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No Behaviour Is Really Altruistic - Based on Theory and Research in Social Psychology, Critically Discuss This Contention

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No Behaviour Is Really Altruistic - Based on Theory and Research in Social Psychology, Critically Discuss This Contention

Altruism is a subcategory of helping behaviour, and refers to an act that is motivated by the desire to benefit another rather than oneself (Batson & Coke, 1981; Berkowitz, 1970, cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). The main issue with determining whether a helping act is truly altruistic is one of motivation; if we cannot determine whether an act stems from a desire to benefit others or some kind of ulterior motive, altruism is difficult to demonstrate (Rushton & Sorrentino, 1981, cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). This essay will firstly discuss the Empathy-Altruism hypothesis, which rejects the claim that no behaviour is �really’ altruistic and will go on to discuss opposing theories of egoism such as negative state relief, reciprocity and social responsibility, and Piliavin’s bystander-calculus model.

Gaertner and Dovidio (1977, cited in Passer & Smith, 2007) commented that it is likely that empathy motivates us to help others. Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley and Birch (1981) developed this by suggesting that feeling empathy for a person in need is an important motivator of helping and hypothesised that this motivation might be truly altruistic. Batson et al. (1981) experimentally tested this hypothesis by having subjects watch another person receive electric shocks and then giving the subject the chance to help by taking the remaining shocks themselves The experiment concluded that empathic emotion does evoke altruistic motivation to see another's need reduced. This empathy-altruism hypothesis had significant theoretical implications because it contradicted the more widely accepted theories of egoism, which are built on the assumption that everything we do is ultimately directed toward the end-state goal of benefiting ourselves (Batson et al. 1981).

The empathy-altruism hypothesis comments that motivation for helping may be a mixture of altruism and egoism (Batson et al. 1981). Batson, Early and Salvarini, (1997, cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 2005) developed on this idea with their study that showed imagining how another feels produces empathy (leading to altruistic motivation), while actively imagining how you would feel produces both empathy and self-orientated distress (leading to mixture of altruistic and egotistic motivations). For example, if we help a drunk on the street because we understand how they feel, the behaviour is altruistic, but if we also imagine how we might feel, the behaviour is not �really’ altruistic. It therefore depends on the perspective of the person offering help, as to whether or not the behaviour is �really’ altruistic.

The first of the egoistic theories that challenges the altruism notion is Cialdini's negative-state relief model (Cialdini, Baumann, & Kenrick, 1981; Cialdini, Darby, & Vincent, 1973, cited in Batson et al., 1989). It suggests that individuals who experience empathy when witnessing another person's suffering are in a negative affective state (one of temporary sadness or sorrow) and that these individuals help in order to relieve this negative state. Cialdini argued that his experiments in 1987 supported this egoistic (negative-state relief model) interpretation over a selfless (empathy-altruism model) interpretation of helping behaviour (cited in Batson, 1989). As a counter to this, Batson et al. (1981) argue that if personal gain (e.g. feelings of personal satisfaction or relief) is an unintended by-product and not the goal of the behaviour, then the behaviour is �really’ altruistic.

Another egoistic theory is one aspect of the social learning theory; from early childhood we are exposed to helping models and are taught social norms. Two social norms particularly relevant to the motivation of helping behaviours are reciprocity and social responsibility (Berkowitz, 1972; Miller et al., 1990, cited in Passer & Smith 2001). As an example, a helping behaviour may be motivated by a desire for favourable treatment from another in the future (reciprocity), or they may feel a social obligation to help because they have learnt to help others in distress (social responsibility). As with the negative-state relief model, this theory suggests that helping behaviour is not motivated purely by the desire to benefit others, and as such is not �really’ altruistic. Reciprocity as a social norm should not be confused with �reciprocal altruism’ theory, which ultimately involves a reciprocal element even though the initial altruistic act was to one’s expense (Trivers, 1971, cited in Ashton, et al. 1997).

Last of the egoistic theories covered in this essay, is Piliavin’s bystander-calculus model (Piliavin et al. 1981, cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). It suggests that a series of calculations are made prior to any act of helping behaviour by a bystander; culminating in an

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