The Balance 1
Running head: THE BALANCE OF FACTORS DETERMINING ALTRUISM
The Balance of External and Intrinsic Factors in Determining Altruism
Caren T. Nguyen
University of California, Los Angeles
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The Balance of External and Intrinsic Factors in Determining Altruism
Everyday, acts of kindness can be observed whether it is something as simple as helping
another person pick up a fallen object or something more monumental such as aiding in disaster
relief, yet it is not clear where these limits to human altruism lie. The question of how far one
would go to help another in need depends on a variety of external and internal factors, and is
complicated by the debate over whether true altruism can be attained or if it is merely a result of
self-interest. It often becomes difficult to separate altruistic and egoistic intentions, because even
the most altruistic examples seem to be tainted, while self-interest driven acts may upon closer
inspection stem from altruism.
In one study (Holmes, Miller, & Lerner, 2001), individuals were found to be more likely
to give to a charity rather than to donate when they can get something in return, whether or not it
was of any value to them such as a candle. This act may seem at first glance to be driven by
selfish incentives, but since most of the participants did not need the candles, they were not
contributing to further their own needs, and the act may have been a mask for altruism. Also, the
fact that the amount of donations increased as the level of charity need increased seemed to point
in the direction that humans do have altruistic inclinations under certain circumstances.
In fact, another study (Warneken, & Tomasello, 2006) demonstrated that humans and
related primates willingly offer assistance, even at a young age and when no reward was offered.
Human infants made gestures of helping an adult pick up dropped objects when the adult made
verbal exclamations and facial expressions of distress significantly more than in control groups
where the object was dropped but the adult adopted a neutral facial expression. No reward was
offered in either group, and the fact that the infants continued to help the adult obtain the out-of-
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reach object over trials in the experimental group suggested that personal gain did not have to be
a factor in driving altruism. The infants willingly, and arguably even instinctively, offered help
after it had been established that they would receive no reward. The authors used their
experiment to make the argument that the will to help others is a specifically human trait that
was crucial in evolutionary survival. This trait is also observed in some primate species such as
chimpanzees, but not in others.
A related study (Piferi, Jobe, & Jones, 2006) also found that in times of crises humans
often display support without knowing the victims or getting anything in return. After the
September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the investigators surveyed 343 individuals on
whether they had given any aid to the victims, and their reasons for helping. Only 7% of the
participants surveyed knew someone who may have been involved in the attack. Among the
most common reasons for helping were because of feelings of distress on the part of the helper,
to relieve distress for the victims involved, and the desire for others’ support if the helper was in
similar situations. Although this study did not emphasize the evolutionary development of
altruism, as in the study by Warneken et al., it nevertheless proposed that we have altruistic
inclinations due to humans’ unique cognitive ability to apply others’ circumstances to ourselves,
which helps us feel empathy for and want to help others. The authors called this the empathy
theory of altruism.
Although these three studies suggest that true altruism does exist, it is interesting to note
that our capacity for empathy by means of drawing parallels between ourselves and others leads
us to think of ourselves when we help others. This again blurs the question of if altruism exists
or if it only exists because we are thinking of ourselves.
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The altruistic and egoistic forces for giving are intertwined, and here we are trying to
distinguish which has more effect in driving altruism. The three above studies proposed that
individuals are inclined to be altruistic, since no personal benefit was gained by helping others,
or when there was something to be gained by helping, it was of little value such as the candle. In
our study, we suggest that tendency towards altruism does depend on the value of the entity
given in exchange for committing altruistic acts; in other words, we predict that individuals will
be driven more by external incentives than internal motivations.
We manipulated subjects’ level of incentive by either offering extra credit or no extra
credit for doing a volunteer task, and also subjects’ cost to self for doing the task, high cost
requiring more time devoted to the task than low cost, in order to determine the effect on the
subjects’ willingness to volunteer. When no extra credit was offered, willingness to volunteer
implied that the participants’ motivation for volunteering was purely altruistic, especially when
the volunteering commitment was high. Although personalities vary widely, we wanted to see if
college students’ tendencies to give help can be generalized to some degree. We predicted that
there will be a main effect of incentive, a main effect of cost to self, and an interaction between
the two variables. Participants’ mean willingness to volunteer should increase as the incentive
increases and cost to self decreases. It was also expected that low cost will have a more
significant increase in participants’ willingness to volunteer when extra credit was offered than
when there was no extra credit. We propose that this is due to the two intrinsic motivational
factors (incentive and cost) summing additively to significantly enhance willingness to volunteer.
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Eleven participants (10 women and 1 man, mean age = 20 years), all of whom were
students in a psychology research methods course at the University of California, Los Angeles,
were involved in this study. All participated as a requirement for the course.
The effects of incentive and cost to self on a participant’s willingness to volunteer were
simultaneously tested in a within-subjects experiment. The amount of incentive to a subject was
operationally defined as the amount of extra credit offered for doing a volunteering task. In the
High Incentive (HI) level, an extra credit opportunity equaling a .5% increase in total course
grade was used. In the Low Incentive (LI) level, no extra credit was given.
In addition, we also manipulated the variable of cost to self, operationally defined as the
number of hours the volunteering task would take, to see how it would determine participants’
inclinations to volunteer when paired with the different levels of incentive. In the High Cost
(HC) level, participants were asked to give up three hours of their time for the task, whereas in
the Low Cost (LC) level, only a 15-minute commitment was asked of the participants.
To measure our dependent variable, subjects were asked to rate on a 7-point interval
Likert scale how interested they would be to volunteer in each of the four conditions (HI-HC,
HI-LC, LI-HC, LI-LC), with 1 being “extremely uninterested” and 7 being “extremely
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Materials and Apparatus
Prior to testing, participants were given a pre-survey on which they filled out the number
of hours a week they had for certain activities, such as watching TV, studying, and free time.
We were only concerned with the amount of free time each participant had, in order to make sure
that each had at least three hours per week before making that our HC level, in order to control
for the extraneous variable of differing amounts of free time between subjects. All other
questions on the pre-survey were meant to mislead the participants so that they would not know
the purpose of our experiment.
To control for specific item effects, we chose four different contexts (i.e., bake sale,
campus cleanup, stacking chairs, and handing out flyers) and used a Balanced Latin Square
(BLS) to pair them with each of the four conditions. These contexts served to control for
demand characteristics so that the participants would not guess the objective of the study.
Order effects were controlled for by making another BLS for each group of conditions to
ensure that the order of exposure of the participants to each condition was counterbalanced.
Random assignment to was used to control for participant self-selection bias and experimenter
In addition, we included two fake scenarios in each participant’s packet of scenarios, to
further control for demand characteristics. The fake scenarios asked the participants to rate how
likely they were volunteer for other tasks (i.e., serving refreshments and putting up decorations)
for one hour. One of the scenarios offered extra credit while the other did not, and the scenarios
were the same for and appeared in the same order across subjects (one in the beginning of the
packet and one at the end). The scores on these scenarios were not tabulated.
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We kept the location, amount of need, and dates in which to volunteer similar across
contexts, and also chose contexts in which the tasks were easy to carry out and uncontroversial in
order to control for individual differences in preference for type of task. We chose the charity
organization in each context to be the UCLA Psychology Department so that all participants
would have similar affiliation and bias towards it.
A cover letter was attached to each participant’s questionnaire, describing in detail that
the department was seeking volunteers from several upper-division core psychology classes to
help in the different tasks, and that extra credit would be offered for some tasks. In order to
make it seem believable that the participants would potentially be corresponding with the
department if they chose to volunteer, we included a three-digit code with the packets and
explained that the participants could contact the department based on their code.
All participants were tested in the same room at the same time. The six scenarios for
each participant were arranged in order in advance and collated into a packet. In order to make
our experiment more believable, we had the Teaching Assistant (TA) rather than ourselves
explain to the class that the Psychology Department was distributing questionnaires to seek
volunteers to help in several activities, and that the students would get extra credit in the class for
helping on some of the activities. Instructions were given by the TA to the participants to fill
out the questionnaires and to remember the three-digit code in order to refer to themselves when
contacting the department. The packets were then passed out, and when everyone was finished
marking his or her answer, we collected the packets. Immediately afterwards, the participants
were debriefed as to the necessary use of deception and the purpose of the experiment.
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Figure 1 shows participants’ average willingness to volunteer as a function of incentive
and cost to self. In general, participants were more willing to volunteer when external incentive
was high than when low, and when cost to self was low than when high. High incentive seemed
to have more of an effect in increasing average willingness to volunteer when the cost was low
than when high, (the effect of high incentive in increasing average willingness to volunteer
seemed to be greater when the cost was low?) but this difference was not found to be statistically
To test the effects of level of incentive and cost to self on participants’ willingness to
volunteer, a two-way within-subjects ANOVA was used. This analysis revealed a significant
main effect of level of incentive, such that the average willingness of participants to volunteer
was significantly higher when incentive was high (M = 5.46, SD = 1.06) than when incentive was
low (M = 3.14, SD = 1.42), regardless of the level of cost to self, F(1, 10) = 29.36, MSE = 2.01,
p < .001. In addition, a significant main effect of cost to self was also revealed, in which average
willingness to volunteer was significantly higher when the cost was low (M = 5.14, SD = 1.03),
than when cost was high (M = 3.46, SD = 1.35), regardless of the level of incentive offered, F(1,
10) = 20.56, MSE = 1.51, p = .001. The interaction between incentive and cost to self was not
shown to be significant, F(1, 10) = .55, MSE = 2.01, p = .474.
As expected, participants were more likely to volunteer when external incentive was high
than when low, and when the amount of sacrifice involved was low than when high. This
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supported our general hypothesis that external forces have more of an effect on altruism than
There was no interaction between incentive and cost to self, as we had expected, but we
suspect this may have been due to low power, which was a weakness in our study. Because so
few participants were involved in the study, we had to use all of the data, including outliers.
Perhaps if the study had included more participants, the outlier scores would have had less effect
on the results, and perhaps an interaction would have been seen.
Age may also have played a factor in determining our results, since our participants were
all college students. Perhaps participants from different age groups would have shown different
tendencies towards internal and external driving factors for altruism. Still, we felt that a strength
of our study was that we used a highly ecologically valid incentive for our participants’ age
group, and that very similar patterns of results would occur in real life when extra credit is an
external motivating factor for certain behaviors.
In light of the research done on altruism as a function of internal or external factors, we
suggest that our research has implications for child-rearing and social situations. Perhaps by
reinforcing with rewards behaviors such as sharing, we may help foster better community and
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Holmes, J. G., Miller, D. T., & Lerner, M. J. (2001). Committing qltruism under the cloak of
self-interest: The exchange fiction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 144-
Piferi, R. L., Jobe, R. L., & Jones, W. H. (2006). Giving to others during national tragedy: The
effects of altruistic and egoistic motivations on long-term giving. Journal of Social and
Personal Relationships, 23, 171-184.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young
chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301-1302.
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Figure 1. Average willingness to volunteer as a function of incentive offered and cost to self.
Average willingness to volunteer as a function of
incentive offered and cost to self
High Incentive Low Incentive