Why Empathy Makes You More Helpful | Art Markman

Empathy affects your motivation to be helpful!


There is a lot of research suggesting that empathy increases people’s desire to help others. Empathy is the ability to share other people’s emotion. The better able you are to feel what someone else is feeling, the more likely you are to want to help them when they are in a difficult situation. This ability also extends to animals. We are able to project feelings onto animals like dogs, and that increases our need to help them.


But, what is it about empathy that promotes the need to help?


An interesting paper by Louisa Pavey, Tobias Greitemeyer, and Paul Sparks in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored this question. They suggest that empathy increases people’s intrinsic motivation to be helpful.


A theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci suggests that people engage in behaviors for one of two broad reasons. Sometimes, people have internal or intrinsic motivation. They simply find these behaviors desirable. Sometimes people engage in a behavior because it is expected of them or they will be punished if they do not perform the behavior. In this case, they are externally or extrinsically motivated.


Pavey, Greitemeyer, and Sparks suggest that empathy increases people’s intrinsic motivation to want to help, and that pushes them to act. They tested this proposal in two ways.