Key Theory & Studies: The empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson et al. 1981 & 1982)
An explanation of prosocial behaviour

Travis DixonKey Studies, Social and Cultural Psychology, Studies and Theories

Why do people help others when it's no benefit to themselves? The empathy-altruism tries to explain this.

Why do people help others? It’s a simple question but it intrigues psychologists because it doesn’t make sense evolutionarily speaking. In this post we look at one simple explanation: empathy. 

If we feel empathy towards someone who needs help, we are more likely to help them. That’s the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

Why do we humans help one another when there’s nothing to be gained for ourselves? This seems to contradict what we know about evolutionary psychology – that we instinctively look out for our own best interests. According to Batson, psychologists have long believed that all deliberate actions, including those actions which helps others (i.e. prosocial behaviour), are done with our own self-interests in mind. This is an egoistic explanation – we help others because it will benefit us. The empathy-altruism hypothesis, challenges the idea that all helping behaviour is egoistic. Batson instead proposes that there should be a pluralistic (more than one) view of prosocial behaviour.

This theory and the related study can be used for the prosocial behaviour topic in Human Relationships in IB Psychology.

The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

Batson (2006) defines altruism as a “motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare.” The empathy-altruism hypothesis explains altruism as a result of empathy. Empathy is understanding someone else’s perspective or situation (sympathy is feeling sorry for, empathy is understanding). So if you see someone struggling with their assignments because they procrastinated, you may not feel sympathy, but you may feel empathy, especially if you’ve been in that position before. The hypotheses is, therefore, that feelings of empathy will lead to altruistic actions.

This theory posits that humans are more likely to act altruistically if they empathize with the person they are intending to help. In order to act altruistically, we must first perceive that a person is in need.

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Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings by considering their perspective.

When we see someone in need we can feel one of two emotions:

  1. We feel personal distress (e.g. anxiety or fear).
  2. We feel empathic concern (e.g. understanding, compassion, tenderness). For instance, if you are traveling in a developing country and you see a young child begging, this may bring about quite a lot of personal distress as you may feel guilty for your own comparatively comfortable life.

If someone acts to reduce their personal distress, this is egoistic as they have their own ends in mind. Upon seeing someone in need, there are two egoistic thought patterns that a person might take:

  1. They believe that they might get a reward for helping.
  2. They realise that if they act and help the person their own feeling of discomfort or distress might go away.

According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, there’s a third, altruistic thought-pattern that might emerge  – the observer feels empathy towards the person in need. The strength of empathic concern is influenced by how emotionally close the person in need is to the observer and how great their need is (Batson and Shaw, 1995). They help because of their empathy. 

Supporting Evidence

Numerous studies have been conducted to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis and Batson claims that they all show evidence that supports it. One common explanation for empathy leading to helping behaviour is that we help to reduce our own feelings of guilt or aversive feelings at seeing someone else in need. Thus, the Escape x Empathy paradigm for experimental design has been used. This is where not only are levels of empathy manipulated in the experimental design, but so is the ease of which the person can escape from the situation (i.e. they could reduce their aversive feelings without having to help). Numerous studies use this design and one example has been described below.

Empirical Study #1: Helping Elaine (Batson et al., 1981)

Methods: 44 female participants from the University of Kansas observed a video of a young woman named Elaine receiving electric shocks. Of course, Elaine wasn’t really receiving electric shocks – she was a confederate who “turned up late” to take part in the experiment. The participant and Elaine draw cards to see who would be the “observer” and who would be the “worker.” Naturally, this was rigged so Elaine was always the worker and the participant the observer. The participants were deceived in believing that the experiment was testing how people worked under unpleasant circumstances. Part way through observing Elaine receive shocks, the participants were given a chance to take her place. To make it seem believable, the experimenter and Elaine discussed how Elaine had been thrown off a horse and onto an electric fence when she was younger and she had suffered some trauma. The experimenter pretends to get an idea to ask if the participant would want to change places for the remainder of the experiment. The researchers measured altruism by seeing how many people would volunteer to take Elaine’s place in the experiment and to be the “worker” receiving the shocks.

But how did they manipulate the emotion of empathy? There’s some evidence to suggest that individuals may feel more empathy for people whom they identify with. Before the experiment began all participants filled out a personality questionnaire. Half of the participants were lead to believe that Elaine was very similar to them (high empathy) while the other half were lead to believe that she was quite different (low empathy).

Remember that altruism means to act with no benefit to yourself. One potential benefit of swapping with Elaine would be that it would reduce feelings of discomfort and guilt that participants might be feeling if they were given the chance to swap or not. To control for this variable, the researchers had an ease-of-escape condition. They manipulated the experiment so some participants were led to believe that if they didn’t take Elaine’s place, they wouldn’t have to watch her get any more shocks. In the difficult-escape condition they were led to believe that if they didn’t swap they would have to watch her get shocked eight more times. To summarise, there are four conditions with the percentages of those people in each condition who agreed to swap with Elaine:

  • High Empathy / Ease of Escape (91% helped)
  • Low Empathy / Ease of Escape (18% helped)
  • High Empathy / Difficult Escape (82% helped)
  • Low Empathy / Difficult Escape (62% helped)

It’s natural to predict that the difficult escape people would swap, because they would want to reduce their own feelings of guilt and unpleasantness at watching Elaine get shocked.

Results: The %s above show how many in each condition helped. If they had an easy escape and they were in the low empathy (dissimilar) condition, only 18% of people agreed to swap with Elaine. This is compared to 91% of participants who also had an easy escape, but were lead to believe that Elaine was similar to them (i.e. high empathy condition).

Even when they had an easy escape, participants who had high empathy (high similarity) with Elaine were the most likely to offer to take her place. These results offer empirical support for the hypotheses that feelings of empathy will increase the chances of acting altruistically.

Empirical Study #1: Helping Carol (Toi and Batson, 1982)


These were very similar to the original experiment. Participants were asked to help a girl named Carol who couldn’t attend lectures. They were told she was in a car accident and that she needed help with lecture notes because she would be missing some classes. Participants listened to an audio recording of an interview with Carol.

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Batson et al.’s experiments show that even when given the chance to walk away from helping someone else, people will help when they feel empathy.

Independent variable A: Empathy level

  • Condition 1: Participants were asked to focus on Carol’s feelings (High empathy condition)
  • Condition 2: Participants were asked to focus on the details of the radio interview they listened to. (Low empathy condition)

Independent variable B: Difficult or Easy Escape conditions

  • Condition 1: Difficult Escape. Carol would be in the same tutorial group and would join the group the following week.
  • Condition 2: Easy Escape. Carol would not be in the class. It would not be as embarrassing to deny her the lecture notes.


  • High empathy group were equally likely to help in either easy or difficult escape condition
  • The low empathy group was only more likely to help Carol in the difficult escape condition

Conclusion: Empathy is a strong influence on altruistic behaviour.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • How could (or has) this hypothesis been applied in the real world?
  • The participants were college-aged females from America. How could one or more of these factors (age, gender, nationality) affect the generalisability of the findings? For instance, can you think of any reasons why we might not expect the same results with men, older people or those from another country?
  • Autistic people often struggle to feel empathy because of their inability to understand other people’s perspectives. If the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true, then autistic people wouldn’t be altruistic. Do some research and see if this is the case. 


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

Toi, M., & Batson, C. D. (1982). More evidence that empathy is a source of altruistic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(2), 281–292. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.43.2.281