Why We Help Others: The Science of Empathy and Altruism (Positive Psychology Series #6)
Dog smiling at owner listening to every word, showing empathyPhoto Credit: tvdflickr

Imagine you’re on your way to work and you see that a local organization is hosting a bake sale fundraiser. Would you help out by stopping to buy something, or instead divert your eyes and rush by? Or imagine a neighbor or coworker is selling raffle tickets for charity—do you enthusiastically purchase a ticket, or politely decline? Why or why not?

We face situations like these often—and most of us can probably think both of times we’ve helped, as well as times when we haven’t. In recent decades, social psychologists have started to conduct research on topics like these—why do we help others, and why are we sometimes unable or unwilling to help? Let’s explore what they’ve found with a review of the latest science on empathy, altruism, and prosocial behavior—including new, inspiring research examining ways that empathy and prosociality can be increased.

A caveat before we begin: this article is not designed to make you feel guilty! As we’ll discuss below, part of self-care means knowing our boundaries and realizing that it’s not possible to be completely empathetic all of the time. Instead, the purpose of this article is to reflect on what empathy is and how to increase it in a way that doesn’t lead to feeling burned out.

What is Empathy?

Although we all have an intuitive idea of what empathy is, researchers have found that defining empathy is actually anything but a simple task. The term empathy is commonly used to refer to feeling what someone else is feeling, but a wide variety of other definitions have been used as well. According to social psychologist Daniel Batson, two key sub-types of empathy are what he terms empathic accuracy and empathic concern. Empathic accuracy refers to understanding what another person is thinking and feeling, while empathic concern refers to caring about another person.

Importantly, the two types of empathy can overlap—but they don’t have to. For example, a company CEO might understand why his employees want higher wages and benefits (high empathic accuracy) but not be motivated to help because doing so would reduce company profits (low empathic concern). On the other hand, one can feel empathic concern without feeling empathic accuracy. For example, if your partner comes home from work in a bad mood, your empathic concern would likely be high (you want to help cheer them up) but your empathic accuracy would be lower (since you don’t yet know what happened at work that upset them).

Several other key terms in the study of empathy are altruism, reciprocal altruism, and prosocial behavior. Altruism generally refers to unselfish behavior done purely because a person wants to do good (and is thought to be motivated by feelings of empathy), while reciprocal altruism refers to behavior done with the expectation that another person will reciprocate in some way (e.g. “I scratch your back and you scratch mine”). Prosocial behavior generally refers to any helping behavior, whether it was done for selfless or self-centered reasons.

Perspectives on Why We Help Others

Psychologists have collected compelling evidence suggesting that prosocial behavior might be an innate part of who we are. For example, psychologist Keith Jensen and his colleagues review evidence that prosocial behavior appears very early in life: in research studies, even children as young as one year old will help out someone else in simple ways, and three-year-old children will share something they have with others. In other words, it seems that, early in life, children are concerned about the well-being of others and want to help others in need.

Helping others versus helping ourselves isn’t actually a zero-sum game. Instead, it seems that doing good things for other people is actually beneficial for us as well.

Another line of research has looked at how prosocial behavior can have benefits for the helper. Studies have suggested that spending money on other people seems to increase our own happiness, and behaving prosocially may even be linked to having a sense of purpose and meaning. In other words, it seems that helping others versus helping ourselves isn’t actually a zero-sum game. Instead, it seems that doing good things for other people is actually beneficial for us as well—perhaps because of the important role that social relationships play in our lives.

When We Don’t Help

Of course, this raises an important question: if helping others seems to be something we’re hardwired to want to do (and from which we benefit), why don’t we help more often? Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to think of times when people should help, but they turn away from the problem instead.

Psychologists have found that often, in cases like these, there can be situational factors that prevent us from helping. In a famous study conducted by John Darley and Daniel Batson, participants arrived for a research study and were told that they would need to go to a room in another building to finish the study. Importantly, some participants were led to believe that they were running late and needed to hurry to get to the other building, while other participants were led to believe that they had more time. When the participants were walking to the next building, the researchers arranged for them to walk past someone who was slumped over, and who coughed and groaned as the participant passed by. Darley and Batson found that participants who were in a hurry were much less likely to stop and help; they only helped 10% of the time, while the participants who were least rushed stopped to help 63% of the time.

While this study was published in the 1970s, its lessons are still relevant to us today. In our busy, stressed-out schedules, it’s often harder than it should be for us to stop and consider others’ feelings. When there are other competing pressures (e.g. racing to a work meeting or running late to meet a friend) these pressures can sometimes overwhelm our desire to do the right thing.

Other barriers to helping occur when we recognize that we should help, but can’t or don’t know how. Sometimes people are in a situation where the help they can provide simply won’t be enough (for example, imagine that an acquaintance received an expensive medical bill–but helping her out would mean being late on your own rent). At other times, we may recognize someone else’s problem but not know how to make an impact. For example, imagine that you see a homeless woman asking for money. It’s hard to know the best way to help in this situation: should you offer her money, buy her a meal, help connect her with a local nonprofit, or donate to an organization that helps address the root causes of homelessness? When faced with this potentially overwhelming array of options, you may not be sure which one is best. In fact, research actually shows that we’re less likely to help in ambiguous situations, which may explain why we’re sometimes reluctant to help when a situation is more complex.

Increasing Empathy

Unfortunately, many stories in the news seem to suggest that there’s a lack of empathy and kindness in today’s society. However, as disheartening as some of today’s current events may be, the good news is that it’s possible for us to become more empathetic. In fact, researchers have started to outline the factors that impact our empathy levels—and have suggested ways that empathy can be increased:

  1. Having the right mindset. Psychologist Karina Schumann and her colleagues suggest that one strategy (when we’re in situations where practicing empathy might be a challenge for us) is to think of empathy as something malleable. Instead of seeing empathy as something we have a fixed amount of, Schumann suggests that it’s possible to have a growth mindset towards empathy. Growth mindsets were traditionally studied in the context of academic achievement: those with a growth mindset believe it’s possible to increase their skills in a particular area and, as a result, they respond to failure in ways that allow them to actually increase their skills over time. It turns out that other things—like empathy—can also be improved by having a growth mindset. In Schumann’s studies, having a growth mindset increased participants’ efforts to be empathetic when they were placed in situations where empathy might be challenging for them. Essentially, if you see empathy as a skill that can be honed with practice, you’re more likely to go the extra mile to be empathetic in contexts where empathy might not be as easy for you.
  2. Taking others’ perspectives. In one study, researchers had participants listen to the story of a college student facing a stressful situation. Some participants were asked to be objective, while other participants were asked to imagine how the student was feeling (or how they would feel if they were in her situation). The researchers found that, compared to the participants who tried to remain objective, those who thought about how the student felt (or put themselves in her shoes) reported greater feelings of empathy. Similarly, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action—a website that provides strategies for utilizing findings from psychology research in daily life—suggests that humanizing abstract issues by learning about a specific individual in need of help can promote altruistic behavior. Essentially, when we think about a specific person in need of help and think about what their situation feels like, we’re more likely to feel empathetic and offer support to that person.
  3. Practicing mindfulness. Of course, sometimes we know that we should try to take the other person’s perspective, but for whatever reason, we aren’t able to put this into practice. How can we overcome this? One way to do so may be through practicing mindfulness. As mindfulness expert Matthew Brensilver writes, mindfulness plays an important role in fostering compassion and empathy for several reasons. First, mindfulness helps us understand ourselves better, which helps us to better understand others as well. Second, he explains that mindfulness helps to lower stress, which essentially frees up mental space for us to think more about the wellbeing of others. (Think back to the study of research participants who were in a hurry: when we’re under stress, we might not have the mental space to stop and help others—but mindfulness can help lower our stress and make compassion and helping more likely. Similarly, psychologist David DeSteno argues that practicing mindfulness can help promote kind and considerate behavior towards others. In one study conducted by DeSteno and his colleagues, participants who had meditated were more likely to offer their chair to someone with a broken foot. DeSteno and his colleagues found that even just using a mindfulness app was able to increase compassionate behavior.

Empathy and Self-Care

However, there’s an important caveat to consider when we’re trying to become more empathetic. Hearing about other people who need our help can be distressing—and can even lead to something known as “compassion fatigue,” which is a type of burnout that results from hearing about others’ negative events. And, of course, when we’re experiencing burnout, we’re not really in the right frame of mind to effectively help others.

While we’re working to become more empathetic towards others, it’s important that we don’t neglect to treat ourselves with kindness as well.

In other words, when trying to cultivate empathy and compassion, it’s important to do so in a way that prevents us from experiencing fatigue and burnout, which is where self-care comes into play. Essentially, self-care means knowing our limits and recognizing that it’s okay (and healthy) to have boundaries. In other words, while we’re working to become more empathetic towards others, it’s important that we don’t neglect to treat ourselves with kindness as well.

Take-Home Message

While many of the events in the news seem to suggest that there’s a lack of empathy in today’s world, psychologists have found that it’s possible to become more empathetic by having a growth mindset towards empathy, taking the perspective of others, and practicing mindfulness.

Sources and Additional Reading

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.  In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.

For more similar content, please visit our Positive Psychology Blog Post Series page.

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