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Chapter 11: Pro-Social Behavior . Is everyone selfish? Is there such thing as a purely selfless act?. The (apparent) paradox of altruism.

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Altruism presents a problem for psychology. Altruistic behavior may please us as people, but it embarrasses traditional theories of psychology that are founded on the assumption that man is moved only by considerations of reward and punishment.

The hedonistic tone of traditional reinforcement theory is at variance with the simple observed fact that people do help others in circumstances in which there seem to be no gains, and considerable risk, for doing so.

From: The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? (Latane and Darley, 1970)

  • Thorndike’s law of effect
in theory
In theory…
  • From The Descent of Man (Darwin, 1871)
  • “It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or those which were most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater number than the children of selfish and treacherous parents of the same tribe.
  • On the contrary, the bravest, most self-sacrificial men “would, on average, perish in larger number than other men”
how to explain altruism
How to explain altruism?
  • So, psychologists need to explain why and when altruism exists. How?
  • Preferably, the explanation should be…
    • parsimonious
    • generalizable
overview summary

Six theoretical approaches to explaining altruism

  • Altruism = selfishness (Ayn Rand)
  • Socialization
  • Kin selection
  • Reciprocal altruism
  • Social exchange theory
  • Empathy-altruism hypothesis
1 altruism is in fact selfish behavior after all
#1: Altruism is, in fact, selfish behavior after all
  • The “I couldn’t live with myself in the morning” theory”
  • Ayn Rand
  • Gets around the problem by asserting that there really is no such thing as altruism to begin with.
3 the selfish gene view sometimes called kin selection
#3: The selfish gene view(sometimes called “kin selection”)
  • Revision of Darwinian theory
    • Old view: survival of the fittest organism
    • New view survival of the fittest GENE
      • Genes, not organisms, are the unit of analysis
    • Burnstein et al. (1994)
Those genes that are conducive to the survival and reproduction of copies of themselves are the genes that win. They may do this straightforwardly, by prompting their vehicle to survive, beget offspring, and equip the offspring for survival and reproduction. Or they may do this circuitously—by, say, prompting their vehicle to labor tirelessly…and “selflessly” so that a queen ant can have lots of offspring containing them. However the genes get the job done, it is selfish from their point of view, even if it seems altruistic at the level of the organism. (Robert Wright, 1994; p. 162)

Organisms as “gigantic lumbering robots” (Dawkins, 1976; p. 19) under the control of their genes.

more on kin selection
More on kin selection
  • r = degree of genetic relatedness
  • Genes for altruistic behavior will thrive so long as c < b x r, where
    • C = cost to the altruist (in terms of future reproductive success)
    • B = benefit to the recipient (ditto)
    • R = degree of relatedness
some examples
Some examples
  • Cost-benefit ranges from 0-1; 0 = bad; 1 = good.
  • Suppose you have the opportunity to save someone’s life, and that the other person will likely live (benefit = .8) but a slight chance that you would perish in the attempt (.2).
  • If the other person is yourbrother:

Cost for you = .20; benefit for other: .80; r = .5

.20 < .4

  • Uncle

Cost for you = .20; benefit for other: .80; r = .25

.20 = .20

  • Unrelated to you

Cost for you = .20; benefit for other: .80; r = .00

.20 > 0.0

4 reciprocity norm
#4: reciprocity norm
  • Altruism sometimes does occur between unrelated organisms
  • Reciprocity norm
  • Has survival value and hence can become genetically based
5 social exchange theory
#5 Social exchange theory
  • Borrows some elements from evolutionary psychology, but doesn’t assume that desires and motives are genetically based
  • Examples
6 empathy altruism hypothesis batson
#6 Empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson)
  • Degree of initial empathy key
    • If empathy triggered, will help regardless of cost-benefit analysis
    • If empathy NOT triggered, social exchange theory comes into play
    • See figure on p. 363
  • Toi and Batson (1982)
overview summary18

Six theoretical approaches to explaining altruism

  • Altruism = selfishness (Ayn Rand)
  • Socialization
  • Kin selection
  • Reciprocal altruism
  • Social exchange theory
  • Empathy-altruism hypothesis
other factors
Other factors
  • Individual differences?
  • Gender
  • Culture
  • Mood
  • Situational factors
    • Urban vs. rural
    • Latane and Darley’s model
Intuitions (and stereotypes) are correct: altruism more likely in rural areas
    • Replicated in many countries (e.g. Israel, Turkey, the Sudan)
  • Why?
  • Socialization hypothesis, vs….
  • Urban overload hypothesis (Milgram, 1970)
    • Population density matters (Levine et al.. 1994)
media reactions
Media reactions

“non-rational behavior”

“goes to the heart of whether this is a community or a jungle”

“It’s in the air of all New York, the air of injustice…The feeling that you might get hurt if you act and that whatever you do, you will be the one to suffer…”

“We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images (of television) do to the brain…”

“perhaps satisfied the sadistic impulses of those who witnessed it. They were deaf, paralyzed, hypnotized with excitation….”

interesting historical footnote
“The Kew Gardens incident has become the occasion for a general attack on the city. It is portrayed as callous, cruel, indifferent to the needs of the people and wholly inferior to the small town in quality of its personal relationships.” Interesting historical footnote

Stanley Milgram



Population density


Latane and Darley:

Decision-making tree

(e.g. perception of responsibility)

five crucial stages to l d model
Five crucial stages to L&D model:

1. Notice the event?

2. Interpret the event as an emergency?

3. Assume responsibility?

4. Know the appropriate form of assistance?

5. Implement decision to act?

1 does the person notice that something unusual is taking place
#1 Does the person notice that something “unusual” is taking place?
  • The good Samaritan study. (Darley and Batson (1973).
  • Results: % of people in each condition who helped.



On time




2 is the situation interpreted as an emergency helping situation
#2 Is the situation interpreted as an emergency (helping) situation?
  • Pluralistic ignorance
    • Special case of conformity (informational)
  • The smoke-filled-room study (Latane and Darley, 1968).

Group of 3

(subject plus 2 unresponsive confederates)




3 does the person take responsibility
#3 Does the person take responsibility?

Diffusion of responsibility

the seizure study latane darley 1970
The "seizure study" (Latane & Darley, 1970)


% Helping 85% 62% 31%

(within 60 seconds)

Average delay 52 93 166

in seconds, among people

who eventually did help

five crucial stages to their model
Five crucial stages to their model:

1. Notice the event?

2. Interpret the event as an emergency?

3. Assume responsibility?

4. Know the appropriate form of assistance?

5. Implement decision to act?