A More Stringent Test

In a subsequent experiment, Batson and Ahmad (2001) used a similar procedure to conduct an even more stringent test of the ability of empathic concern to increase the common good. Rather than the standard one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which participants make their decisions simultaneously without knowing what the other has done, Batson and Ahmad altered the procedure so that decisions were made sequentially. Ostensibly by chance, the other woman always went first—and defected. Thus, when each of the undergraduate women in this experiment made her decision, she knew that the other woman (again, actually fictitious) had already defected. This meant that possible payoffs for the participant were either to receive five tickets if she also defected (in which case, the other woman would receive five tickets as well) or to receive zero tickets if she cooperated (in which case, the other woman would receive twenty-five tickets).

Predictions from game theory, from the theory of rational choice, and even from theories of justice and social norms are clear. In this sequential situation, there is no longer a dilemma at all; the only rational thing to do is to defect. Defecting will not only maximize your own outcome but will also satisfy the norms of fairness and distributive justice. Moreover, there is no need to worry about feeling guilty should you defect and the other person cooperate, as can happen in a simultaneous-decision dilemma, because the other woman has already defected. Not surprisingly, in the very few previous studies that bothered to look at such a situation, the rate of cooperation has been extremely low (around 5 percent—see Shafir & Tversky, 1992; van Lange, 1999).

The empathy-altruism hypothesis predicts that even in this sequential situation a dilemma remains for participants led to feel empathic concern for the defecting woman. For them, self-interest and fairness counsel defection, but empathy-induced altruism counsels cooperation. Results again patterned as predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis. In the absence of empathy—that is, in the no-communication condition and the low-empathy condition—cooperation was extremely low (0 percent and 10 percent, respectively). When empathy was induced, cooperation rose to 45 percent. Empathy-induced altruism was not strong enough to override other motives (self-interest, retribution, justice) for all participants led to feel empathic concern, but it was strong enough to do so for almost half. As an unintended consequence, it increased the common good—that is, it led to a higher joint payoff. (Once again, assessment of feelings toward the Sender indicated that participants in the high-empathy condition felt significantly more empathic concern than those in the low-empathy condition, and the difference in cooperation between the two conditions was mediated by this self-reported empathic concern.)

Results of these experiments suggest that when one feels empathic concern for the other, one’s interest lies not only in maximizing one’s own gains but also in maximizing the other’s gains, which as an unintended consequence increases joint gains. Insofar as I know, the idea of using empathy to increase cooperation in a one-trial Prisoner’s Dilemma had not even been considered in any of the more than 2,000

Prisoner’s Dilemma studies previously conducted. I suspect this was because no one thought empathy-induced altruistic motivation could increase cooperation. Yet clearly it can. Indeed, inducing empathic concern seems far more effective than most other techniques that have been proposed to increase cooperation in one-trial dilemmas.

Empathy-induced altruism is not always a friend of the common good. I would suggest that, at times, it may even pose a more serious threat to the greater good than does self-interested egoism. Let me turn now to the line of thought that leads me to this somewhat surprising suggestion.

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