Altruism is a type of prosocial behaviour. Whereas prosocial behaviour is behaviour that helps others, altruism goes one step further – it is behaviour that helps others with no benefit to ourselves, and often at a cost to ourselves. While some psychologists argue that there is no such thing as truly altruistic behaviour (see Schaller and Cialdini’s Negative State Relief model, for example), others like Batson argue that altruism operates through empathy. Batson’s Empathy-Altruism hypothesis states that empathic concern produces altruism, and he demonstrated this through several studies.
More recently, extra empirical evidence has been put forward supporting Batson’s argument:
Alvarez and van Leeuwen (2015) have explored how if we receive help when we need it, we are more likely to “pay it forward” and help others (not necessarily the same people as helped us. Receiving help makes it easier to give help, and passing help on to others relieves the knock to our self-esteem that can happen when we are the recipients of help. We are more likely to help others after receiving help, because our empathy with others has been activated. We have “been in their shoes”.
Similarly, Jameel et al (2014) show that people with more autistic traits are less altruistic. Autism spectrum disorder is associated with a lack of identification with the feelings of others. In other words, the more autistic traits one has, the less likely one is to feel empathy. And the less likely one is to act altruistically. This again supports the hypothesis that there is an empathy-altruism link.