Altruism, Emotion, and Morals: Can They Coexist?

by Oscar Anderson, Kenyon ’16

Can altruism, emotion-driven selfishness, and high morality all coexist within the same person? Barasch, Levine, Berman, & Small (2014) believe that they can based off a series of tests they conducted. However, altruism and high morality should not be able to exist with emotion-driven, selfish behaviour according to the provided definition of altruism: “Altruism is characterized by a motivation to increase another person’s welfare and is presumed to be driven by a selfless concern for others,” (Barasch et al., 2014). In order to test this definition, the researchers looked to emotion-driven prosocial behaviour, or anonymously aiding others based off the feelings of intrapsychic rewards. These intrapsychic awards can range from feeling good about having done a good deed to relieving distress caused by witnessing the suffering of others (Barasch et al., 2014).

In order to test their theories, Barasch and her colleagues began with literature review of the lay theories of moral judgement and altruistic behaviour. The lay theories of altruistic behaviour are based off the lay theories of moral judgement, which drive moral reasoning and perhaps behaviour (Barasch et al., 2014). Leading from here, the lay theories of altruistic behaviour are “… important for understanding how individuals ascribe moral character to others.”

Leading from here, the researchers examine naïve theories of altruism and perceptions of emotion. The naïve theories of altruism find that most people are skeptical of prosocial actors, who are the people who participate in prosocial altruism, because the general public assumes that there are personal investments in what the choose to support (Barasch et al., 2014). Additionally, the naïve theories of altruism leads to say that people convince themselves that they are truly generous, and they will convince themselves so by increasing personal suffering to prove a lack of benefit; this signals to the public that the prosocial actor is trying to convince the public that there is no benefits when there really are. The culminates into people generally believing that “… altruism is inconsistent with benefits to the self,” (Barasch et al., 2014).

While the naïve theories of altruism state that people are skeptical of prosocial altruism, the same skepticism may not apply to emotional benefits instead of material or social benefits. People use emotional display, when and where emotion is used, to make direct inferences about the personality of a person (Barasch et al., 2014). They may use emotion to deduce motivations and character of a person. Even more, the lack of emotion in a time where a culture expects there to be emotion, such as with prosocial behaviour, may arouse suspicion and question an individual’s moral standing. From here, Barasch et al. (2014) theorize that “… emotion that motivates prosocial behavior and emotional benefits that result from prosocial behavior each serve as positive signals of moral character.”

The researchers take these two main theories, naïve theories of altruism and emotion perception, to form a meta-theory that they test. This meta-theory involves three main predictions. First, when a donor’s emotion towards a cause motivates his prosocial action, most people will conclude that he genuinely cares about the cause. Second, individuals will expect that those who feel emotional toward a cause will receive emotional benefits as a result of performing a good deed. Finally, they predict that when the level of emotional benefits is specified, rather than the overall level of emotion towards a cause, emotion will have a similar positive effect on judgements of authentic prosocial motivation and moral character. (Barasch et al., 2014)

In order to test this meta-theory, Barasch and her colleagues conducted a series of six tests. The first three of these tests examined the emotional perceptions that motivate prosocial behaviour. Study 1 investigated a wide range of two primary emotions, distress and empathy, in order to test the causal relationships between emotion-driven social behaviour and judgements of moral character, altruistic motivation, and emotional benefits. It was found that greater emotion, be it selfish or selfless, would result in a higher moral rating. Study 2 investigated which emotion, distress (selfish emotion) or empathy (altruistic, selfless emotion) would result in a high moral character. Surprisingly, the high distress people were perceived as having a higher moral character than any other condition; this may be because they also experience high empathy, but they have the need to relieve their personal feelings more quickly than others. Study 3 contrasted moral inferences of non-emotion-driven prosocial behaviour, which was expressed by getting a material reward, with emotion-driven prosocial behaviour. This study found that donors who were emotionally driven by distress were perceived as the most moral, whereas donors driven by material rewards were the least moral (Barasch et al., 2014).

The last three studies took the effects of Studies 1-3 and added emotional benefits to each; these studies examine perceptions of prosocial actors who feel positive emotion in response to doing a good deed. Study 4 conceptually replicated Study 1, but the participants learned of the extent to which donors experienced emotional benefits. This study found that the experience of emotional benefits signals a higher moral character. Study 5 investigated if high distress would still be more moral than high empathy when donors experienced emotional benefits; this finding was upheld, and that people who felt happy after donating were perceived as moral, and those who did not were perceived as immoral. Study 6 looked into whether expecting emotional benefits had a negative impact on perceived moral character. This result was mixed. If the donor expected a material or social reward, then they were perceived as less moral; if the donor expected an emotional reward, then they were perceived as more moral. (Barasch et al., 2014)

As tested by Barasch et al. (2014), altruism and high morality can exist with emotion-driven behaviour. Personality-wise, a person with relatively stable emotions, or low in neuroticism, should be perceived as more moral and more altruistic than someone who is high in neuroticism. “Emotion signals moral character,” (Barasch et al., 2014).


Barasch, A., Levine, E. E., Berman, J. Z., & Small, D. A. (2014). Selfish or selfless? On the signal value of emotion in altruistic behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(3), 393-413.

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