Psychology of Social Connection

Altruism that Matters

October 3rd, 2020 · 8 Comments

How can a person form meaningful relationships without empathy? In the lecturette, we learn that empathy causes prosocial behaviors such as compassion, cooperation, trust, support, and altruism due to its underlying mechanism of affiliating with others (Batson, 1991; de Waal, 2008). Empathy inspires so many behaviors critical to meaningful relationships. Humans thrive off of forming and maintaining relationships, and empathy plays a huge role in facilitating these processes (Pickett et al., 2004). Without empathy, the world would be a much colder place. How empathy intertwines with altruism, particularly sparks my interest.

Altruism is such a tricky subject. A lot of people think that they are being altruistic when they make a “selfless” decision, but are they really being truly altruistic? In terms of empathy-driven altruism, does it inherently include “selfish” aspects?

Well, in a world of personal relationships and everyday encounters, I don’t believe that pure altruism exists. There is always an underlying benefit – big or small – for the person performing the altruistic act despite what one’s motivation for the act is. de Waal (2008) explains that empathy-driven altruism benefits the actor by giving him/her “an emotional stake in the recipient’s well-being” (pg. 281). No matter what empathy-driven altruistic act you are performing, you are being offered an emotional stake, which is a benefit in and of itself. The opportunity to have an emotional stake in someone’s well-being is a privilege that we as humans gain satisfaction from, as it allows us to richen our relationship with another person. And, as we know, it is important for humans to form and maintain relationships (Pickett et al., 2004). 

I like to think of myself as someone whose empathy-driven altruism is pure. However, when I pause for a moment, I realize that when I help a friend out, send someone a care package, or comfort a friend, I tend to feel happier after the act. No, I don’t only engage in these behaviors expecting something in return or only because I will feel happier afterward. But, when all is said and done, my action makes me feel good and sometimes takes a weight off of my shoulder. Even though I didn’t go into the act with the intention of helping myself, I feel satisfied and happier internally. Our empathy towards a person carries us to follow through with a task regardless of what we do or do not gain. But, at the end of the day, we’re gaining a feeling of internal happiness; we’re feeling good about ourselves. This side effect doesn’t take away from the original intention of my altruistic act, but it suggests that altruism may not be strictly pure.

The bottom line is that “it is futile to try to extract the self from the process” of altruism (de Waal, 2008, pg. 292). It is too hard to take yourself out of the equation, but that’s okay. Although helping another person generally makes you feel good, it doesn’t mean that you’re doing it out of selfishness. Essentially, you don’t know exactly how something will make you feel until you do it. So, if that means you perform an empathy-driven altruistic act and end up feeling amazing because of it, it doesn’t make it morally wrong.

Whether you think altruism can be pure or it inherently always includes a selfish motive, we all need to continue to perform altruistic behaviors. The gain that you receive from an altruistic act doesn’t outweigh the good deed that you did for another. Small acts of empathy-driven altruism make the world a warmer, happier place.

Despite our discussion on the impossibility of pure altruism, there may be some cases for when altruism is driven more by selflessness, and that is in activism. De Waal describes empathy-driven altruism as one that “boil[s] down to helping oneself” because we are using “emotional identification” to essentially put ourselves in the shoes of the person we’re helping, feeling what they’re feeling, and thus alleviating our own discomfort when we help them (292). For example, if I decide to volunteer at a soup kitchen, my encounter with a hungry citizen might make me feel upset or uncomfortable as I imagine what it must be like to be hungry and homeless. But, as I start to serve this person food and talk to them, I may feel satisfied and happier because I had played a role in making their day a bit better. Thus, I’ve not only alleviated a bit of their hardship for that day, but I’ve also alleviated my own discomfort that stemmed from empathizing with their struggle. As de Waal notes, this emotional stake that I have in their well-being is the privilege that makes altruism seem a more selfish desire than a selfless one. So, when does a good deed like this go beyond our connectedness with an individual and towards a purely selfless goal? 

I define true activism as commitment to a cause, a movement, or the organization of people towards a common goal. Activism involves a continuous understanding of the local and underlying causes of a social issue and consequent devotion to organizing people and resources around the cause. Let’s revisit the example of volunteering at a soup kitchen. What if after I’ve volunteered at this soup kitchen, I decided to dedicate everyday to expanding awareness around homelessness, organizing the logistical work at this soup kitchen, and dedicating my life’s work to eradicating the housing crisis happening in America. My motivation goes beyond serving the few people I worked with at the soup kitchen and more towards fighting a system that is broken. One piece of evidence that may account for this shift from selfish to selfless motivations is a change in attitude from the results of our work. When we engage in public service, we may feel satisfied because we see immediate results: the person we are helping is happier and thus we are happier. But, with activism, as many activists may relate to, the work is exhausting, because we realize that expansive change–the change that would remedy a broken system–is nowhere near. In fact, this work can often lead people to despair, sharing the pain and hopelessness that oppressed and marginalized communities feel as our country seems to constantly ignore our cries for justice, progress, and equity. 

Yet, on the flip side, some may say this still has selfish motivations, because we are still working from a place of empathy for our community or even for the hungry citizen who inspired us in the first place. Thus, our work in organizing and advocating for our community is still giving us a sense of purpose that is benefiting our own self-actualization. So, can altruism ever, truly, not benefit ourselves? Probably not. But, I do think that there are levels of altruism and a spectrum of selfish and selfless motivation when we engage in it. Making a donation or sharing a post on Instagram, to me, is less altruistic than organizing a protest, fundraising for mutual aid funds, or even just showing up to protests everyday. Yes, activism is tiring and it feels like it won’t reap results because progress in our country is slow, bureaucratic, and broken. But, when we choose to keep fighting, losing, and fighting again, I believe that we’re taking steps towards altruism that actually matters. 


By Camerin Rawson & Anna Pacheco


Batson CD. 1991. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum.

de Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300.

GIPHY. (n.d.). Be Kind Animation GIF by Red & Howling – Find & Share on GIPHY. Retrieved October 2, 2020, from… LcWIEhR6z6. 

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095–1107.

→ 8 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

The (empa)TEA on Empathy

October 2nd, 2020 · 8 Comments

When you were younger, did you ever slip your feet into shoes that weren’t yours? Maybe you tramped around the house in a parent’s slippers that dwarfed your own, wondering what it would be like to have such big feet. Or maybe you’ve squeezed your toes into someone’s miniscule flip flops, exclaiming to their owner, “Awww you have such small feet!” as you shuffle across the floor, heels hanging out in all their glory. Maybe you did this yesterday, we won’t judge (I might– Gaby). But even if not, we’re willing to bet that you’ve recently put yourself in someone else’s shoes, ~metaphorically~. This is what we call empathy. Empathy involves adopting and feeling the experiences and emotions of another person as your own. Putting yourself in their shoes, you see life from their perspective, and in doing so, you’re able to more easily create new social bonds and strengthen old ones because you’re vibing on the same wavelength. Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, for us, yes. In fact, it’s practically second nature. But empathy is an incredibly complex capacity which most earthly creatures don’t have, and even the cases of empathy that have been recorded in non-human animals are limited in both frequency and extent. So… what’s so special about empathy in humans and what does it do for us? Who do we show empathy to, and is it easier or harder to do depending on the situation? Buckle up. We’re going to spill the (empa)TEA on empathy.

– • – • – • –

What’s the big idea with empathy in humans? How is it helpful to us? -Gaby

-AYOO, leave your human exceptionalism at the door check: while I do believe that the study of our social-cognitive capacities are fascinating given that we as humans are ULTRA-social beings, I think it’s important to recognize that 1) just because such capacities haven’t been observed in other species doesn’t mean they don’t exist and 2) if they don’t exist it’s just because they don’t NEED it to survive and be the cool and unique animals they are-

Alright. Y’all KNOW we can’t talk about human empathy without getting into videos of babies. So here. Meet Addison and Nathan: Baby Empathy

You might be asking yourself, what just happened? Why did baby Addison just randomly (?) start crying right after baby Nathan did (both of whom have probably spent a year MAX in this world)? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not random at all! Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, would call it “emotional contagion”, where one party (baby Addison) is affected by another’s (baby Nathan) emotional/arousal state (de Waal, 2008). Many believe this to be the lowest level of empathic processes shared by all animals (humans, non-human primates, rats and mice, pigeons, oh my!) who are capable of exhibiting some extent of empathy. For humans in particular, though, it’s insane to me that already as wee babs we have this innate tendency to recognize others and their emotions and respond in certain ways. And it only gets better! Literally!

Ok Gaby, really cool, but what’s the use for it? Other animals might not need it to survive, but why do we?

Well. If you think about what we look like vs. what we think like, it actually makes a lot of sense. From a long long long long time ago (~7 million years ago to be kinda ish exact) when the human lineage diverged from bonobos and chimpanzees up to now, we’ve lost A LOT of survival perks along the way. We lost the impressive ability to swing from trees (also known as brachiation,,, can you tell I’m an evolutionary bio major yet?), we started walking on two legs and became slower, we lost muscle definition, we lost our sharp teeth…………………… 

BUT, we gained a whole lot in the process, too. In particular, we started working together in groups, and our brains started to grow and allow for us to use our environment to our advantage through tool-use and other forms of culture. We work better in groups and therefore face a greater chance of survival if we help each other out, and what better way to make sure we help each other out than having systems in our brain that easily allow for us to feel and care for others in pain or distress? Boom. Empathy.

Obviously, it’s not a perfect system, and we’ve all had our tough times with empathy (more on this to come from Julie). Just last week, I tried to approach a problem that one of my closest friends was facing from his perspective, and ended up giving him absolutely atrocious advice (HEYO alliteration) because I was still unconsciously assuming what I would do in that situation even though we are radically different people. Eh, you win some you lose some. That dude for sure isn’t asking for my help any time soon, but HEY, we’re just talking about the fact that I could even TRY to look at something from his perspective and how that’s still heckin’ awesome. What a neat and quirky trait of ours, you feel what I’m saying? (haha, get it, feel because empathy haha)


Why empathy isn’t always easy -Julie

So now that Gaby, with her badass human evolutionary biology expertise, has given us the lowdown, it’s time to dive a little deeper into the nooks and crannies of when you and I display empathy. 

Just because babies can empathize with others doesn’t mean that empathy always comes easily. As with most things in life, there are caveats, and balance is key. 

First of all, it’s difficult to try on someone else’s shoes when you’re struggling to tie your own. Maybe you lost your temper with your sibling who ate the last donut you were craving. Maybe you’ve found yourself silently cursing the unbearably slow walker in your path before an important meeting. It’s tough to live, laugh, love in trying times. If you’re reading this in 2020, we’re literally living through a global pandemic, if you’re not feeling like a ray of sunshine, don’t sweat it. It’s ok to not be ok sometimes. Like actually though. 

~ Queue Human” by Christina Perri. ~

If you’re reading this after the pandemic… hi king/queen/anything in between, stop reading this right now and go rage with as many people as possible. 

My point is, sometimes when your own basic needs aren’t met, it can be tough to empathize with others. We learned in our class lecture that empathy takes energy, and so does everything else we do, our energy isn’t limitless, but it can be recharged with self-care.

One need, however, that can increase our ability to empathize with others is the need to belong. Picket et al. (2004) demonstrated that people who feel a higher need to belong become more aware of and sensitive to both positive and negative social cues and are better at inferring another’s state of mind. This is helpful when you’re not feeling socially connected because empathizing with others, as you know by now, can be a stepping stone to forming connections and bonds. 

On the other hand, when you’re feeling socially secure things get tricky. This brings us to ingroups and outgroups. When you feel like you’re part of a group, your ability to empathize with others that are not in the group, in an outgroup, can be subpar. Cikara et al. (2011) found that structures in the brain related to punishment, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, are engaged when your group fails and a rival group succeeds. They also found that a part of the brain associated with rewards, the ventral striatum, is activated when your group succeeds and the rival group fails, and this was also correlated with an increase in willingness to harm a rival. Feeling pleasure from another’s pain sounds messed up, yet it happens often enough to have a fancy name, schadenfreude. But if your eyes began glazing at all that science, just know that we often empathize more with people we are similar to (ingroups, like friends, family, race, socioeconomic status). As mentioned above and in our class lecture, empathy takes energy, so we have to be discerning in who we invest it in, and those similar to us are our first choices because we trust them.

I think many people express empathy when it’s fitting and possible to do so. Perhaps it’s a switch that can be both automatically and manually turned on. But first other switches have to be turned on. For example, if you’re mentally and physically exhausted, your energy switch is off, so it’s going to be a lot harder to empathize with others. It might also take an extra switch to empathize with someone different from you. I believe you can shift your thoughts and make changes to your physical body (i.e. focus on the present and take deep breaths to recalibrate yourself) to manually turn back on that empathy switch, but only if you really want to. 

For others, the empathy switch is always on, shining its light. In essence, this sounds great, but it definitely takes work to keep the light on without burning out. If this is you, just make sure you’re taking care of yourself! Empathy is important, but self-care and balance is key.

– • – • – • –

I think for me (Gaby), what’s crazy about empathy is that it’s everywhere and happens all the time. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how old you are, what you look like, think like, act like– you’re gonna experience empathy in some way or another. It makes me think about how even in a world where there is currently so much division and hate, there is still capacity for so much love and caring about others and this can’t be taken away no matter how hard people try (granted, there should be more love and empathy but that’s a rant for another day). So yeah. It’s everywhere. It’s so straightforward and ingrained into our human nature but so incredibly complicated and difficult to navigate at times, and yet, we can’t get (and give) enough. And when it does happen to be complicated and difficult, I (Julie) think the best thing you can do is to acknowledge it, because recognizing a problem is the first step to finding a solution. Then from there, remind yourself that whoever you’re interacting with is a human, too, with thoughts, goals, dreams, and feelings. People can tell when you’re truly listening to what they have to say and when you truly care. Plus, empathy is amazing in that it allows you to experience something that isn’t happening to you; I think that sounds pretty magical. So, even if someone’s shoes don’t quite fit your feet, still take that time to try them on and look at life from a different perspective, feeling their emotions. And hey, maybe you’ll have a Cinderella moment, and the shoes will be the perfect fit. We’d love that for you 😉

And that’s the (empa)tea on that.



Gaby + Julie


Amaral, J. (2014, December 14). Baby Empathy [Video]. YouTube. Cikara, M., Botvinick, M., Fiske, S. (2011). Us Versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm. Psychological Science, 22(3), 306–313.

de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300

Picket, C., Gardner, W., Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095-1107.

Vertudaches, L. (2015). Sad Best Friends. [GIF]. GIPHY.

→ 8 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Hello world!

September 1st, 2020 · 1 Comment

Welcome to Weblogs at Harvard. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

→ 1 CommentTags: Uncategorized