Altruism or psychological escape: Why does empathy promote prosocial behavior?


  • This manuscript contains parts of the first author's dissertation prepared under the direction of Dan Batson.


Why does empathy promote prosocial behavior? Previous research suggests that empathically aroused individuals help those in need, even when physical escape from the need situation is easy, and this evidence has been used to support the claim that empathy evokes an altruistic motive. However, existing research has not addressed the possibility that empathically aroused participants help because ease of physical escape fails to provide adequate psychological escape from awareness of the victim's suffering and the aversive empathic arousal such awareness produces. The two experiments reported here examined this issue by directly manipulating empathic arousal and the perceived ease of psychological escape among potential helpers. In both experiments, higher rates of helping were observed among empathically aroused participants, even under conditions of easy psychological escape. The findings of both experiments suggest that empathy evokes an altruistic motive to reduce the victim's suffering rather than an egoistic aversive-arousal reduction motive. In addition, the results of Experiment 1 suggest that concern for psychological escape from the suffering of others may constitute an important independent prosocial motive in need of future study. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.