February 9, 2006
posted online March 1, 2006
Survey links altruism and romantic
University of Chicago
1) Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
2) Zoology. Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental
to the individual but contributes to the survival of the
In the nation's first survey of altruistic love,
scholars have found that people who have strong feelings of love
for people in general are more likely to have strong romantic
The survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the
University of Chicago, found wide support for altruistic love on
a number of items and compared altruistic values and behaviors
with those in a similar study from 2002, and found those scores
The General Social Survey at NORC conducts the nation's
most comprehensive, nation-wide, scientific survey on altruism
and empathy, including measures of altruistic behaviors as well
as altruistic love. Its most recent data is in the report,
"Altruism and Empathy in America: Trends and
Correlates," authored by Tom W. Smith, Director of the
Those who score high on altruistic love questions are more
likely to rate their lives in general and marriages in particular
as "very happy." People were asked to rate their
agreement with descriptions of altruistic love, such as
"I'd rather suffer myself than let the one I love
suffer," and "I'm willing to sacrifice my own
wishes to let the one I love achieve his or hers."
Among those least likely to endorse expressions of altruistic
love, 50 percent rated their marriage as "very
happy," but among those most expressing altruistic love
towards their partner, 67 percent say their marriage in
"very happy." Also, the married are more likely to
rank high on altruistic love than the unmarried. Forty percent of
the married scored in the top category on altruistic love, but
only 20 percent of the never married and 26-28 percent of the
divorced and separated had top scores on altruistic love.
The connection between romantic love and altruistic behavior
probably comes from an appreciation of love developed in a
healthy marriage and reflects the connection between marriage and
love in general which is part of the teachings of many religions,
including Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical, Smith
Religion in general plays a role in promoting altruism, the
study found. In particular, people who said they pray daily were
more likely to perform altruistic acts than those who never pray
(77 times a year, versus 60 times).
Feelings of altruism and altruistic behaviors have been
increasing in recent years, according to the survey, which found
that the traditional value of caring for others is something most
Americans agree on, despite their political differences.
The survey found that 75 percent of respondents in the recent
survey reported having tender, concerned feelings toward the less
fortunate, 5 percent more than reported in 2002. The number of
respondents who felt people should look out for themselves and
not "overly worry about others" fell by 7 percent to
The increases in altruistic values and behaviors probably has
several sources, said Smith. "People have been suffering
more negative life events than in the past and as such there is
greater need for caring and assistance. Likewise, there is
greater disparity between the rich and the poor with the lot of
the former, but not of the latter, improving in recent years.
"People of quite different ideological persuasions have
come to endorse empathy and altruism. Liberals of course have
traditionally supported social programs to care for the
disadvantaged and, as highlighted by President Bush's
‘compassionate conservative' self labeling, many of
those to the right also embrace altruism. Likewise, religious
conservatives have always emphasized empathy and altruism as a
part of Christian charity," said Smith.
Among other findings in the study:
- Women have a greater feeling of empathy than men.
- Children who grow up in a two-parent household are more
likely to develop empathetic feelings, while those reared only by
mothers, are slightly likely to develop the feelings.
- Least likely to develop empathy are children, particularly
girls, raised only by a father.
- Financial status had very little to do with feelings of
altruism or empathy.
The General Social Survey is a benchmark survey used by social
scientists across the country to gauge public opinion. It is
conducted in person with a random sample of men and women 18 and
older. It is conducted every two years with support from the
National Science Foundation. The Fetzer Institute financed the
altruism and empathy survey in 2002, and the Institute for
Research on Unlimited Love financed that data collection in 2004.
The latest survey was conducted in 2004 with 1,329 people, and in
2002, 1,366 people were surveyed.
Press Contact: William Harms