In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Empathy and Altruism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • General Overview of Empathy
  • When Do People Feel Empathy
  • General Overview of Altruism
  • If Altruism Exists, Is It a Good Thing?
  • Non-Altruistic Explanations for Prosocial Behavior
  • Other Factors That Affect Prosocial Behavior

Psychology Empathy and Altruism
Eric L. Stocks, Taylor Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0260


The word empathy has been used as a label for many different phenomena, including feeling what another person is feeling, understanding another person’s point of view, and imagining oneself in another person’s situation. Perhaps the most widely researched phenomenon called “empathy” involves an other-oriented emotional state that is congruent with the perceived welfare of another person. Feelings associated with empathy include sympathy, tenderness, and warmth toward the other person. Other manifestations of empathic emotions have been investigated, too, including empathic joy, empathic embarrassment, and empathic anger. As was the case with empathy, the term altruism has also been used as a label for a broad range of phenomena, including any type of prosocial behavior, as a collection of personality traits associated with helpful persons, and biological influences that evoke protective behaviors toward genetically related others. A particularly fruitful research tradition has focused on altruism as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of protecting or promoting the welfare of a valued other. For example, the empathy–altruism hypothesis claims that empathy (viewed here as an other-oriented emotional state) evokes an altruistic motivational state. Empathy and altruism, regardless of how they are construed, have important consequences for understanding human behavior and social relationships.

General Overviews

Batson 2011 provides a thorough overview of research on empathy and altruism, particularly with regard to the empathy–altruism hypothesis, and the author’s newer book Batson 2018 is the most recent review of the empathy–altruism literature. Hoffman 2000 discusses empathy as well, but with a focus on the development of empathy throughout the lifespan and how it relates to prosocial behavior. Also, the development of morality is discussed in this book. Stotland 1969 is a classic work on the topic of empathy. Stotland conducted the first empirical studies of empathy, and this research is discussed in his 1969 work. Piliavin, et al. 1981 provides a detailed examination of empathic arousal and the process of evaluating costs and rewards in the context of emergency intervention.

  • Batson, C. D. 2011. Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Why do humans risk losing their lives in order to help others? And what motivates such altruistic behaviors? Research suggests the possibility that human beings have the ability to care for other people for their sakes rather than simply for reasons of self-interest.

  • Batson, C. D. 2018. A scientific search for altruism: Do we only care about ourselves? New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190651374.001.0001

    This book updates Batson 2011 with more recent research. It addresses the main question in helping behavior research: do we only care about ourselves?

  • Hoffman, M. L. 2000. Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511805851

    This volume provides an early comprehensive account of children’s prosocial moral development and the role of empathy in moral situations.

  • Piliavin, J. A., J. F. Dovidio, S. L. Gaertner, and R. D. Clark, III. 1981. Emergency intervention. New York: Academic Press.

    Discusses psychological processes involved in emergency intervention. The primary mechanism discussed by Piliavin and colleagues is the Arousal: Cost-Reward Model.

  • Stotland, E. 1969. Exploratory investigations of empathy. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 4. Edited by L. Berkowitz, 271–313. New York: Academic Press.

    Stotland published the first empirical investigations of empathy, and this paper summarizes the findings from these early studies.

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