Daniel Batson and the ‟Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis”

By Matthieu Ricard on December 30, 2009

During the recent preparatory meeting for the Mind and Life Institute's conference on ‟Altruism and Compassion in Economics” (to be held in Zurich in April, see, I had the chance to spend time with Daniel Batson, an eminent American psychologist, whom I had wanted to meet for many years.

Daniel Batson can be credited with proving that genuine altruism does indeed exist. This might seem obvious to many of you, but it is certainly not part of mainstream western psychology, in which the dominant view is that of universal egoism. According to the latter view, any seemingly altruistic behavior must have been driven by some kind of selfish motivation: ‟Scratch an altruist, and watch the hypocrite bleed.”
Indeed, some people adopt seemingly altruistic behavior motivated by the desire to get material or social rewards, to avoid material, social, and self-punishments (guilt for instance), to reduce the distress caused by witnessing others' suffering, or simply because it ‟feels good.” However, there is also an alternative view, according to which both the motivation and behavior are genuinely altruistic.

Daniel Batson defines empathic concern as an other-oriented state of mind produced by intrinsically valuing others' welfare and the perception of the other as in need. This kind of empathic concern results in an altruistic motivation, which is ‟a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another's welfare.” This is the ‟empathy-altruism hypothesis” that Professor Bateson proposed.

Daniel Batson and his collaborator have conducted over thirty-five experiments that test the empathy-altruism hypothesis against the various egoistic alternatives mentioned above
The only reasonable conclusion of these experiments seems to be that the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true and that the human motivational repertoire is not limited to egoism (self-interest).