theories (also called cognitive developmental or rational developmental theories of morality) build on the classic work of Piaget. Typically, they accept his account of intellectual development as a process of adaptation through assimilation and accommodation proceeding in an invariant developmental sequence from sensorimotor to preoperational to concrete operational to formal operational thought (Piaget, 1926). They also accept Piaget’s (1932) application of this model of intellectual development to moral judgment. Moral reasoning theories, of which Kohlberg’s (1976) is the best known, treat situations in which one person might act to benefit another as problems or puzzles to be solved, much like the problems in volume conservation that Piaget gave his children. The key to prosocial action is the level of moral reasoning used to solve the puzzle or dilemma. In Kohlberg’s (1976) words, “To act in a morally high way requires a high stage of moral reasoning. . . . Moral stage is a good predictor of action” (p. 32).
Kohlberg claimed to have identified a universal and invariant sequence of six stages in moral reasoning, grouped in pairs into three levels: (a) preconventional (judgment based on immediate consequences for self), (b) conventional (judgment based on social norms, rules, and laws), and (c) postconventional (judgment based on universal moral principles that at once transcend and undergird the moral conventions of society). The moral principle that Kohlberg considered most important was a neo-Kantian principle of justice whereby each individual is accorded equal rights and dignity in a Kingdom of Ends.
Controversy has surrounded moral reasoning theories from the start. First, evidence that moral reasoning develops universally in the invariant sequence of stages that Kohlberg described is equivocal at best (Kurtines & Greif, 1974). Second, the link between level of moral reasoning and prosocial behavior is far less clear than one might expect (Blasi, 1980; Eisenberg, 1991). In defense, supporters of moral reasoning models have pointed out that (a) adequate measurement of moral reasoning is difficult and (b) in almost any moral dilemma one may justify a given course of action in different ways, using different levels of moral reasoning. Both points seem true, but they reduce the explanatory power of moral reasoning theories, casting doubt on Kohlberg’s claim that moral stage is a good predictor of prosocial action. Modified models of moral reasoning that incorporate social learning principles offer better explanatory power (e.g., Eisenberg, 1986). One must ask of these models, however, whether the social learning principles do all the explanatory work.
In addition to being challenged from outside by researchers who question the value of moral reasoning as a sufficient or even necessary explanation of prosocial behavior, Kohlberg’s focus on justice as the capstone of moral maturity has been challenged from inside the moral-reasoning camp. The most notable challenge has come from his former student and colleague Carol Gilligan. In addition to an ethic of justice and fairness, Gilligan (1982) called for recognition of an ethic of care. Although she believed that both men and women display reasoning based on justice and reasoning based on care, she claimed that the former is more characteristic of men and the latter more characteristic of women. She also claimed that Kohlberg’s exclusive focus on justice led to a perception that men are superior to women in moral reasoning. Finally, she claimed that this apparent superiority will disappear if one listens to the moral voice of women, who speak more of care than of justice.
Evidence for the claimed sex difference in use of perspectives of justice and care has been limited and weak (Walker, 1991). But research has supported Gilligan’s claim that moral dilemmas can be approached from a perspective of care rather than justice (Gilligan, Ward, & Taylor, 1988; Walker, 1991). It remains unclear, however, what a care perspective is. Is it (a) a reflection of Kohlberg’s conventional stage of morality, (b) an alternative mode of moral reasoning with its own developmental sequence, or (c) not a form of moral reasoning at all but an emotional reaction or bond? In sum, although the distinction between justice and care seems to have value, considerably more conceptual precision is needed to know the nature and significance of this distinction.
One need not rely on just one of these seven theoretical perspectives to explain prosocial behavior. It is possible to invoke more than one in a given situation or to invoke one in one situation and another in a different situation. It is also possible to combine perspectives into an amalgamated model. Sometimes, such an amalgamation has been created by the integration of different theoretical perspectives (e.g., social learning and norm theories); more often, it has resulted from arranging perspectives in sequence, adding boxes and arrows to a flowchart of steps that lead ultimately to prosocial behavior. The impetus for creating amalgamated models seems to be the desire to be comprehensive, a desire that stems from the same aspirations for prediction and control that underlie the more ad hoc variance-accounted-for approach. But in amalgamated models, this desire takes advantage of existing theories to pull together and organize a range of explanations.
Perhaps the best known and most enduring amalgamated model is the arousal/cost-reward model originally proposed by I. M. Piliavin, Rodin, and Piliavin (1969) and developed and elaborated by J. A. Piliavin et al. (1981), Dovidio (1984), and Dovidio, Piliavin, Gaertner, Schroeder, and Clark (1991). Originally, this model combined a tensionreduction motivational component with a cost-reward assessment of the various behavioral means to reduce the tension. Over the years, norms, equity concerns, and attribution processes have been incorporated as well, producing a flowchart with 8 boxes and 17 arrows that is too complex to describe here. Other amalgamated models include those developed by Bar-Tal (1982), who relies most heavily on social learning and moral-reasoning perspectives, and by Schwartz (1977), who relies most heavily on norms, especially personal norms.
Amalgamated models make three useful contributions. First, they remind us of the complexity of prosocial behavior and thereby caution against simplistic explanations. Second, they sketch a causal ordering of the various psychological processes assumed to be operating—although these orderings are rarely tested. Third, they provide a mnemonic for relevant psychological processes and theoretical perspectives.
Amalgamated models have potential liabilities too. First, the desire to be comprehensive exerts pressure toward proliferation of boxes and arrows. As more intervening steps are added and more arrows are drawn, multiple paths connect postulated antecedent and consequent variables. This makes achieving clear causal prediction increasingly difficult. The models become less explanatory and more purely descriptive. It seems to be a general and ironic rule in science that the greater the number of different explanatory models combined, the less the resulting explanatory power (recall Einstein’s admonition to account for the most facts with the fewest principles).
Second, having accepted the goal of making an amalgamated model comprehensive, one can expend much energy trying to make anomalous data fit. The breadth and complexity of these models make success almost inevitable. With effort, data can be made to fit even when they do not. The consequence is that opportunities for new insight and understanding are lost—or at least discouraged. This is a very serious liability if, as we wish to suggest in the next section of this research paper, the anomalous aspects of prosocial behavior are what have contributed the most to psychology.
The seven perspectives reviewed thus far reveal the scope and power of existing psychological theory available to explain why people act prosocially. Yet in spite of this scope and power, these existing theories sometimes seem inadequate. Even after hearing their explanations, one may experience a nagging sense of “yes, but” when faced with a dramatic display of concern for another’s welfare—or a dramatic display of callousness. Such displays have long intrigued and puzzled not only psychologists but also philosophers and other behavioral and social scientists. They call for a rethinking of our existing theories about why people do and do not act prosocially, even a rethinking of our assumptions about human nature.
By attending to these anomalies, researchers have extended and altered our theories of social motivation. Attempts to explain prosocial anomalies have not caused a total rewrite of our theories, of course, but they have caused some rewriting, and likely there will be more.
Anomalous Failures to Act Prosocially
The anomalous aspects of prosocial behavior have been of particular interest to those concerned with the theoretical rather than practical implications of why people do—and don’t—act prosocially. At times, a failure to act prosocially can be baffling. How can individuals who were raised in caring and nurturing homes, whose parents rewarded them for showing concern, who become upset when they hear about suffering in remote corners of the world, who have a welldeveloped sense of duty, justice, and social responsibility, and who are highly sensitive to how they look in others’eyes as well as in their own fail to respond to the needs of others, even when it would cost little to do so? Given all the pressure that society brings to bear, failures to act prosocially can seem quite anomalous, almost amazing. Yet they happen.
Let’s return to the murder of Kitty Genovese. At the time, explanations bandied about in the media focused on the breakdown in modern urban society of moral fiber, social norms, and sense of community. Her death was said to be a product of apathy, alienation, anomie, and angst.
Effect of Others on Decisions Under Pressure
Bibb Latané and John Darley (1970) came up with an ingenious alternative to these dispositional explanations. Their explanation was based in part on existing psychological theory and in part on new theoretical insights. They observed that once we notice a possible emergency situation, we must make several decisions in order to help. We must decide that an emergency exists, that it is our personal responsibility to act, and that there is something we can do to help. To complicate matters, these decisions must be made under pressure; emergencies involve threat, ambiguity, urgency, and stress. The presence of other bystanders can influence this pressurepacked decision sequence at each step, tipping the scales toward inaction.
Is a scream in the night a woman being attacked or harmless high-spirited play? Uncertain, bystanders may turn to others present, seeking cues to help them decide. No one wishes to appear foolishly excited over an event that is not an emergency, so each individual reacts initially with a calm outward demeanor, while looking at other people’s reactions. Others do the same. No one appears upset, creating a state of pluralistic ignorance (Miller & McFarland, 1987). Everyone decides that since no one else is upset, the event must not be an emergency (Latané & Darley, 1968; Latané & Rodin, 1969).
Even if one decides that the situation is an emergency and that someone is in dire need of help, the presence of others can still discourage action. To explain how, Darley and Latané (1968) moved beyond existing theory and proposed a diffusion of responsibility. If others are available, each individual may feel less personal obligation to come forward and help. One call to the police is as helpful, if not more helpful, than 20 calls. In the Kitty Genovese case, her neighbors may have seen lights in other windows and assumed that other neighbors had heard the screams and that someone else had already called. Some may have thought, “Something should be done, but why should I be the one to do it?” Thoughts like these, made possible by awareness of other bystanders without knowing what the others are doing, diffuses the responsibility to help among all the bystanders present and makes it less likely that any one bystander will help.
Latané and Darley’s (1970) answer to the question of why none of the 38 witnesses to the murder of Kitty Genovese helped has stood up remarkably well to experimental test (see Latané & Nida, 1981). Still, the psychological process that underlies diffusion of responsibility remains unclear. Do the costs of helping lead to a motivated, optimistic redefinition of the situation (“I’m sure someone else has already helped, so there is no longer a need”)? Is there a recognition of continuing need but denial of personal responsibility, either by reasoning that others present are better qualified to act (“Somebody’s got to do something, but not me; they’re the ones who know what to do”) or shifting from a prescriptive to a descriptive norm (“I can’t be blamed; no one else is doing anything either”)? Might some people fail to act out of deference or modesty (“I’ll let someone else be the hero”)? Each of these processes involves the effect of others on decision making under pressure, and they are often confounded in research; yet these processes are distinct. Any or all could operate, suggesting that more research is needed.
Blaming the Victim
Another important theoretical development stimulated by reflection on bystander “apathy” was Melvin Lerner’s (1970, 1980) just-world hypothesis. The anomaly on which Lerner focused was not the failure to help victims of accidents, attacks, or other emergencies, but rather the more pervasive and pernicious tendency for the haves in society to be unresponsive to the needs of the have-nots. Lerner observed, as did Ryan (1971), that people often not only fail to notice need or to show concern for victims, but that they actively derogate and blame victims.
To explain this apparent anomaly, Lerner turned to the seemingly prosocial principle of justice. He reasoned as follows. If children are to delay gratification and pursue longterm goals, they must develop a belief that effort brings results. For most of us, this belief in contingency leads in turn to a belief in a just world, a sense of appropriateness—that people get what they deserve (and deserve what they get)— necessary for trust, hope, and confidence in our future. Witnessing the suffering of innocent victims violates the belief in a just world. In order to reduce the discomfort produced by this threat, we may help. But there is an alternative: We may derogate or blame the victims (if they have less, they must deserve less; that is, they must be less deserving). Lerner and his associates provided extensive evidence that witnessing an innocent victim suffer can lead to derogation (see Lerner, 1980, for a review). The insight that a natural—even noble—belief in justice, when carried into an unjust world, can itself become a source of injustice has proved major.
In the 1960s, heightened social conscience focused attention on anomalous failures to act prosocially. In the broader sweep of Western thought, this focus is itself anomalous. Through the centuries, the puzzle that has intrigued those contemplating the human condition has not been why people fail to care for others in need; the puzzle has been why people care.
From Aristotle and Aquinas through Hobbes and Bentham to Nietzsche and Freud, the dominant view in Western thought has been that people are, at heart, exclusively selfinterested. Given this view, what explains the enormous effort and energy directed toward benefiting others? At times, what people do for others can be spectacular. Soldiers have thrown themselves on live grenades to protect their comrades. Crews worked around the clock in extreme danger to free the trapped victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Firemen died directing others to safety when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Surviving an airline crash, Arland Williams lost his life in the icy waters of the Potomac because he repeatedly gave others his place in the rescue helicopter. Mother Teresa dedicated her life to the dying of Calcutta, the poorest of the poor, bringing care and comfort to thousands. Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, such as Miep Gies (1987), who helped hide Anne Frank and her parents, and Oskar Schindler, risked their own lives—and often the lives of their loved ones—day after day for months, or even years.
How can we reconcile these actions with a view that people are exclusively self-interested? Could some people, to some degree, under some circumstances, be capable of having another person’s interest at heart? Is it possible for one person to have another person’s welfare as an ultimate goal (altruism), or is all helping simply an instrumental means of obtaining one or another form of self-benefit (egoism)? This has been called the altruism question (Batson, 1991).
The Altruism Question
One easy answer to the altruism question that can quickly be laid to rest goes like this: Even if it were possible for a person to be motivated to increase another’s welfare, such a person would be pleased by attaining this desired goal, so even this apparent altruism would be a product of egoism. In the words of Tolman’s (1923) well-turned epithet, this argument is “more brilliant than cogent” (p. 203). Philosophers have shown it to be flawed by pointing out that it involves a confusion between two different forms of psychological hedonism. The strong form of hedonism asserts that the ultimate goal of human action is always the attainment of personal pleasure; the weak form asserts only that goal attainment always brings pleasure. The weak form is not inconsistent with the altruistic claim that the ultimate goal of some action is to benefit another rather than to benefit oneself; the pleasure obtained can be a consequence of reaching this goal without being the goal itself. The strong form of psychological hedonism is inconsistent with the possibility of altruism, but to affirm this form is simply to assert that altruism does not exist, an empirical assertion that may or may not be true (see MacIntyre, 1967, for discussion of these philosophical arguments).
More serious advocates of universal egoism argue that some specific self-benefit is always the ultimate goal of helping; benefiting the other is simply an instrumental goal on the way to one or another ultimately self-serving end. They point to all the self-benefits of helping: the material, social, and selfrewards received; the material, social, and self-punishments avoided; and aversive-arousal reduction. Advocates of altruism counter that simply because self-benefits follow from benefiting another, this does not prove that the self-benefits were the helper’s ultimate goal. These self-benefits may be unintended consequences of reaching the ultimate goal of benefiting the other. If so, the motivation would be altruistic, not egoistic.
Advocates of altruism claim more than possibility, of course. They claim that altruistic motivation exists, that at least some people under some circumstances act with the ultimate goal of increasing another person’s welfare.
The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
Over the centuries, the most frequently proposed source of altruistic motivation has been an other-oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another person—today usually called empathy (Batson, 1987) or sympathy (Wispé, 1986). If another person is in need, these empathic emotions include sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like. The empathy-altruism hypothesis claims that these emotions evoke motivation with an ultimate goal of benefiting the person for whom the empathy is felt—that is, altruistic motivation. Various forms of this hypothesis have been espoused by Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and William McDougall, as well as in contemporary psychology by Hoffman (1975), Krebs (1975), and Batson (1987).
Considerable evidence supports the idea that feeling empathy for a person in need leads to increased helping of that person (see Batson, 1991; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987, for reviews). Observing an empathy-helping relationship, however, tells us nothing about the nature of the motivation that underlies this relationship. Increasing the other person’s welfare could be (a) an ultimate goal, producing self-benefits as unintended consequences; (b) an instrumental goal on the way to the ultimate goal of gaining one or more self-benefits; or (c) both. That is, the motivation could be altruistic, egoistic, or both.
Egoistic Alternatives to the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
Three general classes of self-benefits can result from helping a person for whom one feels empathy. Such help can (a) reduce one’s empathic arousal, which may be experienced as aversive; (b) enable one to avoid possible social and selfpunishments for failing to help; and (c) enable one to gain social and self-rewards for doing what is good and right. The empathy-altruism hypothesis does not deny that these selfbenefits of empathy-induced helping exist. It claims that they are unintended consequences of the empathically aroused helper reaching the ultimate goal of reducing the other’s suffering. Proponents of egoistic alternatives to the empathyaltruism hypothesis disagree. They claim that one or more of these self-benefits are the ultimate goal of empathy-induced helping. In the past two decades more than 30 experiments have tested these three egoistic alternatives against the empathy-altruism hypothesis.
The most frequently proposed egoistic explanation of the empathy-helping relationship is aversive-arousal reduction. This explanation claims that feeling empathy for someone who is suffering is unpleasant, and empathically aroused individuals help in order to benefit themselves by eliminating their empathic feelings. Benefiting the victim is simply a means to this self-serving end.
Over half a dozen experiments have tested the aversivearousal reduction explanation against the empathy-altruism hypothesis by varying the ease of escape from further exposure to the empathy-evoking need without helping. Because empathic arousal is a result of witnessing the need, either terminating this need by helping or terminating exposure to it by escaping should reduce one’s own empathic arousal. Escape does not, however, enable one to reach the altruistic goal of relieving the victim’s need. Therefore, the aversive-arousal explanation predicts elimination of the empathy-helping relationship when escape is easy; the empathy-altruism hypothesis does not. Results of these experiments have consistently patterned as predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis and not by the aversive-arousal reduction explanation, casting doubt on this popular egoistic account (see Batson, 1991, for a review).
A second egoistic explanation invokes empathy-specific punishment. It claims that people learn through socialization that additional obligation to help, and thus additional shame andguiltforfailuretohelp,isattendantonfeelingempathyfor someone in need.As a result, when people feel empathy, they are faced with impending social or self-censure beyond any general punishment associated with not helping. They say to themselves, “What will others think—or what will I think of myself—if I don’t help when I feel like this?” and then they help out of an egoistic desire to avoid these empathy-specific punishments. Once again, experiments designed to test this explanation have failed to support it; the results have consistently supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis instead (Batson, 1991).
The third major egoistic explanation invokes empathyspecific reward. It claims that people learn through socialization that special rewards in the form of praise and pride are attendant on helping a person for whom they feel empathy. As a result, when people feel empathy, they think of these rewards and help out of an egoistic desire to gain them.
The general form of this explanation has been tested in several experiments and received no support (Batson et al., 1988, Studies 1 & 5; Batson & Weeks, 1996), but two variations have also been proposed. Best known is the negativestate relief explanation proposed by Cialdini et al. (1987). Cialdini et al. suggested that the empathy experienced when witnessing another person’s suffering is a negative affective state—a state of temporary sadness or sorrow—and the person feeling empathy helps in order to gain self-rewards to counteract this negative state.
Although this egoistic alternative received some initial support (Cialdini et al., 1987; Schaller & Cialdini, 1988), subsequent research has revealed that this was likely due to procedural artifacts. Experiments avoiding these artifacts have instead supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson et al., 1989; Dovidio, Allen, & Schroeder, 1990; Schroeder, Dovidio, Sibicky, Matthews, & Allen, 1988). It now seems clear that the motivation to help evoked by empathy is not directed toward the egoistic goal of negative-state relief.
A second interesting variation on an empathy-specific reward explanation was proposed by Smith, Keating, and Stotland (1989). They claimed that rather than helping to gain the rewards of seeing oneself or being seen by others as a helpful person, empathically aroused individuals help in order to feel joy at the needy individual’s relief: “It is proposed that the prospect of empathic joy, conveyed by feedback from the help recipient, is essential to the special tendency of empathic witnesses to help. . . . The empathically concerned witness to the distress of others helps in order to be happy” (Smith et al., 1989, p. 641).
Some early self-report data were supportive, but more rigorous experimental evidence has failed to support this empathic-joy hypothesis. Instead, experimental results have once again consistently supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson et al., 1991; Smith et al., 1989). The empathic-joy hypothesis, like other versions of the empathyspecific reward explanation, seems unable to account for the empathy-helping relationship.
A Tentative Conclusion
Reviewing the empathy-altruism research, as well as related literature in sociology, economics, political science, and biology, J. A. Piliavin and Charng (1990) concluded that
There appears to be a “paradigm shift” away from the earlier position that behavior that appears to be altruistic must, under closer scrutiny, be revealed as reflecting egoistic motives. Rather, theory and data now being advanced are more compatible with the view that true altruism—acting with the goal of benefiting another—does exist and is a part of human nature. (p. 27)
Pending new evidence or a plausible new egoistic explanation of the existing evidence, this conclusion seems correct. It appears that the empathy-altruism hypothesis should— tentatively—be accepted as true.
Implications of the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
If the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true, the implications are wide ranging. Universal egoism—the assumption that all human behavior is ultimately directed toward self-benefit— has long dominated not only psychology but other social and behavioral sciences as well (Campbell, 1975; Mansbridge, 1990; Wallach & Wallach, 1983). If individuals feeling empathy act, at least in part, with an ultimate goal of increasing the welfare of another, then the assumption of universal egoism must be replaced by a more complex view of motivation that allows for altruism as well as egoism. Such a shift in our view of motivation requires, in turn, a revision of our underlying assumptions about human nature and human potential. It implies that we humans may be more social than we have thought—that other people can be more to us thansourcesofinformation,stimulation,andrewardasweeach seek our own welfare.To some degree and under some circumstances, we can care about their welfare as an end in itself.
The evidence for the empathy-altruism hypothesis also forces us to face the question of why empathic feelings exist. What evolutionary function do they serve? Admittedly speculative, the most plausible answer relates empathic feelings to parenting among higher mammals, in which offspring live for some time in a very vulnerable state (de Waal, 1996; Hoffman, 1981; McDougall, 1908; Zahn-Waxler & RadkeYarrow, 1990). Were parents not intensely interested in the welfare of their progeny, these species would quickly die out. Empathic feelings for offspring, and the resulting altruistic motivation, may promote one’s reproductive potential not by increasing the number of offspring but by increasing the chance of their survival.
Clearly, however, empathic feelings extend well beyond one’s own children. People can feel empathy for a wide range of individuals (including nonhumans) as long as there is no preexisting antipathy (Batson, 1991; Krebs, 1975; Shelton & Rogers, 1981). From an evolutionary perspective, this extension may be attributed to cognitive generalization whereby one “adopts” others, making it possible to evoke the primitive and fundamental impulse to care for progeny when these adopted others are in need (Batson, 1987; MacLean, 1973). Such cognitive generalization may be possible because of (a) human cognitive capacity, including symbolic thought, and (b) the lack of evolutionary advantage for sharp discrimination of empathic feelings in the small hunter-gatherer bands of early humans. In these bands, those in need were often one’s children or close kin, and one’s own welfare was tightly tied to the welfare even of those who were not close kin (Hoffman, 1981).
The empathy-altruism hypothesis also may have wideranging practical implications. Given the power of empathic feelings to evoke altruistic motivation, people may sometimes suppress or avoid these feelings. Loss of the capacity to feel empathy for clients may be a factor, possibly a central one, in the experience of burnout among case workers in the helping professions (Maslach, 1982). Aware of the extreme effort involved in helping or the impossibility of helping effectively, these case workers—as well as nurses caring for terminal patients, and even pedestrians confronted by the homeless—may try to avoid feeling empathy in order to avoid the resulting altruistic motivation (Shaw, Batson, & Todd, 1994; Stotland, Mathews, Sherman, Hansson, & Richardson, 1978). There seems to be, then, egoistic motivation to avoid altruistic motivation.
More positively, experiments have tested the possibility that empathy-induced altruism can be used to improve attitudes toward stigmatized out-groups. Thus far, results look quite encouraging. Inducing empathy has improved racial attitudes, as well as attitudes toward people with AIDS, the homeless, and even convicted murderers (Batson, Polycarpou, et al., 1997; Dovidio, Gaertner, & Johnson, 1999). Empathy-induced altruism has also been found to increase cooperation in a competitive situation (aprisoner’s dilemma), even when one knows that the person for whom one feels empathy has acted competitively (Batson &Ahmad, 2001; Batson & Moran, 1999).
Other Possible Sources of Altruistic Motivation
Might there be sources of altruistic motivation other than empathic emotion? Several have been proposed, including an altruistic personality (Oliner & Oliner, 1988), principled moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1976), and internalized prosocial values (Staub, 1974). There is some evidence that each of these potential sources is associated with increased prosocial motivation, but as yet, it is not clear whether this motivation is altruistic. It may instead be an instrumental means to the egoistic ultimate goals of (a) maintaining one’s positive self-concept or (b) avoiding guilt (Batson, 1991; Batson, Bolen, Cross, & Neuringer-Benefiel, 1986; Carlo et al., 1991; Eisenberg et al., 1989). More and better research exploring these possibilities is needed.
Beyond the Egoism-Altruism Debate: Other Prosocial Motives
Thinking more broadly, beyond the egoism-altruism debate that has been the focus of attention and contention for the past two decades, might there be other forms of prosocial motivation—forms in which the ultimate goal is neither to benefit oneself nor to benefit another individual? Two possibilities seem especially worthy of consideration: collectivism and principlism.
Collectivism: Benefiting a Group
Collectivism involves motivation to benefit a particular group as a whole.The ultimate goal is not to increase one’s own welfare or the welfare of the specific others who are benefited; the ultimate goal is to increase the welfare of the group. Robyn Dawes and his colleagues put it succinctly: “Not me or thee but we” (Dawes, van de Kragt, & Orbell, 1988). They also suggested that collectivist prosocial motivation is a product of group identity (Brewer & Kramer, 1986; Tajfel, 1981; Turner, 1987).
As with altruism, however, what looks like collectivism may actually be a subtle form of egoism. Perhaps attention to group welfare is simply an expression of enlightened selfinterest. After all, if one recognizes that ignoring group needs and the common good in a headlong pursuit of self-benefit will only lead to less self-benefit in the long run, then one may decide to benefit the group as a means to maximize overall self-benefit. Appeals to enlightened self-interest are often used by politicians and social activists trying to encourage prosocial response to societal needs. They warn of the longterm consequences for oneself and one’s children of pollution and squandering natural resources. They remind that if the plight of the poor becomes too severe, those who are well off may face revolution. Such appeals seem to assume that collectivism is simply a form of egoism.
The most direct evidence that collectivism is independent of egoism comes from research by Dawes, van de Kragt, and Orbell (1990). They examined the responses of individuals who had been given a choice between allocating money to themselves or to a group. Allocation to oneself maximized individual but not group profit, whereas allocation to the group maximized collective but not individual profit.
Dawes et al. (1990) found that if individuals faced with this dilemma made their allocation after discussing it with other members of the group, they gave more to the group than if they had no prior discussion. Moreover, this effect was specific to the in-group with whom the discussion occurred; allocation to an out-group was not enhanced. Based on this research, Dawes et al. claimed evidence for collectivist motivation independent of egoism, arguing that their procedure ruled out the two most plausible egoistic explanations: (a) enlightened self-interest (by having no future contact and only one allocation round) and (b) socially instilled conscience (a norm to share, if evoked, should increase sharing with the out-group as well as the in-group). There is reason to doubt, however, that their procedure effectively ruled out self-rewards and self-punishments associated with conscience. The research on norms reviewed earlier suggests that norms can be more refined than Dawes and his coworkers allowed. We may have a norm that says “share with your buddies” rather than a norm that simply says “share.” So, although this research is important and suggestive, more and better evidence is needed to justify the conclusion that collectivist prosocial motivation is not reducible to egoism.
Principlism: Upholding a Moral Principle
Not only have most moral philosophers argued for the importance of a prosocial motive other than egoism, but most since Kant (1724–1804) have shunned altruism and collectivism as well. They reject appeals to altruism, especially empathyinduced altruism, because feelings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion are too fickle and too circumscribed. Empathy is not felt for everyone in need, at least not to the same degree. They reject appeals to collectivism because group interest is bounded by the limits of the group; it may even encourage doing harm to those outside the group. Given these problems with altruism and collectivism, moral philosophers have typically advocated prosocial motivation with an ultimate goal of upholding a universal and impartial moral principle, such as justice (Rawls, 1971). We shall call this moral motivation principlism.
Is acting with an ultimate goal of upholding a moral principle really possible? When Kant (1785/1898) briefly shifted from his analysis of what ought to be to what is, he was ready to admit that even when the concern we show for others appears to be prompted by duty to principle, it may actually be prompted by self-love (pp. 23–24). The goal of upholding a moral principle may be only an instrumental goal pursued as a means to reach the ultimate goal of selfbenefit. If so, then principle-based motivation is actually egoistic.
The self-benefits of upholding a moral principle are conspicuous. One can gain the social and self-rewards of being seen and seeing oneself as a good person. One can also avoid the social and self-punishments of shame and guilt for failing to do the right thing. As Freud (1930) suggested, society may inculcate such principles in the young in order to bridle their antisocial impulses by making it in their best personal interest to act morally (see also Campbell, 1975). Alternatively, through internalization (Staub, 1989) or development of moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1976), principles may come to be valued in their own right and not simply as instrumental means to self-serving ends.
The issue here is the same one faced with altruism and collectivism. We need to know the nature of the underlying motive. Is the desire to uphold justice (or some other moral principle) an instrumental goal on the way to the ultimate goal of self-benefit? If so, this desire is a form of egoism. Is upholding the principle an ultimate goal, and the ensuing self-benefits merely unintended consequences? If so, principlism is a fourth type of prosocial motivation, independent of egoism, altruism, and collectivism.
Recent research suggests that people often act so as to appear moral while, if possible, avoiding the cost of actually being moral (Batson, Kobrynowicz, Dinnerstein, Kampf, & Wilson, 1997; Batson, Thompson, Seuferling, Whitney, & Strongman, 1999). This research also suggests that if moral motivation exists, it is easily overpowered by self-interest. Many of us are, it seems, quite adept at moral rationalization.
We are good at justifying to ourselves (if not to others) why a situation that benefits us or those we care about does not violate our moral principles—for example, why storing our nuclear waste in someone else’s backyard is fair, why terrorist attacks by our side are regrettable but necessary evils whereas terrorist attacks by the other side are atrocities, and why we must obey orders even if it means killing innocent people. The abstractness of most moral principles, and their multiplicity, makes rationalization all too easy (see Bandura, 1991; Bersoff, 1999; Staub, 1990).
But this may be only part of the story. Perhaps in some cases upholding a moral principle can serve as an ultimate goal, defining a form of motivation independent of egoism. If so, perhaps these principles can provide a basis for responding to the needs of others that transcends reliance on selfinterest or on vested interest in and feeling for the welfare of certain other individuals or groups. Quite an “if,” but it seems well worth conducting research to find out.
Conflict and Cooperation of Prosocial Motives
To recognize the range of possible prosocial motives makes available more resources to those seeking to produce a more humane, caring society. At the same time, a multiplicity of prosocial motives complicates matters. These different motives for helping others do not always work in harmony. They can undercut or compete with one another.
Well-intentioned appeals to extended or enlightened selfinterest can backfire by undermining other prosocial motives. Providing people with money or other tangible incentives for showing concern may lead people to interpret their motivation as egoistic even when it is not (Batson, Coke, Jasnoski, & Hanson, 1978). In this way, the assumption that there is only one answer to the question of why we act for the common good—egoism—may become a self-fulfilling prophecy (Batson, Fultz, Schoenrade, & Paduano, 1987) and may create a self-perpetuating norm of self-interest (Miller, 1999; Miller & Ratner, 1998).
Nor do the other three prosocial motives always work in harmony. They can conflict with one another. For example, altruism can—and often does—conflict with collectivism or principlism. We may ignore the larger social good, or we may compromise our principles, not only to benefit ourselves but alsotobenefitthoseindividualsaboutwhomweespeciallycare (Batson, Batson, et al., 1995; Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw, 1995). Indeed, whereas there are clear social sanctions against unbridled self-interest, there are not clear sanctions against altruism. Batson,Ahmad, et al. (1999) found that altruism can at times be a greater threat to the common good than is egoism.
Each of the four possible prosocial motives that we have identified has its strengths. Each also has its weaknesses. The potential for the greatest good may come from strategies that orchestrate these motives so that the strengths of one can overcome the weaknesses of another. Strategies that combine appeals to either altruism or collectivism with appeals to principle seem especially promising. For example, think about the principle of justice. Upholding justice is a powerful motive, but it is vulnerable to rationalization. Empathy-induced altruism and collectivism are also powerful motives, but they are limited in scope. They produce partiality—special concern for a particular person or persons or for a particular group. If we can lead people to feel empathy for the victims of injustice or to perceive themselves in a common group with them, we may be able to get these motives working together rather than at odds. Desire for justice may provide perspective and reason; empathy-induced altruism or collectivism may provide emotional fire and a force directed specifically toward relief of the victims’suffering, preventing rationalization.
Something of this sort occurred, we believe, in a number of rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. Acareful look at data collected by the Oliners and their colleagues (Oliner & Oliner, 1988) suggests that involvement in rescue activity frequently began with concern for a specific individual or individuals for whom compassion was felt—often individuals known previously. This initial involvement subsequently led to further contacts and rescue activity and to a concern for justice that extended well beyond the bound of the initial empathic concern. Something of this sort also lay at the heart of Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s practice of nonviolent protest. The sight on the TV news of a small Black child in Birmingham being literally rolled down the street by water from a fire hose under the direction of Police Chief Bull Connor, and the emotions this sight evoked, seemed to do more to arouse a concern for justice than did hours of reasoned argument and appeals for equal civil rights.
Something of this sort also can be found in the writing of Jonathan Kozol. Deeply concerned about the “savage inequalities” in public education between rich and poor communities in the United States, Kozol (1991) does not simply document the inequity. He takes us into the lives of individual children. We come to care deeply for them and, as a result, about the injustice.
Research Method Matters
Efforts to explain prosocial behavior, especially its seemingly anomalous aspects, have raised thorny issues about research methods that, though not specific to this area, flourish here. Most of these issues are rooted in mire produced by two features. First, psychologists are not the only ones who care about prosocial behavior. Most research participants see themselves as good, kind, caring people, and they want to be seen that way by others. Second, although cool, cognitive analysis and inference are often involved, theory and research on prosocial behavior focuses on relatively hot, active processes—the interplay of values, emotions, motives, and behavior. These processes may not be accessible to cool introspection.
To reap a fruitful harvest from the mire that these two features create, researchers need to avoid the pitfalls of demand characteristics, evaluation apprehension, social desirability, self-presentation, and reactive measures. Consequently, research on prosocial behavior still relies heavily on high-impact deception procedures of the sort made famous in the social psychology of the 1960s (Aronson, Brewer, & Carlsmith, 1985). The currently popular procedure of presenting research participants with descriptions of hypothetical situations and asking them to report what they would do is of limited use when studying prosocial behavior. Commitment to actual behavior—if not the behavior itself—is almost always required (Lerner, 1987). Rather than relying heavily on selfreports, thought listing, or retrospective analysis to reveal mediating psychological processes, we must often study these processes indirectly by designing research that allows the effect of mediators to be inferred from observable behavior. Typically, this means one must successfully deceive participants, run the experiments on each participant individually, usebetween-groupdesigns,andsoon.Clearly,suchresearchis difficult. Equally clearly, it requires careful sensitivity to and protection of the welfare and dignity of participants.
Deeming care and sensitivity insufficient, some universities have instituted a blanket prohibition on the use of highimpact deceptions of the kind needed to address key research questions concerning prosocial behavior. It is ironic that the study of prosocial, ethical behavior is one of the areas to suffer most from restrictions imposed in response to concerns about research ethics.
Few would disagree that society could benefit from increased prosocial behavior. Rage and hate crimes, terrorist attacks, child and spouse abuse, neglect of the homeless, the plight of people with AIDS, and the growing disparity between rich and poor (and smug callousness toward the latter) provide all-too-frequent reminders of crying need. Given the societal importance of understanding why people act to benefit others, given the apparent necessity of using high-impact deception research to provide this understanding, and given the dangers of obtaining misleading information using other methods, it is not the use of these methods, but rather a blanket prohibition of them, that seems unethical.
Over the past 30 years the practical concern to promote prosocial behavior has led to both a variance-accounted-for empirical approach and the application of existing psychological theories. In addition, existing theory has been challenged and new theoretical perspectives developed by a focus on anomalous aspects of why people do—and don’t—act prosocially. Research has challenged currently dominant theories of social motivation and even of human nature—views that limit the human capacity to care to self-interest. This research has raised the possibility of a multiplicity of social motives—altruism, collectivism, and principlism, as well as egoism. It also has raised important theoretical questions—as yet unanswered—about how these motives might be most effectively orchestrated to increase prosocial behavior. More broadly, research in this area takes exception to the currently dominant focus in social psychology on cognitive representation of the social environment and processing of social information, calling for increased attention to motives, emotions, and values.
Research on prosocial behavior provides evidence that in addition to our all-too-apparent failing and fallibilities, we humans are, at times, capable of caring, and caring deeply, for people and issues other than ourselves. This possibility has wide-ranging theoretical implications, suggesting that we are more social than even our most social theories have led us to believe. It also has wide-ranging practical implications, suggesting untapped resources for social change. At present, however, these theoretical and practical implications are only partly realized, providing a pressing—and daunting— agenda.
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