Contrast two theories of altruism ERQ.

This is a useful task to get students to focus on the command term of ‘contrast’ which they tend to find quite tricky. I give them the essay that I’ve written and they have to highlight all of the phrases/sections that really address the ‘contrast’ aspect of the question i.e. those which explicitly point out the differences between theories/studies/evaluation issues. I also ask them to fill details in the right-hand column so that they know why the essay works. This is a good active learning task, particularly for year 13s and they seem to really engage with it. I have highlighted some examples of explicit ‘contrast’ terms below:

The two theories of prosocial behaviour that will be contrasted in this essay are reciprocal altruism which takes the biological approach and the negative-state relief model which views prosocial behaviour using the cognitive approach. Research into prosocial behaviour is problematic in that it is difficult for psychologists to operationalise prosocial behaviour as a variable and to measure it precisely because it is a very subjective variable which may differ from person to person. Investigating it from a biological perspective (RA) involves using different methodology to that of a cognitive approach (NSR).

Reciprocal altruism is a biological theory that is based on the principles of evolutionary psychology, namely that altruistic acts are performed in order to gain some future benefit from the recipient. The basis of reciprocal altruism is that the donor’s fitness is temporarily compromised in order to help another, fellow organism. This help is given with an expectation of future help from the recipient to the original donor. It is difficult to find empirical support for evolutionary theories – unlike lab-based NSR studies – so psychologists use the idea of ultimate causes to account for current behaviour that may be rooted in primeval instincts.

In contrast to reciprocal altruism, the negative-state relief model considers the extent to which personal discomfort at the sight of another’s distress motivates altruistic acts. The assumption of this model is that when someone witnesses another in need of help they experience a negative mood such as concern, anxiety, guilt. This negative mood may then prompt the individual to offer help in order to improve their own mood, so prompting an egoistic motivation to help rather than being a purely altruistic act. This is a cognitive approach to prosocial behaviour which does not assume evolutionary instincts as the basis to behaviour (which is RA), rather researchers can use the model to draw inferences about behaviour.

Reciprocal altruism is based on the idea that there is a reasonably good probability that two organisms (e.g. two unrelated individual human beings) will meet again at some point in the future, making reciprocity possible. The negative-state relief model, however, focuses on a here-and-now approach, with the individual seeking relief from negative feelings in the moment rather than for some future gain. This is a real point of contrast between the two theories as reciprocal altruism assumes that human beings are programmed to instinctively help someone in need as a way of storing up future favours whereas the negative-state relief model is possibly easier to relate to as it identifies egoistic motivation as a factor in prosocial behaviour. In other words, most people are unlikely to believe that by helping a stranger in the street they are protecting themselves against future misfortune: they may never see this person again, their paths may never cross.

Axelrod & Hamilton (1981) devised a computer-based model of chess games involving two players to test reciprocal altruism. Batson et al (1989) in contrast, used a lab experiment with some manipulation of naïve participants. Axelrod & Hamilton took the unusual route of analysing a range of strategies used in chess games that had been provided by economists, sociologists, political theorists and mathematicians. This contrasts to Batson et al’s more conventional use of a lab experiment involving 44 students taking an introductory psychology course at the University of Kansas. Batson et al’s sample represents a typical group of participants for psychological research whereas Axelrod & Hamilton’s represents a more diverse and less ethnocentric population.

In Batson et al half of the participants were told that they would be watching a video that would make them feel sad; the other half were told that the video would make them feel happy. The experimenter left the room and a confederate entered and asked the participant if they would be willing to give some time to help make phone calls related to blood donation. There were more offers of help from participants in the sad mood condition than in the positive mood condition. The researchers concluded that the participants in the sad condition may have helped in a bid to feel better (self-reward), thereby supporting the Negative State Relief model. Axelrod & Hamilton did not implement an independent variable, unlike Batson et al but their results, they claim, supported reciprocal altruism: the most successful way of achieving the highest average chess score was to employ a strategy known as tit for tat which may ultimately be more beneficial to an individual than pure self-serving acts.

There are limitations to each study, mainly linked to the operationalising of prosocial behaviour, for different reasons. Axelrod & Hamilton assumed that the players were drawing from evolutionary instincts to derive the most successful strategy but they may simply have been playing cautiously and using cognitive decision-making processes to plan their moves. This is the major flaw with reciprocal altruism: it is very difficult to use Axelrod & Hamilton’s research as evidence of a biological approach as chess is a highly skilled game at which players must constantly think, process information, form judgements and make decisions.

Batson et al’s research also has limitations but these are not at the level of the approach used (cognitive) but rather they are concerned with the issue of demand characteristics as a possible source of bias. The sample in this study were psychology students, (contrasted to Axelrod & Hamilton’s sample of experts) so they might have guessed the aim of the study or behaved in an artificial way due to the contrived nature of the procedure. It is also possible that individual differences affected the result (more likely with a small sample) i.e. some participants may be naturally less caring than other participants. It would be very difficult therefore, for the researchers to be confident that they had successfully operationalised the negative-state relief model in their study.

To conclude, the main points of contrast between the two theories is that reciprocal altruism assumes that people behave prosocially for an expected future benefit – and that they do so without real, conscious thought – whereas the negative-state relief model assumes that help is given in the moment for egoistic reasons. The main source of difficulty in accepting reciprocal altruism as a valid theory of prosocial behaviour is the paucity of evidence to support it whereas for the negative-state relief model the main problem concerns the operationalising of the negative state and its subsequent ego-driven motivation towards prosocial behaviour.

[1236 words]

 

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