Friday, November 4, 2011

The Case for Egoism

Because the act of suffering for the benefit of others goes against the evolutionary idea of survival of the fittest, there is much debate over why humans regularly go out of their way and at time jeopardize themselves for others with whom they have no relationship. The main debate is over whether people have the capacity to help others out of sheer altruist empathy or if there is always some kind of ego-driven motivation behind their actions.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini describes three different "vicarious emotional responses" people have when faced with a situation where their help is called for. These emotional responses are reflexive distress, normative distress, and sadness.

According to Cialdini, reflexive distress is characterized by "a kind of self-oriented, highly aversive, arousal-based affective state that results from exposure to cues of pain or suffering from a victim". A person experiencing reflexive distress will seek to relieve this feeling in the quickest and easiest way possible (Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner, Clark 1981) which will usually result in helping the person who is suffering.

Normative distress refers to the discomfort one experiences when violating a social norm. In our society helping the needing is regarded in a positive light while failing to help is seen as negative. (Berkowitz & Daniels 1964; Gouldner 1960) An observer of someone in need would therefore offer aid in order to feel that they are doing what is generally thought to be the right thing.

The last emotional response someone might experience in the presence of the needy is the negative state of sadness. Because helping has proven to have a mood enhancing affect on the average, normally socialized adult, the observer will want to help in order to alleviate their sadness. (Cialdini, Kendrick & Baumann 1982)

Regardless of the scenario, the person giving help benefits by relieving his or her self of the negative emotions brought on by witnessing a person in need.


  1. I think a lot of how a person reacts to a situation has to do with their initial instincts, that idea of fight or flight. I remember one time I was out with a friend, and we went in the Rippley's Believe it or Not entrance to kill some time. And then when we went out a guy fell face flat like a foot away from me. I think he was having some sort of seizure. My immediate reaction (after I processed that it had nothing to do with the show) was to get down and try to help him. I remember that I had no idea what to do, so I just reached for his hat to give it to him, then realized that was like ridiculously unhelpful. He was fine after a few seconds, and I didn't really do anything for him, but looking back at least I tried. And I don't know how it would have been different if he hadn't practically fallen in my lap, but my point is the idea of emotion or self benefit never went through my mind. It was all just trying to deal with the situation at hand.

  2. The "Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis" (Batson, Batson, Slingsby, Harrell, Peekna, & Todd, 1991) is the idea that empathy motivates people to reduce other people’s distress, as by helping or comforting. However, I find myself agreeing with what is written above in the post. The negative state relief hypothesis seems more plausible than altruism itself. However, I feel as though many people would disagree solely based on the fact that if we align ourselves with the belief that altruism does not exist, reality becomes a bit uglier and a bit harsher and by human nature, we want to deny it.

  3. In a study done concerning altruistic versus ego-driven motivation for pro-social behaviors, there is evidence that shows that the choice to help others can be influenced by the type of relationship that the person has with the person they’re helping. If a person has a closer relationship with someone (ex: family, relatives, or close friend/significant other), their actions to help them are more likely to be driven by empathetic concern and a desire to help someone. Meanwhile, on the other hand, when the person that one is helping is a total stranger, the motivation behind helping them may be more ego-driven and self-centered in nature (Maner & Gailliot, 2006). As the original post mentioned, people may be convinced to help others just to reduce their own feelings of sadness or to respond to (and perhaps alleviate) cues of pain or suffering from another. Thus, the act of helping another just to reduce one’s own guilt/sadness/adverse reactions is much more egocentric in nature, rather than altruistic.

    I kind of agree that the motivation in helping others is related to the relationship one has with others. For example, I’d lend two dollars to my cousins or brother to buy lunch, simply because they’re a sibling or relative, who I really do care about (which is perhaps altruistic). When I lend two dollars to a stranger (like a co-worker that I rarely see) to buy lunch, it’s mainly because I don’t want to come off as selfish, greedy, or an asshole to others (hence, egoism).

  4. I thought that it was really interesting that the article says that subconsciously we think of ourselves when helping others, because although we might have good intentions most of the time, it is still mind boggling that our brain is processing something else simultaneously, even in times of fight or flight. A similar study took place in Northern Illinois University called "Vicarious Emotional Responses of Macho College Males," in which subconscious emotional response was observed in macho males, and less macho males. Both groups of subjects were exposed to three different short films involving a crying baby, a quiescent one, and a smiling one. It was observed that the macho males of the group reacted more aggressively towards the crying baby fim, as they found empathy to be associated with femininity, so subconsciously reacted in a more aggressive way in order to retain their masculinity. The opposite was observed with the less macho males. I still think that it's extremely interesting that subconsciously we are still processing other information.

  5. I agree with this article, that humans have a self interest based motivation for helping other. One thing that wasn't mention was helping others to guarantee that they will help you in the future. You help a friend move because it ensures that if you are ever in that situation your friend will return the favor, or your friend will appreciate you more which translates as reward for the individual.

  6. The article makes the assumption that we think of ourselves when we help others, but wouldn't that be the opposite? If a person is helping the needy, they may not be concerned with the rewards that would receive. The article takes a Freudian approach, where the human subconsciously seeks pleasure out of the situation, such as the happiness or good feelings helping other brings, instead of just genuinely wanting to help others.