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Altruism can be actively cultivated

18 March 2008
Book cover
Book cover

Empathy is an emotional reaction to the suffering of others. Empathy can lead to altruistic behaviour, i.e. helping someone with the sole intention of enhancing that person’s wellbeing. If we see people in difficulty, for example, we feel the same emotions, and this may prompt us to help them. Yet the relationship between empathy and altruism is still far from clear. Psychologist Lidewij Niezink has researched this subject. She concluded that when we help friends in need, we are prompted by feelings of empathy, and that when we help relatives we do so because we have expectations of reciprocity. Niezink will receive her PhD on 27 March 2008 at the University of Groningen.

She measured the empathic responses by telling the participants in the study about a young woman who is in a wheelchair following a serious accident. The participants then had to answer a series of questions designed to show how much they sympathise and identify with the woman.

Social comparison

Among other things, Niezink studied the empathetic reactions of people who often compare themselves with others. ‘We all compare ourselves with the people around us, but some people do this more than others. When the people in this group compare themselves with someone in a worse position, they often experience negative emotions such as tension, agitation, anxiety and irritation.’ Niezink discovered that these negative emotions are actually an expression of empathy. These people feel involved with the person in need, and identify with him/her. The negative emotions are a way of expressing this.

Family and friends

Niezink also studied the role of empathetic feelings in relationships with friends and family members. She discovered that we help friends for different reasons than family members. ‘People help friends out of feelings of empathy, but they help family members because they have expectations about reciprocation.’ This result is surprising, because it was always assumed that empathy was primarily a characteristic of family relationships. ‘But it is logical when you think about it. When you move house, it’s always your brother who comes to help. You can usually rely on family. We do not choose our families, but we do choose our friends. We feel a greater sense of connection with friends, so feelings of empathy are more important.

Altruistic options model

Niezink also compared various studies of empathy, and concludes that the methods varied quite considerably. ‘They are not talking about the same concept. That makes it more difficult to study altruism.’ Niezink then developed the ‘altruistic choice model’. The model works as follows. You see the suffering of others and this leads to a feeling of empathy, over which you have no control. This can be followed by various emotional responses: sympathizing/identifying with the person in question, concern or ‘softheartedness’ (tender feelings). These are responses that we can influence. These responses, in turn, can lead to compassion and altruism, i.e. understanding the other person’s suffering and the willingness to alleviate it. According to Niezink: ‘Altruism is a choice and something that we can actively cultivate when we observe others in need.’

Negative perception unjustified

Niezink is surprised about the fact that altruism is undervalued in our society. ‘We are pack animals. We cannot exist in isolation, so it is no scandal if we are willing to help each other. I’m not saying we must, but we can. Altruism makes the world a more pleasant place.’ It is rewarding to help someone. ‘Some people say, therefore, that helping others is based on selfish motives. If you help someone and it has positive consequences for you, that does not mean to say that your underlying motives are not altruistic.'

Curriculum Vitae

Lidewij Niezink (1979) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen. In 2003 she began her PhD research at the Social Psychology department of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. Her supervisor is Prof. A.P. Buunk and her co-supervisor is Dr F.W. Siero. The title of her thesis is: Considering Others in Need: On Altruism, Empathy and Perspective Taking. /EvL

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.26 p.m.
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