Not for the Sake of Selfishness Alone

by lukeprog7 min read2nd Jul 201120 comments


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Related: Fake SelfishnessNot for the Sake of Pleasure AloneNot for the Sake of Happiness (Alone), Value is Fragile, Fake Fake Utility Functions

No one deserves thanks from another about something he has done for him or goodness he has done. He is either willing to get a reward from God, therefore he wanted to serve himself. Or he wanted to get a reward from people, therefore he has done that to get profit for himself. Or to be mentioned and praised by people, therefore, it is also for himself. Or due to his mercy and tenderheartedness, so he has simply done that goodness to pacify these feelings and treat himself.

- Mohammed Ibn Al-Jahm Al-Barmaki

In a 1990 experiment, Jack Dovidio made subjects feel empathy for a young woman by asking subjects to imagine what she felt as she faced a particular problem.1 Half the subjects focused on one problem faced by the woman, while the other half focused on a different problem she faced. When given the opportunity to help the woman, subjects in the high empathy condition were more likely to help than subjects in the low empathy condition, and the increase was specific to the problem that had been used to evoke empathy.

What does this study say about altruism and selfishness?

Some people think that humans are purely selfish, that we act for selfish motives alone. They will re-interpret any counter-example you give ("But wouldn't you sacrifice your life to save the rest of the human species?") as being compatible with purely selfish motives.

Are they right? Do we act for selfish motives alone?

Let's examine the evidence.2

We begin with a rough sketch of human motivation. We have 'ultimate' desires: things we desire for their own sake. We also have 'instrumental' desires: things we desire because we belief they will satisfy our ultimate desires.

I instrumentally desire to go to the kitchen because I ultimately desire to eat a brownie and I believe brownies are in the kitchen. But if I come to believe brownies are in the dining room and not the kitchen, I will instrumentally desire to walk to the dining room instead, to fulfill my ultimate desire to eat a brownie. Or perhaps my desire to eat a brownie is also an instrumental desire, and my ultimate desire is to taste something sweet, and I instrumentally desire to eat a brownie because I believe that eating a brownie will satisfy my desire to taste something sweet.

Of course, desires compete with each other. Perhaps I have an ultimate desire to taste something sweet, and thus I instrumentally desire to eat a brownie. But I also have an ultimate desire for regular sex, and I believe that eating a brownie will contribute to obesity that will lessen the chances of satisfying my desire for regular sex. In this case, the 'stronger' desire will determine my action.

The full picture is more complicated than this,3 but we only need a basic picture to assess the claim that we only act for selfish motives alone.

We might categorize ultimate desires like this:4

Psychological egoists think all ultimate desires are of type 2. Psychological hedonists are a subset of egoists who think that all ultimate desires are of type 1. Psychological altruists think that at least some ultimate desires are of type 4. If some ultimate desires are of type 3, but none are of type 4, then both egoism and altruism are false.

Previously, I presented neurobiological evidence that psychological hedonism is false. In short: desire and pleasure are encoded separately by the brain, and we sometimes desire things that are not aimed at producing pleasure, and in fact we sometimes desire things that do not produce pleasure when we get them.

But can we also disprove the claim that we act for selfish reasons alone (psychological egoism), by showing that normal humans have desires for the well-being of others?

The standard theory of altruism in psychology is the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which says that altruism exists in humans and is often the result of an empathic emotional response to another's distress.5 Experiments have uncovered a plausible causal chain from perspective-taking to empathy to the motivation of helping behavior, and shown that this chain is probably incompatible with psychological egoism.

Of course, showing that empathy causes helping behavior does not win the day for altruism over egoism. The egoist may say that, for example, empathy causes sadness and that people are motivated to help because they believe helping is the best way to alleviate their own sadness. Or perhaps people believe that helping people in some circumstances will make them feel good, or that failing to help will make them feel bad, and this is what motivates them to help.

Daniel Batson and other researchers have spent several decades running experiments that allow the empathy-altruism hypothesis to be compared to specific versions of the egoism. We can't review all those studies here,6 but let's examine a few of them.


Testing the Aversive-Arousal Reduction Hypothesis

One egoistic hypothesis explains helping behavior by saying that the sight of someone in distress causes an aversive reaction, and this (and not empathy) causes a desire to relieve the aversive emotion by helping the person in distress.

The Dovidio experiment described above undermines the naive version of aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis, but the egoist may insist that one's distress is increased when one feels empathy, and that the increased helping that follows empathy is due to increased distress. In contrast, the altruist maintains that empathy evokes an ultimate desire to help, which leads to helping behavior.

How can we test these competing hypotheses? 

Batson argues that manipulating difficulty of escape allows us to compare these two hypotheses experimentally. The central idea is that if a subject is motivated by an ultimate desire to help the target, that desire can be satisfied only by helping. However, if a subject is motivated by a desire to reduce his own distress, that desire can be satisfied either by helping or by merely escaping from the distress-inducing situation—for example, by leaving the room so that one is no longer confronted by the needy target. Assuming that subjects do whatever is easier and less costly, the aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis thus predicts that even subjects experiencing empathy will simply leave the needy target, provided escape is made easy enough.

...To determine whether empathy is playing a role in producing helping behavior, he has to compare the behavior of low-empathy and high-empathy subjects. To determine whether ease of escape has any effect on the likelihood of helping behavior, he must arrange things so that leaving is significantly more costly for some subjects than for others. So there are four experimental conditions: low-empathy subjects where escape is either (1) easy or (2) hard, and high-empathy subjects where leaving is either (3) easy or (4) hard.7

Batson says that in the condition with high-empathy where escape is easy (condition 3), the aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis predicts a low level of helping behavior, while the empathy-altruism hypothesis predicts a high level of helping behavior.

Batson conducted 6 experiments to test these predictions. All 6 experiments confirmed the empathy-altruism hypothesis over the aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis. Let's consider one of them.8

In one experiment

student subjects were required to watch, via what they believed to be closed-circuit TV, as another student subject, Elaine, attempted to perform a task while receiving electric shocks at random intervals. Observer subjects were told that their task would be to form and report an impression of how Elaine performs under aversive conditions. Actually, what the subjects were viewing was a videotape. On the tape, Elaine is clearly finding the shocks very uncomfortable, and after her second trial at doing the task, she explains to Martha, the assistant overseeing the experiment, that she is unusually sensitive to mild electric shocks because of a childhood trauma. Martha then suggests that perhaps the observer subject might be willing to help Elaine by taking her place, and the experimenter asks whether the subject is willing to do that. To manipulate ease of escape, some subjects are told that if they decide not to take Elaine’s place, they will be required to watch eight additional trials, while other subjects are told that if they decide not to take Elaine’s place, they will be free to go, although Elaine will have to endure eight more trials. To manipulate the level of empathy that subjects feel for Elaine, subjects are given a copy of a personal values and interests questionnaire, allegedly filled out by Elaine, in order to help them form an impression of her performance. In the high-empathy condition, Elaine’s values and interests are very similar to the subject’s (which had been determined in a screening session several weeks before), while in the low-empathy condition, they are very different.9

The results confirmed the empathy-altruism hypothesis over the aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis:10


Testing the Empathy-Specific Reward Hypothesis

Another egoistic hypothesis claims that helping behavior is motivated by the expectation of a reward. But this doesn't explain Dovidio's results - that empathy increases helping behavior. Still, the egoist might maintain that helping behavior is especially rewarding when one feels empathy for the distressed person. Call this the empathy-specific reward hypothesis.

This version of egoism predicts the helper will not be rewarded (by a jolt of pride, or whatever) if she is unable to relieve the target's distress, either because there's nothing she can do or because someone else helps the target before she can.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis says that people are motivated by an ultimate desire that the target's distress be alleviated. The empathy-specific reward hypothesis (a version of egoism) predicts that the helper will not be rewarded if she is unable to personally relieve the target's distress.

To test between the two hypotheses, Batson told11 participants that

they would likely have the chance to perform a simple task that would reduce the number of electric shocks that a peer would receive... Somewhat later, half of the participants learned, by chance, that they would not be performing the helping task after all, and thus that they could not help the other student. This divided the participants into two experimental conditions, 'perform' and 'not perform.' Subsequently, half of the participants in each condition learned that, by chance, the peer was not going to get the shocks, while the other half learned that, by chance, the peer would still have to get the shocks. This yielded two more experimental conditions, 'prior relief' and 'no prior relief'. All participants were also asked to self-report their level of empathy for the peer, so that high- and low-empathy participants could be distinguished. To assess mood change, the moods of all participants were measured both before and after the experimental manipulation. As we saw above, the version of the empathy-specific reward hypothesis that we’re considering predicts that participants in the perform + no prior relief condition should indicate an elevated mood, since they were able to help the peer; it also predicts that participants in all the other conditions should not have an elevated mood, since for one reason or another they were unable to help, and thus were ineligible for the reward. The empathy–altruism hypothesis, by contrast, predicts an elevated mood in all three conditions in which the peer escaped the shocks: perform + no prior relief, perform + prior relief, and not perform + prior relief. The only condition in which empathy–altruism predicts low mood is the one in which the peer gets the shocks: not perform + no prior relief.12

Again, the results confirmed the empathy-altruism hypothesis over the empathy-specific reward hypothesis.



In these and many other experiments, the empathy-altruism hypothesis has been confirmed over a wide variety of naive and sophisticated versions of egoism.

Batson concludes:

In study after study, with no clear exceptions, we find results conforming to the pattern predicted by the empathy–altruism hypothesis, the hypothesis that empathic emotion evokes altruistic motivation. At present, there is no egoistic explanation for the results of these studies... Pending new evidence or a plausible new egoistic explanation for the existing evidence, the empathy–altruism hypothesis... seems to be true.13

Thus, it seems we probably do not act for the sake of selfishness alone.



1 This technique for inducing empathy in subjects had previous been tested by Stotland (1969) and others.

2 This article draws heavily from the more detailed review of the evidence available in Stich et al. (2010). That article also reviews evolutionary hypotheses about altruism, which the authors find (as yet) unpersuasive. Also see Eisenberg & Miller (1987); Dovidio et al. (2006).

3 For a fuller discussion of concepts of desire and human motivation, see Schroeder (2004). For a more recent explanation of how human motivation works, see Glimcher (2010).

4 Image from Stich et al. (2010).

5 By 'empathy', I mean something like Batson's (1991: 86) stipulated definition in terms of "feeling sympathetic, compassionate, warm, softhearted, tender, and the like." By 'distress' I mean something like Batson's (1991: 117) stipulated definition in terms of "self-oriented feelings such as upset, alarm, anxiety, and distress."

6 But, see Batson (2011); Batson et al. (1991, 1998).

7 Stich et al. (2010), pp. 177-179.

8 Batson et al. (1981), experiment 1.

9 Stich et al. (2010), pp. 180-181.

10 Image from Stich et al. (2010), p. 181.

11 Batson et al. (1988), experiment 1.

12 Stich et al. (2010), p. 198.

13 Batson et al. (1991), p. 174.


Batson (2011). Altruism in Humans. Oxford University Press.

Batson, Batson, Slingsby, Harrell, Peekna, & Todd (1991). Empathic joy and the empathy–altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61: 413–426.

Batson (1998). Altruism and prosocial behavior. In Gilbert & Fiske (eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2 (pp. 282-316). McGraw-Hill.

Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, & Birch (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40: 290–302.

Batson, Dyck, Brandt, Batson, Powell, McMaster, & Griffitt (1988). Five studies testing two new egoistic alternatives to the empathy–altrusim hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55: 52–77.

Dovidio, Allen, & Schroeder (1990). The specificity of empathy-induced helping: Evidence for altruistic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59: 249–260.

Dovidio, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner (2006). The Social Psychology of Prosocial Behavior. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Eisenberg & Miller (1987). Empathy and prosocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 101: 91–119.

Glimcher (2010). Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis. Oxford University Press.

Schroeder (2004). Three Faces of Desire. Oxford University Press.

Stich, Doris, & Roedder (2010). Altruism. In Doris (ed.), The Moral Psychology Handbook (pp. 147-205). Oxford University Press.

Stotland (1969). Exploratory studies of empathy. In Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 4 (pp. 271–313). Academic Press.

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