The Social Psychology of Veganism – Egoism and Helping

Why Help?

What motivates people to help? Is it altruism, peer pressure, legal force, or simply egoism? The motivations for prosocial behavior are numerous, but generally, it behooves humans, a social species, to help. And so help we do. Altruism is useful for social solidarity, survival, and continuance. Social responsibility norms encourage it as a result.

All Ego?

Social movements, however, frequently appeal to self-interest, assuming that it will be ego, not altruism, that ultimately motivates a person to act. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, for instance, appeals to the healthfulness of a plant-based diet at least as much as it appeals to social values of compassion. Sometimes, it also suggests to constituents that going vegan can bring with it greater personal peace. The Franz Kafka quote, for instance, has become a vegan trope:

But can appealing to self-interest and egoism really inspire more helping?

Traditionally, social psychologists argued that egoism determined helping behaviors. This theory suggests that behaving prosocially brings with it internal and external rewards for individuals (Batson 1987). For one, helping can reduce feelings of discomfort that might be more selfishly than altruistically motivated (Cialdini et al. 1987).

Altruism Motivates

Yet, not all social psychologists are convinced. After all, how can a person really know what internal rewards to expect without engaging the behavior first? Something else must be sparking that initial motivation. Furthermore, people will keep helping even after internal rewards have been reaped (Schroeder et al. 1988). As for external rewards, some people will help even when no one is watching (Fultz et al. 1986). Anonymous donors are an example of this.

Self-interest certainly has some effect, but the notion that egoism is the only determinant of human behavior is not scientifically sound. Vegan activists can safely ease off of egoist appeals to animal liberation and instead seek to trigger fundamental prosocial norms and altruistic tendencies in their communities.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Appeals to self-interest useful if participants are clear on rewards
  • Social pressure can increase helping
  • Genuine altruism can motivate, too


Batson, C. 1987. “Prosocial Motivation: Is it ever Truly Altruistic?Advances in Experimental Psychology 20: 65-122.

Cialdini, R., B. Schaller, M. Houlihan, D. Arps, K. Fultz, J. Beaman, and L. Arthur. 1987. “Empathy-based Helping: Is It Selflessly or Selfishly Motivated?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (4): 749-758.

Fultz, J., C. Batson, D. Fortenbach, A. Victoria, P. McCarthy., L. Varney. 1986. “Social Evaluation and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (4): 761-769.

D. Schroeder, J. Dovidio, M Sibicky, L. Matthews, and J. Allen. 1988. “Empathetic Concern and Helping Behavior: Egoism or Altruism?Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 24 (4): 333-353.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.