Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology



First Advisor

Janet M. Kulberg


Altruism--acting with the goal of benefiting another, despite costs to oneself--has been the subject of many studies, yet its underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Laboratory studies have relied on isolated instances of contrived helpfulness, while investigations of actual rescuers and humanitarians are typically small and lack controls. Some investigators have suggested that altruism is merely a function of situation (c.f., Latane & Darley, 1968). Others, however, have found robust relationships between altruism and personality (c.f., Batson, 1991).

This study investigated sustained, planned altruism in a sample of 469 undergraduates from four major New England Universities. The hypotheses were that altruism, operationalized as consistent volunteer work for altruistic organizations, would be related to personality variables of empathy and responsibility, to moral reasoning style, to constructive thinking under stress, and to retrospective reports of parenting practices that emphasize warm yet firm parental involvement. Measures were self-report questionnaires; precautions were taken to ensure the veracity of self-reported volunteerism.

One-hundred and twenty-four subjects who volunteer for altruistic organizations three or more hours per week and 73 subjects who similarly volunteer 1-2 hours per week, were compared with 173 nonvolunteers who were members of nonaltruistic organizations in a 2-way (Volunteer Work x University) MANCOVA with gender as a covariate. Results support the hypotheses relating prosocial personality and moral reasoning style with altruism. Altruistic volunteers reported higher levels of empathic concern, personal responsibility, and practical moral reasoning than did nonvolunteers. Results did not support the hypothesized relationship between parenting practices and altruism. Only one aspect of parenting, parental involvement/acceptance, was significantly related to volunteer work: altruistic volunteers recalled less parental involvement/acceptance than did nonvolunteers. It is important to note, however, that subjects were asked about parenting practices employed during their adolescence rather than during their childhood. Two additional variables, high-school volunteerism and informal helpfulness, were also related to volunteer work.

Overall, differences between altruistic volunteers and nonvolunteers-particularly between nonvolunteers and altruists who volunteer three or more hours per week--accounted for about 19% of the variance between groups. Differences among male and female altruists were noted, and warrant further investigation.



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