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In social psychology, the everyday concept of helpfulness is the property of providing useful assistance; or friendliness evidenced by a kindly and helpful disposition.

For many years, social psychologists have been searching for answers to these questions:

  • Why, and when, will people help?
  • Who will help?
  • What can be done to lessen indifference and increase helping?


Rewards: Rewards can be internal or external. Internal rewards are rewards that increase our sense of self-worth. There are many different negative emotions that people try to reduce by performing good deeds. For example, people will do whatever can be done to expunge guilt, relieve their bad feelings, and restore their self-image (Meyers, 446). Being helpful helps to achieve these goals and can even offset other negative moods.

Feel Bad-Do Good Scenario: This effect states that those who feel bad for another person in a situation will be more likely to help compared to a person who feels bad for themselves in that situation. For example, a study was performed that had people imagine that their best friend had cancer. In this study, the researchers examined people's attention to grief. Those that were focused on the worries of the best friend were those that were more helpful compared to the people who had more selfish worries such as " I will have to act happy when really I am sad about my friends situation" (Meyers, 447).

Feel Good, Do Good Scenario: This scenario states that people who are in a good mood are more helpful. Thus, helping people enhances that positive feeling which creates positive thoughts and positive self-esteem.

Why Do People Help?[edit]

Several theories of helping agree that, in the long run, helping behavior benefits the giver as well as the receiver. One explanation involves actions guided by "social economics". This action is called the social exchange theory. It states that human interactions are transactions that aim to maximize one's rewards and minimize one's costs. We exchange not only material goods and money but also social goods - love, services, information status (Foa & Foa, 1975).

  • Arousal: Cost-Reward Model. The arousal: cost-reward model suggests that people feel upset when they see a person in need and are motivated to do something to reduce the unpleasant arousal. People then weigh the costs of helping versus not helping. The clearer the need for help, the more likely people are to help. The presence of others inhibits helping behavior due to diffusion of responsibility, a belief that someone else will help. Environmental and personality characteristics also influence helping.
  • Empathy-Altruism Theory. According to the empathy-altruism theory, helpfulness is seen in those who have empathy with the person in need.
  • Evolutionary Theory. Evolutionary theories propose that people help others to ensure the survival of their genes, at the risk of endangering themselves. There are two specific types of helping in the Evolutionary Theory. One is kin protection, which claims that devotion goes to one's children before themselves. The other is reciprocity, which has the same components of the reciprocity norm. Basically, if you help someone, they will return the favor.
  • The Reciprocity Norm. An expectation that people will help, not hurt, those who have helped them.
  • Social Responsibility Norm. An expectation that people will help those needing help.

Why Don't People Help?[edit]

Helping people is always considered as a part of social behavior which further fosters and sustains sociability and productivity. It is also dependent upon changing and adopting values of collectivism and individualism. In extreme hostile environments and high stress generating situations often "Whats in it for me" attitude takes role as an acceptable norm from continuous negative reinforcement in forms of burnout for altruistic and empathetic behavior and as a product of thankless culture.[1] Further to reduce this, negative pro-coping strategies such as minimax is used, a vicious loop of individualistic calculation of who has the maxim(regardless the value) from a competitive advantage framework. Alternatively this might be a reflection of lack of self-esteem, knowledge and skills required. Some people are hesitant to help others due to the toll of early negative emotional response.[2] Others might have a pathological fear of disappointing others[3] or due to the inability to distinguish appearing incompetent and accepting the reality in the unrealism of knowing everything disregard the diversified needs of their beneficiaries.[4] People are wary of relationships and providing help generates anxieties of depersonalisation in forms of lose of knowledge, personal self and identity. Similar resistance can arise from false dilemma when people are wary of overdependence and choose to not help at all than helping the helpee to be self sufficient within helper's limits. The helper - helpee relationship might be overshadowed by normally unrelated but pertinent misconceptions of superiority, elitism, condescension, traits of psychopathy and sociopathy, kindness and etiquette, etc.

When Will People Help?[edit]

Circumstances that inhibit or enhance helpfulness include:

  • Number of bystanders. The bystander effect states that victims are less likely to get help when many people are around (Latane & Darley, 1975).
  • Helping when someone else does. People are more likely to help others if they have just observed someone else modeling that specific helping behavior, e.g. Los Angeles drivers offering help to a female driver with a flat tire (Bryan & Test, 1967), New Jersey Christmas shoppers dropping money in a Salvation Army kettle (Bryan & Test, 1967), British adults donating blood (Rushton & Campbell, 1977).
  • Time pressures. People leisurely on their way to an unimportant appointment usually stopped to help, but those late for an important date seldom stopped (Batson et al., 1978).
  • Similarity. People are more empathetic and helpful toward those similar to them (Miller et al., 2001), e.g. in dress (Emswiller et al., 1971; Gary et al., 1991), in race (Benson et al., 1976; Clark, 1974; Sissons, 1981), in beliefs (Myers, 2005).

Who Will Help?[edit]

  • Personality traits. People high in positive emotionality, empathy, and self-efficacy are most likely to be concerned and helpful (Bierhoff et al., 1991; Eisenberg et al., 1991; Krueger et al., 2001). Those high in self-monitoring are attuned to others' expectations and are therefore helpful if they think helpfulness will be socially rewarded (White & Gerstein, 1987).
  • Religious faith. People who rate religion as "important" are more likely to report working among the needy (Colasanto, 1989; Wuthnow, 1994; Deuser & DeNeve, 1995), to campaign for social justice (Benson et al., 1980; Hansen et al., 1995; Penner, 2002), and to give away higher percent of their incomes (Hodgkinson et al., 1990, 1992), especially over the long-term (Myers, 2005). Furthermore, they are likely to give money to missionary causes, rather than secular, objective organizations that have no motive of religious conversion.

Whom to Help?[edit]

  • Victims of disaster, crime, and poverty
  • People who are worse-off than the helper (to varying degree)

How To Increase Helping?[edit]

Research studies by social scientists have suggested that the following factors can help to increase helping:

  • Reduce ambiguity, increasing responsibility. Personal appeals for help are much more effective than posters and media announcements (Jason et al., 1984). Nonverbal appeals can also be effective when they are personalized (Snder et al., 1974; Omoto & Snyder, 2002). So does reduction of anonymity (Solomon & Solomon, 1978; Solomon et al., 1981).
  • Guilt and concern for self-image. People who have been reprimanded for their transgressions are more likely to offer help than those who have not been reprimanded (Katzev, 1978). People who have given door-in-the-face responses are likely to agree to a smaller and more reasonable request (Cialdini et al., 1975). Labeling people as helpful can also increase helpful contributions (Kraut, 1973).
  • Teaching moral inclusion. Broadening the range of people whose well-being concerns us (Batson, 1983) and inviting advantaged people to put themselves in others' shoes, to imagine how they feel (Batson et al., 2003), helps.
  • Modeling altruism. It's better not to publicize rampant tax cheating, littering and teen drinking, and instead to emphasize - to define a norm of - people's widespread honesty, cleanliness, and abstinence (Cialdini et al., 2003). Norms for generosity could perhaps be cultivated by simply including a new line on tax forms that requires people to compute - and thus to know - their annual donations as a percentage of income (Ayres & Nalebuff, 2003). Modeling effects were also apparent within the families of European Christians who risked their lives to rescue Jews in the 1930s and 1940s and of 1950s (London, 1970; Oliner & Oliner, 1988; Rosenhan, 1970; Staub, 1989,1991,1992).

Further reading[edit]

  • Bernstein, Penner, Stewart & Roy. Psychology, Sixth Edition (Online outlines). Houghton Mifflin.
  • Myers, D. (2005). Social Psychology. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Yang, F., & Chang, W. (2010). The effects of mood and objective self-awareness on helping intention and helping behavior. Bulletin of Educational Psychology, 42(2), 339-358. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Nadler, A. (2010). Interpersonal and intergroup helping relations as power relations: Implications for real-world helping. In S. Stürmer, M. Snyder, S. Stürmer, M. Snyder (Eds.), The psychology of prosocial behavior: Group processes, intergroup relations, and helping (pp. 269–287). Wiley-Blackwell. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Stürmer, S., & Snyder, M. (2010). Helping 'us' versus 'them': Towards a group-level theory of helping and altruism within and across group boundaries. In S. Stürmer, M. Snyder, S. Stürmer, M. Snyder (Eds.), The psychology of prosocial behavior: Group processes, intergroup relations, and helping (pp. 33–58). Wiley-Blackwell. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Law, B. F., & Shek, D. L. (2011). Validation of the cultural influence on helping scale among Chinese adolescents. Research on Social Work Practice, 21(2), 212-221. doi:10.1177/1049731510379817
  • Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Ubel, P. A., Smith, D. M., Jankovic, A., & Langa, K. M. (2010). Does a helping hand mean a heavy heart? Helping behavior and well-being among spouse caregivers. Psychology and Aging, 25(1), 108-117. doi:10.1037/a0018064

See also[edit]