Digital Altruists: Resolving Key Questions About the Empathy–Altruism Hypothesis in an Internet Sample

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Abstract

Researchers have identified the capacity to take the perspective of others as a precursor to empathy-induced altruistic motivation. Consequently, investigators frequently use so-called perspective-taking instructions to manipulate empathic concern. However, most experiments using perspective-taking instructions have had modest sample sizes, undermining confidence in the replicability of results. In addition, it is unknown whether perspective-taking instructions work because they increase empathic concern or because comparison conditions reduce empathic concern (or both). Finally, some researchers have found that egoistic factors that do not involve empathic concern, including self-oriented emotions and self–other overlap, mediate the relationship between perspective-taking instructions and helping. The present investigation was a high-powered, preregistered effort that addressed methodological shortcomings of previous experiments to clarify how and when perspective-taking manipulations affect emotional arousal and prosocial motivation in a prototypical experimental paradigm administered over the Internet. Perspective-taking instructions did not clearly increase empathic concern; this null finding was not due to ceiling effects. Instructions to remain objective, on the other hand, unequivocally reduced empathic concern relative to a no-instructions control condition. Empathic concern was the most strongly felt emotion in all conditions, suggesting that distressed targets primarily elicit other-oriented concern. Empathic concern uniquely predicted the quality of social support provided to the target, which supports the empathy–altruism hypothesis and contradicts the role of self-oriented emotions and self–other overlap in explaining helping behavior. Empathy-induced altruism may be responsible for many prosocial acts that occur in everyday settings, including the increasing number of prosocial acts that occur online.

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