Negative-State Relief Model Definition
The negative-state relief (NSR) model is a theory that attempts to describe how one situational factor— sadness—relates to the willingness to help others. Specifically, this theory predicts that at least under certain circumstances, a temporary feeling of sadness is likely to result in an increased willingness to help others. For example, a person who is sad because a close friend just cancelled a planned visit would be more likely to help a stranger push his or her car out of a snow bank. Why would a sad mood lead to an increased willingness to help others? According to this theory, this is for selfish reasons. Specifically, people have been socialized in such a way that they are rewarded for helping other people. Over time, people internalize this and find helping others rewarding. When a person is sad, he or she is motivated to repair that mood and anticipates that helping another person would do so. More simply, when people are sad, they may be more likely to help others because they believe that doing so will make them feel better.
Significance and History of the Negative-State Relief Model
Human beings would have been unlikely to survive their early history as a species without the existence of helping behavior. Even in modern times, human beings often need assistance from others. Sometimes such assistance is provided; other times, it is not. Knowing why people do or do not help others in particular situations, then, is important both for a complete understanding of human social behavior and for informing attempts to increase helping behavior. The study of helping behavior has a rich history in social psychology, and the NSR model is an early theory of such behavior.
Early studies on the association between positive mood and helping provided unambiguous results. Being in a positive mood is consistently associated with a greater willingness to help others. This might suggest that being in a negative mood ought to make people less likely to help others, but early research on this topic provided less clear results. Some of these studies found that people were more likely to help when in a negative mood whereas others found that people were less likely to help when in a negative mood. The NSR model was an attempt to reconcile these inconsistent findings. This theory suggests that people in a negative mood are more likely to help others only when the helping behavior is not overly aversive and when they have internalized the rewarding nature of helping others. If helping another person is too costly, then doing so is unlikely to improve one’s mood. Moreover, if a person does not anticipate that helping another person will improve one’s mood, sadness is unlikely to result in increased helping.
Evidence for the Negative-State Relief Model
Considerable evidence indicates that helping other people does indeed improve one’s mood. In experimental studies, participants who were able to provide help to another person reported that they were in better moods than did participants who were not given a chance to provide help to another person. This suggests that helping others may be a successful means of repairing a sad mood, and that people may be aware of this. These findings support the NSR model.
Direct evidence also shows that the induction of a sad mood causes people to be more helpful. Pre-teen and teenage research participants who were asked to recall depressing events were more likely to help others when given a chance. However, this pattern was reversed in younger children. These findings provide nice support for the NSR model. Older participants, who presumably have learned that helping other people is rewarding, were more likely to help when they were sad. Younger participants, however, presumably have not yet internalized the lesson that helping others is rewarding, and therefore do not do so as a means of improving their own mood.
Additional evidence is consistent with other aspects of the NSR model. First, research has demonstrated that negative moods only lead to increased helping when the cost of such help is relatively low. This makes sense given that incurring high costs to help someone else is likely to offset any mood improvement resulting from the provision of help. Second, evidence suggests that sad people help even more when they view their own mood as changeable. This, too, makes sense in light of the NSR model. If a person does not believe that his or her mood is changeable, it follows that helping another person will not improve mood. It makes sense, then, that they help less than do people who do think their moods can change.
Whereas the NSR model, as originally written, was intended to apply only to sadness, some evidence suggests that it may apply to at least one other negative emotion. Studies indicate that the experience of guilt is consistently associated with a greater likelihood of helping others. Other studies indicate that negative emotions like anger and anxiety do not increase helping, however.
Negative-State Relief Model Controversy
Despite evidence in support of the NSR model, there are critics. Some researchers have found results that seem to contradict the model. For example, evidence indicates that sadness leads to increased helping even when people anticipate that their mood will improve for other reasons. This seems to contradict the NSR model because it shows that sad people are more likely to help even when they do not need to do so to improve their moods. Moreover, an analysis of several published studies has challenged key assumptions of the NSR model (e.g., that the relationship between sadness and helping increases with age). This analysis has its own critics, however, and there is still disagreement regarding the accuracy of the NSR model.
Regardless, the NSR model has contributed to psychologists’ understanding of conditions under which people are more or less likely to help. It has generated a substantial amount of research, continues to do so, and is likely to have an enduring influence, despite differences of opinion regarding its accuracy.
- Batson, C. D., Batson, J. G., Griffit, C. A., Barrientos, S., Brandt, J. R., Sprengelmeyer, P., et al. (1989). Negative-state relief and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 922-933.
- Cialdini, R. B., & Kenrick, D. T. (1976). Altruism as hedonism: A social developmental perspective on the relationship of negative mood state and helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 907-914.