Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Empathy is Persuasive

This letter from the UK charity ‘Crisis at Christmas’ was sent to households in December 2014. The letter aimed to persuade the reader to donate £21.62 to the charity. This sum was needed to fund one place for a homeless person over the Christmas period, in a centre providing food, companionship, healthcare and advice.

The charity used the persuasive technique of encouraging empathy to persuade the reader to donate. Having empathy for someone involves being aware of that person’s internal cognitions and being distressed on their behalf (Pratkanis, 2007). By describing a homeless person’s feelings of isolation, and by directly quoting a homeless person, the charity allowed the reader to imagine what homeless people are experiencing and to feel sorry for them.

Toi and Batson (1982) provide evidence that empathy influences helping behaviour. In their study, participants listened to a recording of a freshman student being interviewed. The student explained in the interview that she had been in a car accident and had therefore missed a month of her introductory psychology course, which all of the participants were also taking. She stated that she would have to drop the class if she did not manage to find a student to help her catch up.

The experiment had a 2x2 design. For the first independent variable, participants were either in an ‘observe’ condition, in which they were instructed to be objective while listening, ignore how the interviewee felt, and just attend to the facts, or an ‘imagine’ condition, in which they were instructed to imagine how the interviewee felt, without concern for all of the information presented. The ‘imagine’ condition increased empathic emotion.

After listening to the interview, participants were given a letter from the student, which asked for their help in catching up the material from class. The second independent variable was the difficulty of escape. In the ‘easy-escape’ condition, the letter stated that the participant could meet up with the student wherever they wanted. In the ‘difficult-escape’ condition, the letter stated that the student would be in class the next week. Those in the ‘difficult-escape’ condition would therefore definitely see the student in the future, and would not be able to avoid her. Helping behaviour was measured as whether participants completed a form indicating that they would assist the student.

Note. From “More evidence that empathy is a source of altruistic motivation” by M. Toi and C. D. Batson, 1982, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 281-292.

Table 1 displays the results from this study. It shows the proportion of participants who helped in each of the four combinations of conditions. The ‘observe-easy-escape’ combination resulted in a significantly lower proportion of helping behaviour (.33) than each of the other combinations (‘observe-difficult-escape' = .76, ‘imagine-easy-escape’ = .71, ‘imagine-difficult-escape’ = .81). The other combinations did not produce significant differences from each other in helping behaviour. This shows that those who ‘observe’, and do not experience empathy, are more likely to help when it is difficult to escape than when it is easy. However, the helping behaviour of those who ‘imagine’, and experience empathy, is unaffected by the difficulty of leaving the situation.

These results support the empathy-altruism hypothesis. This contends that empathy leads to altruistic motivation, where the individual wants to improve another’s welfare and can only achieve this goal by assisting the person (Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, & Birch, 1981). Without empathy, as Batson et al. (1981) explain, the helper may have egoistic motivation, which means that they want to reduce their own personal distress, and they will escape rather than help if the costs of escaping are low.

By encouraging empathy, the charity’s letter therefore engenders an altruistic motive for donating, which is likely to be effective, because the only way for the reader to achieve this altruistic goal of alleviating others’ distress is to donate.


Batson, C. D., Duncan, B. D., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 290-302.
Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. In A. R. Pratkanis (Ed.), The science of social influence: Advances and future progress (pp. 17-82). New York: Psychology Press.
Toi, M., & Batson, C. D. (1982). More evidence that empathy is a source of altruistic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 281-292.

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