Helping Behavior Definition
Helping behavior is providing aid or benefit to another person. It does not matter what the motivation of the helper is, only that the recipient is assisted. This is distinguished from the more general term prosocial behavior, which can include any cooperative or friendly behavior. It is also distinguished from the more specific term altruistic behavior, which requires that the motivation for assisting others be primarily for the well-being of the other person or even at a cost to oneself.
History and Background of Helping Behavior
The value of one person helping another is an ancient virtue discussed by the Greeks, evident across cultures and civilizations, and pervasive in world religions. One ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, suggested that groups of people needed to form social contracts to ensure that individuals would restrain their own selfish behavior for the good of others. Aristotle saw human nature as more innately good. He also described the relative positive feelings of the giver and receiver for one another. According to Aristotle, these feelings are greater for the person giving help than the help recipient. The ancient Chinese Confucian value “Jen” is a benevolence or charity toward others and is regarded as the highest of Confucian values.
The ancient Greeks and Chinese are not the only ones concerned with helping behavior. Almost all world religions have some version of the Golden Rule—people should treat others as they would like to be treated. The Christian Bible promotes care for each other, the poor, and the needy. It also tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped a stranger in distress along the roadway. This parable has become the modern ideal model of positive helping behavior. Maimonides, the Jewish Rabbi and philosopher, described the Golden Ladder of Charity, or eight degrees of goodness in helping others. Charity toward others is the third Pillar of Islam (Zakat) and involves an annual obligation to give to those in need. Buddhism’s Noble Eight Fold Path encourages helping others through right speech, action, and livelihood. In Hinduism, kindness to all creatures is important because all creatures are manifestations of God. Furthermore, helping to reduce others’ suffering is good karma, or a positive effect that a person’s behavior has on subsequent incarnations.
In modern, scientific approaches, social psychologists have been at the forefront of understanding how and why people help others. However, very little was written on helping behavior until a key historical event: the murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese on March 13, 1964. The failure of people in the area to help during the attack made newspaper headlines and spurred a great deal of commentary. Social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley were inspired to study what decision-making processes were involved in deciding whether to help in an emergency situation. Latane and Darley’s work was among the first of thousands of professional journal articles and books on the topic.
In people’s everyday lives there are innumerable small acts of helping, like lending a pen to a fellow student. There are also very large acts of helping that include donating large sums of money or rescuing someone from a burning building. P. L. Pearce and P. R. Amato classified the kinds of helping as falling along three dimensions: level of planning and formality, directness of the help, and seriousness of the need. Level of planning and formality can range from very formal and planned, like working as a hospital volunteer each week, to very spontaneous and informal, like helping someone who has dropped some papers in the hallway. Directness of help refers to level of contact with the recipient of help from very direct, like helping a young girl tie her shoes, to very indirect, like mailing off a charity donation to help hurricane victims. Finally, the seriousness of the need should be taken into account. There is a big difference in lending someone a few pennies when he or she is short at the grocery store and doing CPR and rescue breathing on someone who has had a heart attack. The consequences of the former are very small, whereas the consequences of the latter could mean the difference between life and death.
McGuire described four different types of helping behavior. Casual helping involves doing small favors for casual acquaintances, such as letting someone borrow your cell phone for a quick call. If you have ever helped a friend or family member to move, you’ve engaged in substantial personal helping. This helping involves putting out a lot of effort to help someone over an extended time, so that the recipient can have a benefit. Emotional helping means providing care and personalized emotional support to another, like listening to a friend who has had a bad day or giving knowledge and advice to someone who requests it. Finally, emergency helping is assisting someone who has an acute problem. This would be like calling 911 when you witness a car accident. A concept related to McGuire’s classifications of helping behavior is social support, which can involve providing both resources to help a person solve a problem and the emotional or psychological support required to endure the stresses of life’s problems.
Helping Behavior Importance
The importance of this topic is evident. It is the rare individual who can go through life never needing help from another person. Most people experience some sickness, a car break-down, or other problem in which they need at least the temporary assistance of others, and many people will experience an emergency or personal tragedy for which they will need much greater assistance. Understanding emergency helping behavior can help researchers better predict who will help under what circumstances. Then resources can be focused on getting help where it is most needed at the time it is needed. Community education efforts can increase the timeliness and usefulness of help provided and can direct those in need to appropriate services. Promoting helpfulness is a benefit to individuals, families, and communities. If the community is prepared to be helpful, then the help will be there when each community member needs it. Better understanding helping processes may even lead to ways to prepare those who need help to ask effectively.
Theoretical Explanations of Helping Behavior
One of the greatest unanswered questions in social psychology is why people help others, particularly if that helping comes at a cost to themselves. Three broad theoretical approaches seek to explain the origins of helping behavior: natural explanations (including evolutionary and genetic explanations), cultural approaches (including sociocultural and social learning explanations), and psychological or individual-level explanations.
Scientists who study evolutionary psychology or sociobiology explore the evolutionary origins of human behavior. They may examine human groups or animal behavior to help learn about the way in which the human species developed and maintained the ability to act prosocially. They believe that evolutionary pressures make people naturally inclined to help others. However, they qualify that people are most likely to help those who will help them pass on their own genes or to pass along similar genes. So, people are more likely to help relatives than nonrelatives. People may be more willing to help their own children than neighbors’ children, because one’s own child has more related genetic material. Similarly, people are more likely to help others with similar physical, attitudinal, and demographic characteristics because they are more likely to pass along similar genetic characteristics to the next generation. So, people are more likely to help their friends, who are like them, than they are to help strangers, who are not like them. Attractive group members may receive more help, because they are more likely to pass along high-quality genetic traits to the next generation. So, in the evolutionary past, people with helpful characteristics may have been more likely to pass their genes to the next generation, promoting the good of the group and making those characteristics more visible in subsequent generations.
Other scientists argue that it is not genetics and evolution but culture and learning processes that produce helpful people. These scientists use society’s rules, called social norms, and society’s child-rearing processes, called socialization, to explain how people become helpful. Perhaps the most universal norm in the world is the norm of reciprocity. This norm suggests that if someone does something for you, you are obligated to do something in return. This social pressure comes with exchange of goods, like birthday presents, and exchange of services, like giving friends a ride in expectation that they’ll drive next time. So, to repay their social debt, people are most likely to help those who have helped them in the past. People are also more likely to help those they think might help them in the future, reciprocating their own good deed. Another social norm that relates to helping is the norm of equity. If people perceive themselves to be overbenefited (getting more than their fair share in life) or others to be underbenefited (getting less than their fair share in life), they’ll act to fix the inequity. If they can’t fix the inequity, however, they may blame the victim for his or her own misfortune, keeping their perception of a just and fair world in balance. The third major social norm related to helping behavior is the norm of social responsibility. In general, people believe they are responsible for helping those in their society who need help or are dependent on them. For example, people may feel that it is their responsibility to be helpful to children, the infirm elderly, people with physical disabilities, and other groups. This norm of social responsibility is stronger among women than men, and it is stronger among people with a collectivist orientation than among people with an individualist orientation. Also, while people will follow the norm of social responsibility in most cases, they will not follow it if they believe the person to be helped was to blame for his or her own need. For example, a male student may not help a female friend with lunch money if he knows that she spent what should have been her lunch money on video games earlier in the day.
Social psychologists have also explored individual-level explanations for why people help. These explanations concern the rewards received and costs paid for helping and the emotions around helping. People may receive rewards for helping others. These rewards can be physical rewards, like receiving a monetary award for returning a lost wallet; social rewards, like having public recognition of a good deed; or emotional, like feeling good after carrying groceries for an elderly neighbor. Costs associated with not helping are also motivating. People may help others specifically to avoid the guilt and shame associated with not fulfilling social obligations. People may also fear the disapproval they would receive from others for not helping. It would look bad if you stood passively aside while someone struggled to get through a door with an armload of boxes, when you could easily have helped them. Social learning theory suggests that to the extent people experience these rewards for helping or costs for not helping, they are more likely to help others in the future, expecting the next situation to have similar rewards and costs. So, rewards and costs do not need to be immediate to influence motivation. Sometimes people help others because it will aid their long-term goals of social recognition, fulfill career aspirations, or increase the social reputation, goods, money, and services they may receive in the future. People learn which behaviors produce rewards and which bring costs, beginning with parental teaching and modeling of helpful behaviors and continuing through life as friends, coworkers, and families praise or criticize people for enacting behaviors. For example, children who are taught to give to the poor through food drives and receive praise for doing so are more likely to continue these behaviors through their life.
Research teams headed by Robert B. Cialdini and C. Daniel Batson have spurred an ongoing debate concerning the role of empathy in motivating helping behavior. Cialdini contends that feelings of empathy produce a merging with the other and experience of that person’s emotional pain, so the person helps others to relieve his or her own emotional pain. Batson describes the desire to help another out of empathic concern for the other’s well-being as more genuinely altruistic. Altruism is defined as helping another purely for the good of the other person, with no external or internal rewards for the self, and possibly at great cost to one’s self. Heroes who rescue people from burning buildings and saintly figures, like Mother Teresa, are often described as altruistic.
Deciding When to Help
Whatever the motivation to help, decisions must ultimately be made to help or not help. Latane and Darley describe a decision model of helping for explaining when people will or will not help. This model takes into consideration individual experiences and social situations that make a person less inclined to help. For example, if a person never notices that someone nearby in a noisy restaurant is choking, the person won’t be able to help. An example of a situational factor that influences helping behavior is diffusion of responsibility. If the same noisy restaurant is crowded with other people who could potentially help the choking victim, any one person is less likely to actually administer assistance, the responsibility for helping is diffused among the group.
In deciding whether to help, the person also takes into consideration the current rewards and costs of helping. Jane A. Piliavin’s arousal: cost-reward model explains this process. When a person sees another in distress, such as in an illness or emergency situation, the person may feel empathy and arousal. Piliavin states that this empathic arousal motivates helping a person in need. What the helper actually does to reduce the victim’s distress depends on the cost to the helper of acting and the costs for the victim if he or she doesn’t receive help. Personal costs for helping include injury, the effort put forth, and potential embarrassment. Costs for the victim not receiving help are the victim’s continued distress and the shame, guilt, and social criticism directed at the person who does not help. When the costs to the victim of not getting help are high but the costs for helping are low, like a child running out into a busy street, people are likely to directly intervene (such as catching the child before the child reaches the street). The more dangerous or costly it becomes to the self, the less direct help will be offered. For example, people are less likely to come between two people having a fistfight at an athletic event because of the danger of being hurt themselves. In these cases, people will be more likely to use indirect helping tactics, such as alerting security staff about the fight. Other people reinterpret the event so that they won’t have to feel responsible for helping. For example, thinking, “Those unruly drunk guys probably deserve the beating they’re getting from each other.” When the cost of helping is high and the cost for not helping is low, people often leave the scene or deny that there was ever a need for help. In the ambiguous situation of having a low cost of helping and a low cost to the victim of not getting help, social norms govern whether people will provide assistance.
Gender and Other Individual Differences in Helping Behavior
There is wide popular perception that women are more helpful than men, more generally kind and nurturing. Yet, awards for heroism are much more likely to go to men than to women. Laboratory studies in social psychology tend to show either that men are more helpful or that both genders are equally helpful. Men play the social role of heroes and protectors in Western society, encouraging helping behavior. Men are typically physically larger and stronger than women, so they may perceive or experience less danger of being hurt themselves in engaging in heroic acts. Therefore, we cannot attribute all of heroism to being biologically wired for helping in emergencies. Some research suggests that women may be more likely to help in the context of ongoing family and friendship relationships. They may also be more likely to help when the task involves doing things related to stereotypical gender roles for women, such as helping a lost child find her parent or delivering meals to someone who has been sick.
Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner studied the personality characteristics of some of the heroes of the Holocaust. These individuals rescued or aided Jewish people, Polish people, and others who were escaping the Nazi cruelties. The characteristics they identified as important in distinguishing helpers from nonhelpers have been supported in additional controlled research studies. These characteristics include having empathy for victims, that is, understanding the feelings of others and responding to them emotionally. An example would be feeling teary or sad when you see someone crying. In helpers this empathy is other-oriented. That is, it is concern for the welfare of others and a desire to help them. The Oliners also found that helpers had a strong sense of personal responsibility for the welfare of others, a characteristic that comes from high moral reasoning. During the Holocaust, some supervisors and teachers hid their loyal Jewish employees or students until they could escape. Finally, these helpers displayed a high sense of self-efficacy. They believed that they were likely to be helpful as they assisted others. In a natural disaster, the devastation can be so widespread and so many people can be affected that a person might feel overwhelmed and ineffective in what help he or she could offer. However, a person with high self-efficacy might feel that while he or she could not solve the enormity of the problems the natural disaster brought, he or she might be able to help one person or one family with a donation or by volunteering time in the clean-up efforts.
Helping Behavior Implications
Research in helping behavior has vast benefits for understanding human behavior, for increasing good outcomes for individuals, and for the overall good of society. To the extent that people understand the behavior, motivations, and personality characteristics of, and situational influences on, helpers, they may be able to increase helpfulness toward those who most need help in their society, benefit from ongoing personal relationships with others, and generally make the world a better place to live. Those who have done research on increasing helpfulness in others have found that explanations of need, and making kind attributions (internal explanations) for those needs, increase helping behavior. Reminding people of their moral responsibilities to help those in need, telling people how to help, and making the victims more human also increase helping behavior. Much research is currently in progress on linking helping to other positive psychological characteristics like gratitude and forgiveness.
- Batson, C. D. (1997). Self-other merging and the empathy-altruism hypothesis: Reply to Neuberg et al. (1997). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 517-522.
- Batson, C. D., Sager, K., Garst, E., Kang, M., Rubchinsky, K., & Dawson, K. (1997). Is empathy-induced helping due to self-other merging? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 495-509.
- Berkowitz, W. (1987). Local heroes. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
- Cialdini, R. B., Brown, S. L., Lewis, B. P., Luce, C., & Neuberg, S. L. (1997). Reinterpreting the empathy-altruism relationship: When one into one equals oneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 481-494.
- Neuberg, S. L., Cialdini, R. B., Brown, S. L., Luce, C., & Sagarin, B. J. (1997). Does empathy lead to anything more than superficial helping? Comment on Batson et al. (1997). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 510-516.
- Oliner, S. P., & Oliner, P. M. (1992). Altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press.
- Schroeder, D. A., Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., & Piliavin, J. A. (1995). The psychology of helping and altruism: Problems and puzzles. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Wilson, D. S., & Kniffin, K. M. (2003). Altruism from an evolutionary perspective. In S. G. Post, B. Johnson, M. E. McCullough, & J. P. Schloss (Eds.), Research on altruism and love: An annotated bibliography of major studies in psychology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and theology (pp. 117-136). Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.