A Third Component of Social Dilemmas:

The most commonly proposed source of altruistic motivation is empathic concern. By empathic concern I mean other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of a person in need. Empathic emotions include feelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like. Empathic concern is other-oriented in that it involves feeling for the other (e.g., feeling distressed or sad for the other—as distinct from feeling personally distressed or sad at witnessing the other’s plight—see Batson, Early, & Salvarani, 1997). Such concern has typically been considered to be a product not only of (1) perceiving the other as in need but also of (2) adopting the perspective of the other, which means imagining how the other is affected by his or her situation (Batson, 1987, 1991; Stotland, 1969). Recently, Batson, Eklund, Chermok, Hoyt, and Ortiz (2007) provided evidence of an additional antecedent of empathic concern. In the normal flow of behavior, (3) intrinsic valuing of the other’s welfare, such as one often experiences for family or friends, seems to precede and produce other-oriented perspective taking.

Empathic concern has been named as a source—if not the source—of altruistic motivation by David Hume, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and William McDougall, and in contemporary psychology by Hoffman (1976), Krebs (1975), and Batson (1987, 1991). There is now evidence from more than thirty-five experiments supporting the empathy-altruism hypothesis, the hypothesis that empathic concern produces altruistic motivation (see Batson, 1991; Batson & Oleson, 1991, for partial reviews; Batson, in press, provides a complete review). This evidence contradicts the value assumption of the theory of rational choice. In so doing, it goes beyond even the modified orthodox answer to the question of why people act for the common good. At times, empathy-induced altruism may lead a person to act for the common good. When should it?

Empathy-Induced Altruism as a Friend of [1] [2]

suggests that attempts to arouse group-level empathic concern should focus on one or a few prototypical group members, allowing feelings of empathy to generalize from these to other individuals in the group because of their similar need (Batson & Ahmad, 2009; Dovidio & Schroeder, 1987). Attempts to arouse empathic concern for a collective as an abstract whole—people with AIDS, the homeless—seem ineffective (Kogut & Ritov, 2005). Apparently, the other-oriented nature of empathic concern requires specific individuals as targets.

The second situation is when the response that most benefits the target of empathy promotes the common good as an unintended consequence. This can occur, for example, in the simplest of all social dilemmas, a one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma. Paradigmatic of a one- trial Prisoner’s Dilemma is the following (adapted from Rapoport & Chammah, 1965): Two people must each choose between two options—cooperate or defect—without knowing the other’s choice. If both choose to cooperate, each receives a payoff of +15; if both defect, each receives a payoff of +5. If one cooperates and the other defects, the former receives nothing and the latter receives a payoff of +25. Given these payoffs, it is always in the material self-interest of each person (P) to defect regardless what the other person (O) does, but if both defect, each is worse off than if both cooperate. Moreover, the common good—that is, the joint payoff—is increased by cooperating regardless what the other person does. To illustrate, imagine that P defects. If O cooperates, P receives +25 rather than +15; if O defects, P receives +5 rather than nothing. But if both P and O defect, they are each individually worse off (+5) than if both cooperate (+15). There is irony—and fascination—in this simple dilemma.

If one faces a Prisoner’s Dilemma repeatedly over a number of trials, it is in one’s interest to cooperate, at least on some trials. Strategies like tit-for-tat, where P cooperates on the first trial and then responds on every subsequent trial as O responded on the previous trial, are likely to produce more overall personal gain than a strategy of relentless defection—although defecting is optimal on each individual trial (Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981; Nowak, May, & Sigmund, 1995). However, in the one-trial situation, the situation in which the Prisoner’s Dilemma was originally conceived, tit-for-tat and other strategies for inducing reciprocity are irrelevant (Dawes, 1991). So why would anyone cooperate in a one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma?

Narrow versions of game theory and of the theory of rational choice both predict no cooperation in a one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma because each theory assumes that there is only one motive in play: material


self-interest. Regardless of what the other person does, material selfinterest is best served by defecting. However, as noted earlier, broader versions of rational choice allow for forms of self-interest that can be served by cooperating, such as feeling good about oneself or avoiding pangs of guilt. These broader versions can account for the finding that as many as one-third to one-half of people placed in a one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma cooperate.

What about empathy-induced altruistic motivation? The empathy- altruism hypothesis predicts that if one person in a Prisoner’s Dilemma is induced to feel empathic concern for the other, this person should be even more likely to cooperate. Regardless of how the other player in a one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma acts, if you want to benefit him or her, you should cooperate, which produces greater common good (i.e., a higher joint payoff) than if you defect. So, if you feel empathic concern for the other player, the resulting altruistic motivation should increase the chances that you will cooperate in order to benefit him or her, which will in turn increase the common good as an unintended consequence. Let me briefly describe two experiments designed to test this reasoning.

  • [1] the Common Good
  • [2] can think of two situations in which empathy-induced altruismshould lead a person to act in a way that promotes the common good.The first is when empathic concern is induced for all or a large percentage of the members of some group—as seems likely when the need forwhich empathy is aroused is shared by many if not all members (e.g.,Batson, Chang, Orr, & Rowland, 2002). The limited available research
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