Are empathic people more altruistic?

From our Research Digest.

There’s been surprisingly little research to test whether measuring someone’s empathy levels in a questionnaire actually predicts the likelihood they will show real-life altruism. That’s what Richard Bethlehem and his colleagues have done for a new study in Social Neuroscience, in which they staged a bicycle accident along a university footpath. The results provide some of the first evidence that empathy is correlated with altruism ‘in the wild’.

Like secret agents on a surveillance mission, the researchers placed observers in two discreet positions opposite and after the staged bike accident scene (in which the cyclist was sitting on the ground, wincing and rubbing his ankle). The first observer took notes on all passersby approaching the crash, and signalled to the second observer, positioned in a concealed location after the crash, whether the next person to pass the scene was physically unimpaired and on their own, making them eligible for the study.

The second observer then noted if an eligible passerby helped the cyclist or not (if approached, the cyclist said he was fine and just resting) and, either way, she approached and asked this person to take part in a memory study – this was to conceal the true aims of the research. If they agreed, they became a study participant, and the observer then asked this person questions about memorable features of their journey, and took an email address for sending questionnaires to tap empathy levels and more.

Of the 1067 eligible people, 55 subsequently agreed to talk to the second observer and take part in the study. Of these, 29 per cent had stopped to help the cyclist (compared with just 7 per cent of the entire sample of 1067). Analysis of the participants’ later questionnaire scores showed that empathy scores were correlated with real-life altruism – that is, the good Samaritans scored much higher on empathy than the non-helpers (average score 56/80, versus 20/80).

This study stands out because it was conducted outside of the psych lab. ‘These types of real-life settings have become extremely scarce,’ the researchers said. The findings suggest that most people do not stop to help a stranger, and that among the factors affecting our willingness to help – including the culture we are raised in, and how rushed we feel – our empathy levels remain an important influence.

Christian Jarrett for the Research Digest: see www.bps.org.uk/digest

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