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Creating an experiment to prove or disprove the existence of true altruism

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Martina Pesce
Martina Pesce Mar 30, 2021
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Defining true altruism as a "motivational state with the ultimate goal being the increase of another’s welfare" can we come up with an experiment to prove its existence/inexistence?

Attempts to prove its inexistence, following the egoistic hedonistic view of the world, sustains that prosocial behavior uniquely comes from selfish aims. The efforts to sustain that true altruism exists, instead, claim that the selfish-looking advantages which come out of the prosocial behavior are just collateral and independent from the ultimate altruistic goal.
There is tons of research supporting both the selfish-altruism point of view and the so-called empathy-altruism one .
Batson published some nice results in 2010 claiming they finally figured it out and that true altruism does exist, but in 2014 there was a nice review which again spread doubts on the apparently never-ending query.

If the empathy-altruism would be an actual thing, this would radically change the view of psychology on humans motivations. It may give very interesting basis to at least try to build a more caring society.

So, can you come up with a definitive experimental design to prove true altruism existence/inexistence ?

[1][1] C. D. Batson, “Empathy-induced altruistic motivation.,” in Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature., 2010.

[2]Neuberg, S. L., Cialdini, R. B., Brown, S. L., Luce, C., & Sagarin, B. J. (1997). Does empathy lead to anything more than superficial helping? Comment on Batson et al. (1997). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 510 –516

[3][1] J. K. Maner, C. L. Luce, S. L. Neuberg, R. B. Cialdini, S. Brown, and B. J. Sagarin, “The effects of perspective taking on motivations for helping: Still no evidence for altruism,” Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull., 2002.

[4][1] R. B. Cialdini and D. T. Kenrick, “Altruism as hedonism: A social development perspective on the relationship of negative mood state and helping,” J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 1976.

[5]Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a socialpsychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, In

[6]Batson, C. D. (1998). Altruism and prosocial behavior. In Gilbert, D. T., Fiske, S. T., & Lindzey, G. (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 282–316). New York: McGraw-Hill

[7][1] S. Feigin, G. Owens, and F. Goodyear-Smith, “Theories of human altruism: a systematic review,” J. Psychiatry Brain Funct., 2014.

Creative contributions

Big-brother style TV show where serving as an experiment

Darko Savic
Darko Savic Apr 19, 2021
I haven't thought this through yet. It's an impulsive idea. I'm putting it down here as a placeholder (to be refined after more thought has been put into it). Here goes:

What if two groups of 10 people EACH went into a different 3-month long big brother type of tv show that is streamed live 24/hours per day. They wouldn't be told what the experiment is testing. They would be told some story/objective that is useful for the experiment.

  • During the first month, everyone is just themselves (baseline).
  • During the 2nd month, group A would be told that the person who acts the most selfishly for a month, wins the show.
  • During the 3rd month, group A would be told that the person who acts the most selflessly for the next 30 days, wins.
  • Group B does the selfless month first and selfish month last.
There could be grups C and D where only half of the people are told to act selfish/selfless.

What could we learn from this? At the very least, could this experiment hint at what we should do better for the next iteration of it?
Please leave the feedback on this idea
Martina Pesce
Martina Pesce3 years ago
It would surely be a useful, interesting, and knowledgeable experiment.

It would surely teach us:
-what people believe to be selfish acts
-what people believe to be altruistic acts
-to help classify altruistic and selfish behavior pattern (being aware of all the limitation of the assumption we can make out of it considering that 20 people in a house is different from living in the real world)
-to inspire us on which experiment to set up to actually answer the specific question of this section: we may spend years thinking what is the best experiment to do, but sometimes just observing may give us the visual inspiration on something we could not imagine or think of
-if we ask at the end of the experiment if they believe the way they acted was altruistic for the context they were in, or in general, we could also gain information on how altruism is perceived towards the whole society and toward a small group
Another nice addition to the experimental design could be to duplicate the experiment with a group that has followed a compassionate meditation course, that is supposed to increase one ability to experience empathy. It would increase altruism in general and also true altruism if the empathy-altruism hypothesis is actually true. This would allow us to have more occasion to zoom in on that particular behavior case.

My only doubt is about the cost of such an experiment considering the extremely abstract information it could provide. It would be very hard to find foundings.
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