February 16, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 10

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    Survey shows altruism may create happier marriages

    By William Harms
    News Office

    In the nation’s first survey of altruistic love, scholars have found that people who have strong feelings of love for other people in general are more likely to have strong romantic relationships.

    The survey by the National Opinion Research Center found wide support for altruistic love on a number of items, compared altruistic values and behaviors with those in a similar study from 2002, and found those scores rising.

    The General Social Survey at NORC conducts the nation’s most comprehensive, nationwide 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 Smith, Director of the General Social Survey.

    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 express altruistic love toward a partner, 50 percent rated their marriage as “very happy,” but among those most expressing altruistic love toward a partner, 67 percent said their marriage is “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 to 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 said.

    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 in the recent survey to 25 percent.

    The increase 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 always have 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 more 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 every two years and in person with a random sample of men and women 18 and older. The National Science Foundation funds the survey work.

    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, conducted in 2004, used a random sample of 1,329 people, and in 2002, 1,366 people were surveyed.