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Module 11: Helping Others

Module Overview

In Module 11 we move away from discussions of aggressive behavior, prejudice and discrimination covered in preceding modules, and talk about a more positive topic – prosocial behavior. We start by contrasting prosocial, altruistic, and egotistical behavior and then move to an evolutionary explanation for prosocial behavior. From this we cover dispositional or personal reasons why someone may help (or not) to include personal responsibility, time pressures, personality, self-conscious emotions, religiosity, feeling good, gender, empathy, and egotism. Next up are situational reasons to include the bystander effect, the decision-making process related to helping, and social norms. We end with ways to increase helping behavior.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Differentiate prosocial, altruistic, and egotistical behavior.
  • Clarify if there is an evolutionary precedent for helping behavior.
  • Outline dispositional reasons for why people help or do not.
  • Outline situational reasons for why people help or do not.
  • Strategize ways to increase helping behavior.

11.1. Defining Prosocial Behavior


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define prosocial behavior.
  • Clarify the difference with altruistic behavior.
  • Contrast prosocial and egotistical behavior.
  • Explain how evolutionary psychology might approach the development of helping behavior.
  • Differentiate kin selection and reciprocal altruism.


11.1.1. Defining Terms

As a child, most of us learn to help an old lady across the street. First responders feverishly work to free trapped miners. Soldiers risk their own safety to pull a wounded comrade off the battlefield. Firefighters and police officers rush inside a burning building to help rescue trapped residents all while cognizant of the building’s likelihood to collapse on them. People pull over to help a stranded motorist or one involved in a car accident. And normal everyday people make tough decisions to take a little less of a valued commodity or give a little more so a public good can be provisioned. These are all examples of what is called prosocial behavior. Simply put, prosocial behavior is any act we willingly take that is meant to help others, whether the ‘others’ are a group of people or just one person. The key is that these acts are voluntary and not forced upon the helper. The motive for the behavior is not important. This is different from altruistic behavior, in which we choose to help another person voluntarily and with no expectation of reward or acknowledgement. If we make a life saving organ or blood donation and ask never to be identified, the act is altruistic. Whereas if we do not mind if the person knows, the act would be considered prosocial. The intention of the helping behavior is what is key.

Likely, the opposite of prosocial behavior is what is called egotistical behavior, or behavior focused on the self. According to dictionary.com, egotistic refers to behaviors that are vain, boastful, and selfish. Individuals like to talk about themselves and are indifferent to the well-being of others. The Merriam-Webster dictionary online adds that egotistical individuals are overly concerned with their own needs, desires, and interests.


11.1.2. An Evolutionary Precedent for Prosocial Behavior?

So, is the desire to help others an inborn tendency, or is it learned through socialization by caregivers and our culture? We will first discuss whether helping behavior could be the product of nature, not nurture. Evolutionary psychology is the subfield of psychology which uses changes in genetic factors over time due to the principle of natural selection to explain helping behavior. Charles Darwin noted that behaving in an altruistic way can prevent an organism from passing on its genes and so surviving. Being selfish pays while altruism does not, so then why has altruistic/prosocial behavior evolved? In the Descent of Man (1874, 2nd edition), Darwin writes:

“It has often been assumed that animals were in the first place rendered social, and that they feel as a consequence uncomfortable when separated from each other, and comfortable whilst together; but it is a more probable view that these sensations were first developed, in order that those animals which would profit by living in society, should be induced to live together, in the same manner as the sense of hunger and the pleasure of eating were, no doubt, first acquired in order to induce animals to eat. The feeling of pleasure from society is probably an extension of the parental or filial affections, since the social instinct seems to be developed by the young remaining for a long time with their parents; and this extension may be attributed in part to habit, but chiefly to natural selection. With those animals which were benefited by living in close association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers, whilst those that cared least for their comrades, and lived solitary, would perish in greater numbers.”

Source: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Darwin/Descent/descent4.htm

According to ethologists and behavioral ecologists, altruism takes on two forms. First, kin selection, also known as inclusive fitness theory, states that any behavior aiding a genetic relative will be favored by natural selection (Wilson, 2005). Why is that? Though our own ability to pass our genes to offspring may be compromised, our relative shares those same genes and so indirectly we are passing on our genes. An example is putting the welfare of our children ahead of our own. Most would have no issue with this and I always find it interesting how on an airplane we are reminded that in the event of an emergency, we should put our own oxygen mask on first before helping others. This especially relates to our wanting to help our kids but if we are able to get their mask on before our own, and then we pass out, we really are not helping them at all. It’s best then to make sure we are conscious and then help them out so that we can be with them in the event of a crash. Still, it seems selfish to do this in light of kin selection.

Next is reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971) and is the basis for long-term cooperative interactions. According to it, an organism acts in a way that benefits others at expense to itself. It does so because it expects that in the future, the recipient of the altruistic act, who does not have to be related to the altruist, will reciprocate assistance. An example of this would be a firefighter. They run into burning buildings to save people at a risk to their own life. They do this with the belief that someone will save them or their family if they are in the same situation. Another possible example would be anytime you help someone in need. The belief is that if you are in need someone will help you. As Ashton et al. (1998) writes, “If the benefits to the recipient of this assistance outweigh the costs to the benefactor, then interactions of this kind, when reciprocated, result in a long-run net gain in chances for survival and reproduction for both individuals.” The authors looked for correlates of kin altruism (selection) and reciprocal altruism and found that for the former empathy and attachment were important, while for the latter forgiveness and non-retaliation mattered most. Kin selection was further related to high agreeableness and low emotional stability while reciprocal altruism (not kin related) was related to high agreeableness and high emotional stability (Ashton et al., 1998).

11.2. Why We Help – Dispositional Factors


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify how a sense of personal responsibility can lead to helping behavior.
  • Clarify why being in a rush may reduce helping behavior.
  • Provide evidence for or against an altruistic personality.
  • Describe how the self-conscious emotions of embarrassment and guilt may affect helping behavior.
  • Clarify whether religiosity is an accurate predictor of helping behavior.
  • Describe the effect of mood on helping.
  • Clarify whether males or females are more likely to help.
  • Explain the role of empathy in helping.
  • Clarify whether egotism can lead to helping behavior.


11.2.1. Personal Responsibility

If we sense greater personal responsibility, we will be more likely to help, such as there being no one else around but us. If we see a motorist stranded on the side of the road on an isolated country road, and we know no other vehicle is behind us or approaching, responsibility solely falls on us, and we will be more likely to help. Keep this in mind for when we talk about diffusion of responsibility in a bit.


11.2.2. Time Pressure – The Costs of Motivated Behavior

Stopping to help someone in need takes time and represents a cost of motivated behavior. But what if we are in a rush to get to work or an appointment…or to class. Will we stop? Research by Batson et al. (1978) says that we will not. In a study utilizing 40 students at a large midwestern university, participants showed up at one location but were told they had to proceed to a different building for the study. Half were told they were late and half were told they were on time. Also, half were told their participation was vital while the other half were told it was not essential. As you might expect those in the unimportant condition stopped to help a confederate slumped in a doorway with his head down and coughing and groaning (Darley and Batson, 1973; Good Samaritan paradigm). Most who were late for their appointment did not stop to help.


11.2.3. An Altruistic Personality?

It would seem logical to assume that personality affects the decision to engage in helping behavior and we might hypothesize that moral behavior might be related to altruistic behavior. We would be wrong. In a classic study, Hartshorne and May (1929) found that the correlation of types of helping behavior and moral behavior was only 0.23 in a sample of 10,000 elementary and high school children. Subsequent research has also questioned whether such a construct is viable (Bierhoff & Rohmann, 2004) and Batson (1987) argued that prosocial motivation is actually egotistical when the goal is to increase one’s own welfare but altruistic when the goal is to increase the welfare of another person. Kerber (1984) found that those who could be classified as altruistic did examine the costs-benefits of engaging in helping behavior, though they viewed these situations as more rewarding and less costly than those low in altruism.

More recently, Dovidio et al. (2006) concluded that there truly is a ‘prosocial personality’ and that differences in the trait vary with the action a specific situation calls for such as rescuing people who are in danger, to serving as a volunteer, and to helping an individual in distress. Carlo et al. (2009) point out that gaps in the study of altruism exist and need to be studied to include changes in altruistic traits and behaviors over time, how altruism develops in childhood and adolescence, the biological basis of altruism, and cross-cultural and broader social contextual factors beyond proximal socializing agents of altruism. They conclude, “A focus on the positive aspects of human functioning will facilitate the development of more balanced, comprehensive solutions designed to enhance the personal and environmental factors that promote and foster a more caring, beneficent, and thriving society” (pg. 289).


11.2.4. Self-Conscious Emotions

We will be more likely to help if we do not expect to experience any type of embarrassment when helping. Let’s say you stop to help a fellow motorist with a flat tire. If you are highly competent at changing tires, then you will not worry about being embarrassed. But if you know nothing about tires, but are highly interpersonally attracted to the stranger on the side of the road holding a tire iron with a dumbstruck look on their face, you likely will look foolish if you try to change the tire and demonstrate your ignorance of how to do it (your solution is usually to call your auto club or AAA when faced with the same stressor).

Guilt can be used to induce helping behavior too. In one study, 90 adults received either a positive mood induction or no stimulus followed by a guilt induction, a distraction control, or no stimulus at all. Helping increase in relation to being in a positive mood but also being made to feel guilty. When the guilt induction followed the positive mood induction, there was no increase in helping behavior. In a second experiment, guilt was shown to increase helping only when an obligation to help was stressed (Cunningham, Steinberg, & Grev, 1980).


11.2.5. Religiosity

Does religious orientation affect prosocial behavior? According to Hansen, Vandenberg, & Patterson (1995) it does and of the three orientations – intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest – intrinsically oriented individuals prefer nonspontaneous helping opportunities while quest prefer spontaneous helping behaviors. Another study found that higher reports of subjective spirituality were linked to increased prosocial behavior (Bonner, Koven, & Patrick, 2003), though yet another study found evidence of altruistic hypocrisy such that intrinsic and orthodox religion were shown to be related to positive views toward helping others but were inversely related to actual altruistic behavior (Ji, Pendergraft, & Perry, 2006).

Before moving on, it is important to share an interesting article published by NPR in 2016. The article reported the results of a paper by Decety et al. (2015) which showed that in a sample of 1,151 children aged 5 to 12 and from cities in six different countries (i.e. Chicago, Toronto, Cape Town, Istanbul, Izmir, Amman, and Guangzhou) children from non-religious homes were more altruistic than children from Christian and Muslim households. In terms of religions affiliation, 23.9% of the sample were Christian, 43% were Muslim, and 27.6% were not religious. Here’s the issue. A re-analysis of the data by Azim Shariff of the University of California, Irvine, found that the original authors failed to consider variation in altruistic behavior that was actually accounted for by country and not religious affiliation. He updated the conclusions and found that country (likely culture) made a difference in altruistic behavior and not religion. Shariff concluded that religion does make people more generous but it is not the only factor, or even the best one. Even non-religious people can be motivated to engage in prosocial behavior.

To read the article for yourself, please visit: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/08/15/490031512/does-religion-matter-in-determining-altruism


11.2.6. Feeling Good

It is not surprising to surmise that people in a good mood are more willing to help than those in a bad mood. Maybe we did well on a test, found $20 on the street, or were listening to uplifting or prosocial music (Greitmeyer, 2009; North, Tarrant, & Hargreaves, 2004). Though more of a situational factor, it should be noted that pleasant ambient odors such as the smell of baking cookies or roasting coffee lead to greater levels of positive affect and subsequent helping behavior (Baron, 1997).

We might also help because we have a need for approval such as we realize by helping save the old lady from the burning building, we could get our name in the paper. This of course could make us feel good about ourselves. Deutsch and Lamberti (1986) found that subjects high in a need for approval were more likely to help a confederate who dropped books if they had been socially rewarded and not punished while those low in the need for approval were unaffected by social reinforcement.

Might a person in a bad mood engage in helping behavior?  According to the negative-state relief model a person might alleviate their own bad mood and feel better. This relieves their discomfort and improves their mood (Cialdini, Darby, & Vincent, 1973).


11.2.7. Gender

Would you like to make a hypothesis about which gender is more likely to help? If you guessed males, you are correct. If you guessed females, you are correct. It all depends on what the prosocial behavior is. When it comes to being heroic or chivalrous, men are more likely to help, while nurturant expressions of aid are generally engaged in by women (Eagly & Crowley, 1986). In a 2009 study, Eagly found further evidence for gender differences in relation to classes of prosocial behaviors. Women specialize in prosocial behaviors that are communal and relational while men engage in behaviors that are collectively oriented and agentic. The author proposes that these differences are linked to the division of labor and hormones, individual traits, and social expectations mediate how these gender roles influence behavior.


11.2.8. Empathy

Before we can understand empathy, we need to distinguish it from sympathy. Sympathy is when we feel compassion, pity, or sorry for another due to the hardships they have experienced. Empathy is when we put ourselves in another person’s shoes and vicariously experience their perspective. In doing so, we can feel sympathy and compassion for them.

Batson proposed the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson et al., 1991) which states that when we feel empathy for a person, we will help them for purely altruistic reasons with no concern about personal gain. If we do not feel empathy for them, then we need to decide whether the benefits of helping outweigh the costs. In one study, 84 female participants were exposed to a person in distress and asked to either observe the victim’s reactions (the low empathy condition) or imagine the victim’s feelings (the high empathy condition). They also assessed how easy it was for the participant to escape without helping (2 levels – easy or hard). Results showed, and in keeping with the empathy-altruism hypothesis, that participants low in empathy helped less when escape was easy which led the authors to speculate that they were only trying to reduce their own distress in an egotistical way. Those high in empathy helped no matter how easy escape was. Analysis of the participants self-reported emotional response showed that feeling empathy, not distress, evoked altruistic behavior (Toi & Batson, 1982). The link between personal distress and an egotistic motivation has been found in subsequent research as well (Batson, Early, & Salvarani, 1997).


11.2.9. An Egotistical Reason to Help?

Another important strategy is called social exchange theory and arose out of the work of George Homans, John Thibaut, Harold Kelly, and Peter Blau from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, though it has undergone revisions since (Cook et al., 2013) to include the addition of emotion (Lawler, 2001; Lawler & Thye, 1999). It is the idea that we utilize a minimax strategy whereby we seek to maximize our rewards all while minimizing our cost. Helping can be costly and so we help only when the gain to us is greater. In social exchange theory, there are no truly altruistic acts. Consider your decision to donate your time to a charity such as at Thanksgiving. Maybe you are considering volunteering at a homeless shelter and giving out food to those in need. You of course will consider the costs of such motivated helping behavior which includes less time with family, less time grazing at the dinner table, being unable to play or watch football, and possibly not having the time to do some shopping and get Black Friday deals. Then there are the benefits of helping which include feeling good about oneself, making a difference in someone else’s life, giving something back to your community, and possibly logging community service hours for your university or fraternity/sorority. If the benefits outweigh the costs, you volunteer. If not, you don’t.

Or we might help with an expectation of a specific form of repayment, called perceived self-interest. We offer our boss a ride home because we believe he will give us a higher raise when our annual review comes up. Maybe we engage in helping behavior to increase our self-worth. In a way, we have to wonder if it even matters. The recipient of the help is grateful and without it, may have been much worse off. If I am stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire and a stranger stops to help me change it, I really don’t care if they are there because they genuinely want to help or because they want to feel better about themselves.

11.3. Why We Help – Situational Factors


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify whether the presence of others either facilitates or hinders helping behavior.
  • Outline the five-step process for how we decide whether to help or not.
  • Describe the effect of social norms on helping behavior.


11.3.1. Bystander Effect

As we saw in Section 11.2.1, if we are the only one on the scene (or at least one of a very small few) we will feel personal responsibility and help. But what if we are among a large group of people who could help. Will you step up then? You still might, but the bystander effect (Latane & Darley, 1970) says likely not. Essentially, the chances that we will aid someone needing help decreases as the number of bystanders increases. The phenomenon draws its name from the murder of Ms. Kitty Genovese in March 1964. Thirty-eight residents of New York City failed to aid the 28-year-old woman who was attacked and stabbed twice by Winston Moseley as she walked to her building from her car. Not surprisingly, she called for help which did successfully scare Winston away, but when no one came out to help her, despite turning on lights in their apartments and looking outside, he returned to finish what he started. Ms. Genovese later died from her wounds. Very sad but ask yourself, what would you do? Of course, we would say we would help….or we hope that we would but history and research say otherwise.


11.3.2. A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping???

Latane and Darley (1970) proposed that there are a series of five steps we follow when deciding whether to render assistance or not. These include noticing an event, interpreting an event as an emergency, assuming responsibility, knowing how to help, and deciding to help.

First, we have to notice that an emergency situation is occurring. This seems simple enough but is an important first step. Consider Milgram’s (1970) urban overload hypothesis which says that high levels of urban stimulation can overload people and produce negative effects on their perception of the city and other residents such that they tune them out. Hence, we may not notice emergency situations when they are occurring.

Second, we need to interpret the event as an emergency. According to Shotland and Huston (1979) an emergency is characterized by something happening suddenly such as an accident, there being a clear threat of harm to a victim, the harm or threat of harm will increase if no one intervenes, the victim cannot defend or help him/herself, and there is not an easy solution to the problem for the victim. Ambiguity can make interpretation difficult. Let’s say you are driving down the road and see someone pulled on the side. You can see them in the front seat but cannot tell what they are doing. If the situation does not clearly suggest an emergency, you will likely keep driving. Maybe the person was acting responsibly and pulled over to send a text or take a call and is not in need of any assistance at all. Latane and Darley (1968) conducted a study to examine the effects of an ambiguous event on the decision to intervene in an emergency. They predicted, and found, that the sight of nonresponsive others would lead a participant to perceive the event as not serious and bring about no action as compared to when there was a solitary participant in the room.

Third, when others are around, we experience a diffusion of responsibility (Darley & Latane, 1968), meaning that we are less likely to assume responsibility. Consider this. If 10 people witness an accident, each person has just 10% responsibility to act. If there are 5 people present, our responsibility is 20%. If 2, 50% and if we are the only person present, 100%. What if 100 people witnessed the accident? We have a 1% responsibility. So in keeping with the bystander effect as the number of people present increase, we will be less likely to act possibly because we assume less responsibility. To act, we have to feel personally responsible.

The final steps in the Latane and Darley (1970) model involve weighing the costs and benefits to engaging in helping behavior.  We might decide that helping is risky as we could look foolish in front of other witnesses called audience inhibition (Latane and Nida, 1981) or we might feel pressured by peers to engage in altruistic behavior such as donating blood or donating money to charity called reluctant altruism (Reyniers & Bhalla, 2013; Ferguson, Atsma, de Kort, & Veldhuizen, 2012). Once we have decided to help, we need to figure out what type of assistance will be most useful.


11.3.3. Social Norms and Culture

Consider the idea of the reciprocity norm (Gouldner, 1960) which states that we are more likely to survive if we enter into an understanding with our neighbor to help in times of need. If we help a friend move into their new apartment, we expect help from this individual when we move our next time. The norm is strongest when we are interacting with another person of equal status.

The norm of social responsibility, in contrast, states that we should help another person without any concern about future exchange. For instance, a parent cares for a child and a teacher instructs students. We might wonder if there are cultural differences in regards to this norm, particularly as it relates to collectivist and individualist cultures. Consider that collectivistic cultures have an interdependent view of the self while individualistic cultures have an independent view, and so we expect the former to engage in helping behavior more than the latter. Its not that simple though. Our discussion of in and out groups in Module 4 and again in Module 9 show that we will be more likely to help an ingroup member than an outgroup member. How strongly we draw a distinction between these groups can affect helping behavior. Collective cultures may make a firmer distinction between in and out groups and so help ingroup members more compared to individualistic cultures.

11.4. Increasing Helping Behavior


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe how modeling could be used to increase helping behavior.
  • Outline reasons to volunteer.


11.4.1. Modeling Helping Behavior

One way to increase prosocial behavior comes from observational learning and the idea of copying a prosocial model. According to research by Schuhmacher, Koster, and Kartner (2018) when infants observed a prosocial model, they engaged in more helping behavior than if they had no model. Schuhmacher states, “These findings tell us that children’s prosocial development may be affected not only by direct and active structuring of helping situations by others, as when parents offer suggestions to babies to help someone, but also through learning by observing people who help others” (See Science Daily for more information on this article – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180417130053.htm.


11.4.2. Reasons to Volunteer

Clary and Snyder (1999) proposed five motivations for volunteerism. First, they suggest that people volunteer due to values and a desire to express or act on values such as humanitarianism. Second, understanding is critical and people volunteer so that they can exercise underused skills or learn about the world. Third, enhancement leads us to engage in volunteer activities so that we can grow and develop psychologically. Fourth, our career may lead us to volunteer so we gain career-related experience. Fifth is social or volunteering so that we can strengthen our social relationships. Finally, we volunteer to reduce feelings of guilt or to escape personal problems as a protective function. The authors used these functions to create the Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI).

For additional reasons to volunteer, please read the Psychology Today article. Additional reasons include living longer, benefiting society, and giving a sense of purpose or meaning in life (Klein, 2016).


Module Recap

Module 11 covered the important, and more positive topic, of helping behavior. Of course, though prosocial behavior is generally a good thing, understanding reasons why someone may willingly choose not to help can be hard to process. We focused on a series of dispositional and situational factors and then proposed ways to increase helping. With this module now finished, we end the class on an equally important, and definitely more positive, topic of attraction.

2nd edition


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