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Are People Wired to Help the Needy?

2014 February 23
by Eric Horowitz

Humans tend to be altruistic creatures. Don’t be fooled by what you see on Black Friday or days when Congress votes on food stamp funding — we like helping each other out.

A popular explanation for our behavior is that we have evolved to care for those in need and feel empathy when we come across people in distress. These “empathy” motives suggest we prefer to help people who appear the most troubled.

A less-discussed explanation is that we aim to help desirable social partners in order to improve our reputations. This “affiliation” motive suggests that we might prefer to help people we characterize in a positive rather than a negative manner.

Often these two motivations work together to drive helping behaviors. If your CEO’s car breaks down in a snowstorm there are a lot of reasons to go offer your help. But what would happen if these motives came into conflict?

Michigan’s David Hauser, Stephanie Preston, and R. Brent Stansfield tried to answer this question with a study that aimed to figure out which motivation — empathy or affiliation – would dominate. Specifically, in a series of four experiments they examined whether people expressed a preference for helping a happy or a sad person.

The first three experiments focused on the decision to hold a door open for somebody else. In each experiment a confederate waited near the door to a building, and when somebody walked by they pretended to have a phone conversation. In the “happy” condition confederates said, “It’s so great…I’m so happy…Ok…Yeah..I’ve gotta go”; in the sad condition they said, “It’s so terrible…I’m so sad…”; and in the neutral condition they said, “I know…Yeah…Ok… .” The confederates then hung up and followed the unknowing participant into the building. The first experiment was conducted outside nondescript university buildings, the second experiment was conducted at the entrance to a hospital, and the third experiment was conducted at the entrance to a university health services building. To emphasize that the confederate was somebody in need, in all three experiments he or she worse a facial bandage.

In the first two experiments, the data indicated that participants were more likely to hold the door for happy rather than sad confederates, and in third experiment there were no statistically significant differences between the conditions. Overall, when it came to simple daily assistance, none of the three experiments found evidence that people prefer to help those who appear distressed.

The fourth experiment presented participants with hypothetical scenarios involving hospital patients. One patient was positive and joked about his medical struggle, while the other patient was sad and burst into tears. Participants were then asked if they wanted to donate money to cover some of the patient’s co-pay, or sit and talk with the patient for 30 minutes while they waited for the doctor.

The researchers found that participants were more likely to donate money when the patient was sad, but more likely to have a conversation (i.e. make an emotional commitment) when the patient was happy. The results suggest that when there’s a demonstration of real need, and when personal interaction isn’t required, empathy motives for helping may be stronger than affiliation motives.

The study’s findings are far from conclusive, and it’s easy of to think of alternative explanations. Perhaps participants avoided holding the door for people saying “That’s so terrible…” because they saw the conversation as more private than a conversation about good news. Similarly, one could question how much the experiments replicated a real-life situation involving somebody in need.

But even the mixed findings are noteworthy. Humans like to believe they follow a general rule of prioritizing help for those in need, but Hauser’s study shows that unless people are severely distressed and no social interaction is required, that may not be the dominant motive. In many situations our preference appears to be to help “positive” people.

The strength of social affiliation motives may be one of the many reasons that good-hearted people don’t give all of their disposable income to the sick, poor, or starving people around the world (and instead choose to give $150 million to Harvard.) More broadly, it’s a reminder that acting selflessly is a complex process. People have many different motivations with different levels of moral purity. Perhaps someday policy architects can take advantage of this by using social affiliation motives to direct aid the most needy. We already do this to some extent by honoring big third-world philanthropists, but perhaps there are ways to do it on a wider and smaller scale so that assistance is directed away from wealthy cultural and religious institutions and toward the destitute.
Hauser, D.J., Preston, S.D., & Stansfield, R.D. (2014). Altruism in the Wild: When Affiliative Motives to Help Positive People Overtake Empathic Motives to Help the Distressed. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0035464

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