Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Empathy Makes You More Helpful

Empathy affects your motivation to be helpful.

Charities often tug at your heartstrings when looking for donations.  Each year at the Austin City Limits music festival, for example, a local no-kill dog shelter sets up on the path that people walk toward the entrance to Zilker Park.  They bring several cute dogs and encourage people to come and pet the dogs.  They also ask for donations to help support the shelter’s activities.  After playing for a minute with these cute and loving creatures, it is almost impossible to keep yourself from reaching into your wallet to support the group.

 What is going on here?

 There is a lot of research suggesting that empathy increases people’s desire to help others.  Empathy is the ability to share other people’s emotion. The better able you are to feel what someone else is feeling, the more likely you are to want to help them when they are in a difficult situation.  This ability also extends to animals.  We are able to project feelings onto animals like dogs, and that increases our need to help them.

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 But, what is it about empathy that promotes the need to help?

 An interesting paper by Louisa Pavey, Tobias Greitemeyer, and Paul Sparks in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored this question.  They suggest that empathy increases people’s intrinsic motivation to be helpful.

 A theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci suggests that people engage in behaviors for one of two broad reasons.  Sometimes, people have internal or intrinsic motivation.  They simply find these behaviors desirable.  Sometimes people engage in a behavior because it is expected of them or they will be punished if they do not perform the behavior.  In this case, they are externally or extrinsically motivated.

 Pavey, Greitemeyer, and Sparks suggest that empathy increases people’s intrinsic motivation to want to help, and that pushes them to act.  They tested this proposal in two ways.

 In one study, they measured people’s general level of empathy using a questionnaire.  They also asked a series of questions about why they might help other people.  Some of these questions focused on intrinsic motivations (I help people because I want to).  Other questions focused on extrinsic motivations (I help people because it is expected of me).  They asked people how likely they were to engage in a series of helping behaviors like donating money to charity and giving time to the community in the next two weeks.  After two weeks, they asked how much people actually engaged in these behaviors.

 As you might expect, people who had high scores on the empathy scale were more likely to say they would help others and to actually help others than people low on the empathy scale.  Other statistical analyses found that this difference was best explained because people who scored high on the empathy scale had a higher level of intrinsic motivation to help others than those who scored low on the empathy scale.  Empathy was not highly related to extrinsic motivation to be helpful.

 Of interest, though, the researchers also found that it is possible to increase people’s level of empathy.  To do this, they had people read a story about a woman suffering from depression.  Some people were asked to focus on how that woman must be feeling.  Others were asked to focus on the facts and details of her life.  The people who focused on her feelings felt more empathy than those who focused on the facts.  Those with higher empathy also expressed more intrinsic motivation to be helpful and rated themselves as more likely to provide help to this woman. 

 There are two interesting aspects of this research.  First, empathy seems to influence behavior by increasing people’s desire to be helpful.  Second, even people who are not generally high in empathy can be put in situations that make them more sensitive to other people’s feelings. That is why the animal shelter was successful.  They helped people to feel empathy for the animals in their care, and that led to a desire to be helpful.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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