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Firstly altruism is a form of pro social behaviour in which a person will voluntarily help another at some cost to himself or herself. The primary motivation for altruistic behaviour is seen as a desire to improve the welfare of another person rather than the anticipation of some reward or for any other reason that might indicate self interest (Cardwell 1996). There has been a debate between psychologists about what is truly altruistic and what might better be explained in terms of egoism.

There was a hypothesis made a psychologist called Batson (1991). It was called Batsons empathy – altruistic hypothesis. This hypothesis explains altruistic behaviour as a consequence of empathy. Empathy involves feeling an emotional response that is consistent with another’s emotional state or condition. Batson also added to this hypothesis that this empathy will also result in feelings of sorrow, concern or compassion for the other person. Witnessing another person in distress therefore creates empathic concern (e.g. sympathy) and helpers would then be motivated to help alleviate the other person’s distress. Empathy consists of a number of different components including prospective talking, personal distress and empathic concern. It is perspective talking, that leads to empathic concern.

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This view of altruistic behaviour is particularly important because ‘Not only does it contradict the common assumption is psychology that all motivation is ultimately directed toward the egoistic goal of increasing our own welfare, it also contradicts the underlying assumption that human nature is fundamentally self serving’. (Batson and Oleson 1991). In some studies, Batson and his colleagues showed that people help for reasons other than the reduction of their own personal distress.

It is possible that people help simply to avoid feeling bad about themselves. In a study to test for this personality, Batson et al (1998) contrived another situation where a participant (a confederate of the experimenter)/ appeared unable to continue taking electric shocks as part of the study. The observers were told they could help the confederate by taking the remainder of shocks only if they performed well on a numerical test. Half of the observers were told that the test was easy and most people passed it where as the other half were told the test was difficult and few people passed it.

The researchers concluded that those participants who were high in empathy would take the test and try as hard as they could to do well in order to help the suffering confederate. Those who were high in personal distress might have used the alleged difficulty of the test as a reason to decline even attempting it or to even take itBatson discovered that the scores of the test showed that under the ‘difficult’ test conditions high empathy participants tried much harder to win the right to take the shocks.

Studies such as this cast doubt on the claim that people who show empathic concern help others to escape social or self-disapproval. The second theory is the negative state relief model (Cialdini et al 1987). This model suggests that when we are experiencing negative states (guilt, sadness), we are motivated to alleviate this condition by helping others. People learn during childhood that helping others in need is a positive behaviour that will make them feels good about themselves.

The negative state relief model supports the fact that the primary objective in any behaviour that appears altruistic is actually the enhancement of our own mood. For example if we are feeling negative emotions, we may be motivated to help others as our way of relieving these emotions. Helping someone in need offers a powerful antidote to whatever negative feelings we may be experiencing.

Cialdini et al (1987) carried out a study where participants were again given instructions designed to create high or low empathy conditions and then put into a situation where they might help another person who was receiving electric shocks. This time however just before the request for help was made, the researcher either offered a surprise monetary ‘bonus’, or reaped lavish praise on the participants. Cialdini and colleagues found thagt when participants were given the surprise ‘bonus’, there was no difference between the likelihood of high empathy and low empathy participants helping

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