Psychology: The Basics of Altruism

A favorite topic among social psychologists is altruism, having concern for and helping other people without asking for anything in return. Maybe these psychologists study altruism with such zeal because it’s an integral part of everyday life.

In New York City in 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered outside of her apartment by a man with a knife. She struggled with the attacker and screamed for help for nearly 35 minutes. No one came to her aid. Later reports by 38 of her neighbors stated that they had witnessed the crime and heard her screams, but they did nothing to help her.

What happened here? It’s not likely that all 38 people were cold, callous individuals who didn’t care about a woman being murdered within earshot. Instead, they were influenced by social psychological principle in which social situations have a powerful influence on individual behavior.

Social-exchange theory

Researchers E. B. Foa and U. G. Foa introduced social-exchange theory, the idea that helping is part of a reciprocal process of giving and receiving social “goods” such as love, support, and services. Individuals try to minimize personal costs and maximize benefits. In helping situations, if the benefit of helping is higher than the cost of not helping, a person is more likely to help.

Also supporting this theory is A. W. Gouldner’s reciprocity norm, which holds that a cultural norm tells people they should return help to those who help them. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. In turn, people don’t hurt those who help them out.

Motivated by the love inside

In 1991, social psychologist Daniel Batson came to the rescue of humanity’s sense of goodness with his theory that people help others because individuals have a natural empathy for other people, especially those they are attached to.

Psychologist and professor emeritus at New York University Martin Hoffman found that even infants seem to possess a natural ability to “feel for” others. They cry when they hear another baby cry. It’s likely that they cry because they are in touch with the other baby’s pain. People can relate to feeling upset at the sight of another person’s misfortune. This natural empathy may encourage helping behavior.

Richard Dawkins supports the genetic theory in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he proposed that people are altruistic because their genes compel them to be. The idea of kin protection states that genes promote altruistic behavior toward kin or family in order to ensure the survival of the group’s genetic makeup.

When to help?

One of the most remarkable findings in altruism research is the idea that people are less likely to help when they’re in the presence of others than when they’re alone. This sounds strange, doesn’t it? You may think that the fear of appearing cold and uncaring in front of others may encourage people to help more.

But research shows otherwise. When someone is in a crowd, he is actually less likely to notice that other people need help. In New York City, for example, people are always surrounded by other people. It’s a crowded place, and most people can’t take the time to notice everything and everyone around them simply because of the sheer volume of information; it’s easier to fade into a crowd.

Strangely enough, when others are around, people are also less likely to interpret someone’s behavior as indicative of needing help. Bystanders look to others for a sign as to how they should respond in a situation. If the other people don’t act alarmed, then an individual typically won’t be alarmed (or react) either

A final problem with helping in the presence of others is called diffusion of responsibility. People assume someone else will take care of whatever needs doing. If no one else is around, then you’re the only one left; you’ve got to help. But if others are around, it’s easy to assume they’ll do it. What happens when everyone assumes that everyone else is going to offer assistance? Help doesn’t happen.

That’s exactly what two researchers, psychologists Latane and Darley, found in a 1968 study in which experiment subjects were witness to a victim of a feigned seizure. Persons who were led to believe they were alone reported the emergency to authorities more quickly than those who believed they were just one among other witnesses.

Research has found that when someone in a group takes action, others are more likely to jump in. Helpful people in this scenario serve as prosocial models and are a strong influence on altruistic behavior. Until someone makes the first move, the negative forces of the bystander effect are active.

Who gives and receives help?

What about how helping affects feelings? Altruism research shows that happy people tend to be more helpful or giving. Does that mean that sad people aren’t helpful at all? It actually depends on how rewarding helping others is to the person experiencing sadness. If sad people aren’t too self-absorbed and self-focused, altruistic acts can be very rewarding for them. Feeling good, doing good! Feeling bad, doing good!

Are religious people really more helpful than their non-religious neighbors? Here’s what research shows: When people indicate that religion is very important in their lives, they have been found to give 2.5 times as much money to charity as those who indicate that religion is not very important. The verdict — religious individuals are definitely generous, and, in some research findings, they’re more generous than non-religious individuals.

  • Add a Comment
  • Print
  • Share
blog comments powered by Disqus
Advertisement

Inside Dummies.com