Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Revisiting the Egoism-Altruism Debate: Effects of Contextual Cues on Empathy, Oneness, and Helping Intentions

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Revisiting the Egoism-Altruism Debate: Effects of Contextual Cues on Empathy, Oneness, and Helping Intentions

Article excerpt

There are competing hypotheses about how perspective taking can influence motivations to help. According to Batson's (1991) empathy-altruism hypothesis, perspective taking causes empathy and altruistic helping, regardless of rewards and punishments. According to the felt-oneness hypothesis (Cialdini et al., 1997), perspective-taking leads to a merging of identities, and the conceptual overlap between helper and target causes helping to be self-serving. This study further examines the presence and strength of altruistic motives in helping, and the contextual cues which affect them.

Research to test these competing hypotheses has produced mixed results. Initial tests of the felt-oneness hypothesis found that empathy no longer predicted intentions to help in an imagined scenario; self-other overlap accounted for the relationship between empathy and willingness to help, which supported the felt-oneness hypothesis (Cialdini et al., 1997). Other research varied group membership to vary oneness, and found that it did not mediate the relationship between empathy and helping in a scenario participants believed to be real (Batson, Sager, et al., 1997), which supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

These competing hypotheses were tested using similar manipulations by including the egoistic motives of oneness, sadness, and personal distress in a model which also included empathie concern (Maner et al., 2002). Only oneness and sadness predicted helping. Empathy correlated with both oneness and sadness, which the authors suggested may have influenced its relationship with helping in previous research. Thus, in a model which controlled for oneness, empathy no longer predicted helping behavior, which indicated that helping is due to egoistic feelings of oneness rather than altruistic feelings of empathy.

However, other contextual cues may explain the relationships between oneness, empathy, and helping. Helping motivations and intentions are influenced by a complex social context (e.g., Kruger, 2003; Piliavin, 2009), and even the initial felt-oneness research found that helping intentions were dependent upon need severity (a phone call, an eviction, or an orphaned child) and relationship with the target (Cialdini et al., 1997). With little need, people were just as likely to help kin and strangers, but with greater need, people were more likely to help kin.

More recent research on the egoism-altruism debate has demonstrated that both empathic and egoistic motives are influenced by the contextual cues of need severity and relationship closeness. When imagining a family member in a need situation, empathy predicts self-reported intent to help above and beyond oneness and negative affect. When imagining a stranger, however, only the egoistic motivator of oneness predicts helping intentions (Maner & Gailliot, 2007). Thus, evidence suggests that whether people help due to altruistic or egoistic motives depends on contextual cues. When there is greater need, or when a target is close to the helper, helping is motivated by altruistic empathy; with lesser need, or if the target is a stranger, helping is motivated by egoistic oneness.

Other Contextual Cues

In addition to need severity and relationship closeness, target vulnerability cues may lead to altruistic empathic concern. A nurturance hypothesis (Batson, Lishner, Cook & Sawyer, 2005) assumes that tenderness and empathy are drives to care and protect one's children, but this care giving tendency may generalize to others with perspective-taking. Vulnerability brings about feelings of tenderness, sympathy, concern and guilt; these emotions strongly correlate with one another and are driven by a great desire to protect and care for the vulnerable target (Dijker, 2010). Because the focus is on the target's well-being, helping is altruistic.

The effect of vulnerability is strong enough to mitigate conditions in which participants should be self-focused. …

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