January 2017 Research Roundup: All About Altruism

Unfortunately, there often seems to be a wide chasm between what happens in the research lab and what happens on the front lines of clinical work. On the one hand, researchers need to listen to clinicians and learn about their direct experiences with clients. On the other hand, clinicians can benefit from hearing about clinically relevant research. We hope these “research roundups” provide useful summaries of recent research that can improve your practice with highly shame prone and self-critical clients. 

Since the holiday season is still likely lingering in our minds, we’d like to ‘present’ to you three research summaries all about altruism and giving. First, we’ll review some key terms in the altruism literature.

Key terms:

  • Prosocial behaviors: behaviors intended to help others
  • Altruism: prosocial behaviors motivated by the goal of increasing another’s welfare. Potential building blocks of altruism may include:
    • Empathic concern: feeling sympathy and concern for others
    • Perspective taking: the tendency to adopt the perspective of others
  • Personal distress: feelings of personal anxiety and unease, particularly when adopting the perspective of others
  • In-group: a social group that an individual views themselves as a member of (e.g. race, gender, religion)
  • Out-group: a social group that an individual does not view themselves as a member of




Trauma and Adversity May Be a Path to Greater Empathy and Altruism

"It's important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages."
~ Michelle Obama

This research explored one potential advantage of facing and overcoming adversity: increased altruism. This paper included two studies.

Study 1: People with past trauma are more likely to volunteer

In this study, researchers found that 63.5% of undergraduates who had experienced a traumatic life reported actively volunteering, whereas 41.9% of undergraduate who had not experienced a traumatic life event reported volunteering. Furthermore, people who had experienced trauma were more likely to volunteer for organizations that involved direct contact with typically disadvantaged people (e.g. homeless people), whereas people who had not experienced trauma were more likely to volunteer for organizations in which direct contact wasn’t involved (e.g. environmental causes).

Study 2: Past trauma is associated with more altruism and empathy

In the second related study, researchers explored how personal experience with traumatic events may be related to how people respond to reading about others’ traumatic experience, in this case, the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004. Undergraduates who had experienced trauma in their own lives responded to the article with more empathic concern, perspective taking and personal distress than those who did not report having a trauma history. Experiencing empathy and perspective taking, in turn, led trauma survivors to demonstrate more altruistic behavior in the form of their willingness to receive emails about tsunami fund-raising events. Effects mainly seemed to be due to trauma survivors who had, themselves, survived a natural disaster. Finally, those who had experienced trauma thought the government should help both in-group members (American tourists affected by the tsunami) and out-group members (Asian citizens affected by the tsunami), whereas those who had never experienced trauma were more likely to think the U.S. government should help in-group members only. Together, results from Study 2 suggest that people who have suffered trauma may be more likely to respond to others’ suffering with empathy and perspective taking. This, in turn, could lead them to act more altruistically towards both in- and out-group members. Trauma survivors may tend to be especially altruistic if they suffered a similar type of trauma event as the victims.

Take-aways: Many trauma survivors may have an increased ability to empathize with and take the perspective of others who are suffering. For people with past trauma, empathizing with others may be more painful for them than for people without trauma, but it may also be an important conduit for personal growth and the development of compassion. You might therefore consider helping clients find ways to use their experiences to contact compassion for others who are suffering and take action to alleviate it. Other research suggests that helping others can even be a useful coping mechanism.

Read more:
Vollhardt, J. R., & Staub, E. (2011). Inclusive altruism born of suffering: The relationship between adversity and prosocial attitudes and behavior toward disadvantaged outgroups. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(3), 307–315.


How Do We Help People Who Are Avoidantly Attached to Be More Prosocial?

Research suggests that people with avoidant attachment styles tend to give less than their securely attached counterparts. The following two studies examined why this might be the case and attempted to attenuate this altruism gap.

Study 1: In this study, 234 participants rated the likelihood that they would donate to various charities, and then completed measures of attachment and empathy. Compared to participants with secure attachment, those with avoidant attachment reported being likely to donate money to human-related charities, yet were equally as likely to donate money to environmentally-related charities. This discrepancy appears to be related to participants’ individual levels of empathy. Namely, securely attached people were more likely to have higher levels of empathic concern than avoidantly attached people. This, in turn, led securely attached people to donate more to human- (but not environmentally-) related charities. The authors suspected that people with avoidant attachment had lower levels of empathy, because empathy involves emotional closeness (which avoidantly attached people often find frightening).

Study 2: Following up on the above findings, in Study 2, the authors manipulated whether or not participants believed that, for the duration of the study, their emotions could change from baseline. Namely participants received a “drug” (actually a placebo) that either “improved memory,” (control condition) or “improved memory” and, as a side effect, “froze [their] emotion in its current state” (mood-freeze condition). Then, participants watched a video of another participant (actually a researcher) completing unpleasant tasks. Afterwards, participants indicated the likelihood that they would take over the tasks (which included holding a tarantula) to help out the other participant. Consistent with prior research, securely attached people were more likely than avoidantly attached people to offer help, but not in the mood-freeze condition. In the mood-freeze condition both securely and avoidantly attached people were equally likely to offer help. Together, these studies suggest that avoidantly attached people are less likely to help other people because helping people involves emotional closeness, which they find threatening. As a defense strategy, avoidantly attached people may try to experience less empathy.

Take-away: This research suggests that helping people who are avoidantly attached develop more acceptance of the anxiety that arises in interpersonal situations may help them to be more prosocial in their actions. This is likely to improve their relationships, as people tend to like and want to get close to others they perceive as prosocial. It may also be the case that helping avoidantly attached individuals activate their social safety system right before a social situation, for example through lovingkindness meditation, may help them behave more prosocially.

Read more:
Richman, S. B., DeWall, C. N., & Wolff, M. N. (2015). Avoiding affection, avoiding altruism: Why is avoidant attachment related to less helping? Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 193–197.


Self-Compassion and Concern for Others Go Hand in Hand

Is self-compassion self-centered? The present study explored the relationship between compassion for the self and concern for others. College students (average age = 21), community adults (average age = 33), and people with an active Buddhist meditation practice (average age = 47) reported their self-compassion levels, and completed measures of concern for others. For all participants, higher levels of self-compassion were positively associated with more concern for others. The strength of the connection between self-compassion and concern for others tended to be strongest amongst meditators. The fact that years of meditation practice positively correlated with self-compassion and concern for others suggests that meditation may foster compassion for both the self and for others.

Take-away: This research suggests that the same pathways that lead to self-compassion may lead to compassion for others. For example, learning to adopt an outside perspective is common to both self-compassion and other compassion (e.g., stepping outside of one’s own experience, and considering the shared human experience). In addition, both self and other compassion involve responding to suffering with a desire to help. Additionally, many people tend to believe that too much self-compassion can lead them to become passive, unmotivated, self-indulgent and lacking in personal responsibility. People may be less likely to practice self-compassion, and reap its benefits for both themselves and others, if they have misconceptions about it. Helping clients understand that self-compassion is neither self-centered nor self-indulgent may lower people's’ resistance towards self-compassion and allow them to reap its benefits.

Read more: Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2013). The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160-176.


Over and out (group). Hope to see you back next month!

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