Daniel Batson and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

As a rule, those who experience an empathetic and authentic concern for others are capable of initiating altruistic behaviors. This is the kind of relationship that's extremely valuable when it comes to proposing social intervention measures.
Daniel Batson and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Daniel Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis claims that empathy favors so-called prosocial behaviors. It’s a feeling of great value that promotes the best of the human being. It involves spontaneous and genuine acts for which the provider doesn’t expect either gain or reward beyond that of seeing how the world around them improves.

In times of fear and uncertainty, this type of behavior becomes more necessary than ever. However, at these moments both kind and ruthless acts tend to appear.

Selfishness and altruism are manifestations that define the human being equally. In uncertain times, altruism is the highest moral value and the one that we should all apply. Nevertheless, it only usually happens when we’re able to immerse ourselves in other people’s realities. In other words, the ability to look at others from our hearts instead of being suspicious shapes a more cohesive, respectful, and friendly society.

“To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another.”

-Alfred Adler-

Mother and daughter to represent the empathy-altruism hypothesis

The empathy-altruism hypothesis

Most of us have an inclination that motivates us to take care of the well-being of our own. Indeed, we care and make notable efforts in order to improve their situation. However, we don’t always feel that need.

In fact, we don’t always experience the spontaneous desire to know if a colleague is okay or to do something nice for a stranger. Furthermore, when there’s no empathy, neither generous nor cooperative behavior emerges.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that when we connect with the emotional reality of the other, feelings of compassion, sympathy, and tenderness arise. Thanks to this, we activate altruistic behaviors aimed at promoting the well-being of others. According to Daniel Batson, this would explain why some people are unable to help those in need.

Only when we identify with a person and experience empathy do we feel the spontaneous need to activate altruistic behavior. Psychopathic personalities rarely experience this feeling.

Are we helping out of an act of genuine generosity or out of sheer selfishness?

The opposite of the empathy-altruism hypothesis is the theory of social exchange. This approach demonstrates a view that’s often defended. It claims that altruism only appears when the benefits outweigh the costs. In other words, for many, altruism doesn’t exist because, deep down, they always expect to receive something in return. Hence, there’s a selfish component.

However, social psychologist Daniel Batson disagreed with this belief. In fact, in 1988 he conducted research in which he analyzed five studies on altruism. In all of them, his hypothesis of empathy-altruism was validated and the empathic emotion evoked an altruistic motivation. This suggested that humans don’t always expect a reward when they show generosity.

Batson’s conclusion actually matches those of other famous figures of the past. For example, for Charles Darwin and the philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, empathy was the basis of altruistic behavior.

We often help others because their suffering, anguish, or emotional pain is reflected within us. Indeed, we recognize at an emotional level, and not just cognitively, that the other feels bad. Thus, empathy leaves the substrate of discomfort in us when we experience the needs and sufferings of others as our own.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis also assumes this complex emotional reality. Indeed, although it’s true that we almost always act spontaneously when seeking the well-being of the other, we also do it to alleviate the discomfort of others and our own.

Likewise, when we verify that that person feels better with our help, we also empathize with their well-being. Therefore, extremely intense emotional feedback occurs.

“The childhood of the human race is far from over. We have a long way to go before most people will understand that what they do for others is just as important to their well-being as what they do for themselves. “

-William T. Powers-

Friends talking about the empathy-altruism hypothesis

Altruism benefits us all, selfishness isolates us

Good deeds don’t just help others and create kinder social settings. We all win with altruistic behaviors: they improve our self-concept and clarify the hierarchy of our scale of values. In this context, it’s easier for the genuine to prevail over the superficial, and for us to be able to shape more meaningful links.

In contrast, individualistic, selfish, and narcissistic attitudes generate hostility and suspicion. These kinds of people don’t empathize with the needs of others. In fact, they act against the very essence of who we are: social creatures oriented to connection.

We’ve survived as a species because of altruistic acts, because of that emotional glue that orchestrates reciprocity and kind actions with which to favor the well-being and survival of the group. Therefore, we should ensure we continue to favor this kind of behavior.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Batson, C.D. & Lishner, David & Stocks, Eric. (2015). The empathy-altruism hypothesis. The Oxford handbook of prosocial behavior. 259-281.
  • Batson, C. D., Batson, J. G., Slingsby, J. K., Harrell, K. L., Peekna, H. M., & Todd, R. M. (1991). Empathic joy and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(3), 413–426. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.61.3.413
  • Batson, C. D., & Leonard, B. (1987). Prosocial Motivation: Is it ever Truly Altruistic? In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. Volume 20, pp. 65-122): Academic Press.
  • Decety, J. & Batson, C.D. (2007). Social neuroscience approaches to interpersonal sensitivity. Social Neuroscience, 2(3-4), 151-157.
  • Decety, J. & Ickes, W. (Eds.). (2009). The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.

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