Contrast two theories explaining

Contrast two theories explaining altruism in humans

Theory 1: Kin selection theory (an evolutionary theory)

Based on the idea that individuals are more likely to sacrifice themselves for relatives than non-relatives. By sacrificing yourself for relatives (e.g. helping them at the cost of not having babies yourself) you still contribute to the survival of your genes by helping close relatives.

Strengths of kin selection theory

  • The theory is supported by empirical studies, which generally shows preference for helping close blood relatives (e.g. in organ donation).
  • Mathematical computer simulations demonstrate that kin selection is one of the possible selection processes in evolution together with reciprocity.

Limitations of kin selection theory

  • The theory cannot explain why people help individuals who are not relatives (e.g. cooperation among nonrelatives, spontaneous acts of bravery, or the adoption of children who are not relatives.
  • Human kinship patterns are not necessarily based upon blood tie. Shared developmental environment, familiarity, and social bonding also contribute to kinship according to anthropologists.



Study to use: Simmons et al. (1977)

Theory 2: The empathy-altruism theory (Batson 1981)


  • The empathy-altruism theory posits that some helpful actions are truly altruistic because they are motivated by the genuine desire to increase another’s welfare. Batson’s understanding of altruism is that it is the helper’s motives that determine whether a behavior is altruistic or not.
  • According to Batson the perception of a situation and the emotion that follows determines whether an individual will help or not. Altruism can only happen if another person’s perspective is taken.
  • Observing another person’s situation may either produce empathic concern (i.e. positive emotions like sympathy or compassion) or personal distress (i.e. negative emotions). “Empathy” evokes altruistic motivation to reduce another person’s distress whereas personal distress evokes an egoistic motivation to reduce one’s own distress.
  • According to Batson (1991) three factors facilitate perspective taking:

1.    the observer has had similar experiences

2.    the observer is attached to the victim

3.    the person is instructed to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.

  • Perspective taking will produce the altruistic motive to reduce the other person’s distress.

Strengths of empathy-altruism theory:

  • The theory is supported by many experimental studies.
  • The theory can, to some extent, predict conditions under which altruistic behavior will happen (e.g. the more people feel empathy the more likely they are to help other people and people who do not feel empathy will probably not help).

Limitations of empathy-altruism theory

  • It is difficult to generalize findings from experiments such as this one in real life.
  • It is a problem that it is not possible to determine whether altruism is the result of empathic motivation or the motivation to escape one’s own negative emotions.
  • It is clear that empathy does not always precede altruistic behavior. People may help for other reasons.

Study to use: Batson et al. (1981)

Contrasting the two theories

Kin selection theory

Empathy-altruism theory

The focus is on genes that operate at a biological level without human consciousness. The theory is largely based on observation of animals and insects. Humans are much more complex.

The focus is on the human emotion empathy as the primary motivating factor in altruism.

Altruism is seen as a behavior that has a cost to the individual (self-sacrifice).

The theory is based on altruism is seen as a behavior that increases another person’s welfare.

The theory is based on egoism (the genes are selfish and humans tend to favor kin because of genetic similarity).

Altruism (humans can be truly altruistic). The theory does not rule out the possibility of an altruistic personality.

The theory can explain observations of people who behave more altruistically towards kin but it cannot really explain why. It may not be for biological reasons. The theory cannot explain why people behave altruistically towards people who are not relatives.

The theory can explain why people tend to behave altruistically in situations that evoke empathy but there is not a clear linear relationship. People may feel empathy and choose not to help.

It is very difficult to test evolutionary theories as such but there is empirical support for kin altruism (kin selection), e.g. in research that involves organ donation or other situations that involve life or death.

It is relatively easy to test the theory under lab conditions but it is difficult to operationalize concepts like empathy.