Social Psychology – Helping and Altruism

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

Being helpful has always been considered a positive and valuable trait, and the lore from cultures all over the world includes ‘being kind and helpful’ as a character trait of its most popular heroes. In more modern times, Pro-social behavior (or being helpful to others even when there is no apparent benefit to oneself) has been a topic of interest for research as well [1]. Scientists are interested in trying to understand what factors encourage such behaviors and what factors inhibit it, so that it becomes possible for them to suggest ways to encourage and support the development of pro-social and altruistic behavior in their communities [2, 4]. Most people like to believe that they are helpful. But often, a need for help often goes unanswered even when others who can help are present. There are times when people seem inhibited from helping others – an effect called the ‘Bystander effect’ [1, 3]. Particularly due to the pervasive nature of this Bystander Effect, Altruism, which is the unselfish concern for others, has been a fascinating study for them, as altruistic persons tend to help others even at personal cost [1].

When do people help?

People seem to need certain cues before they can offer help in a social context [3]. Firstly, they need to perceive that there is a problem that requires their attention. When people are preoccupied with something, they may not immediately realize that someone needs their help [1]. This is more so when they are preoccupied (for example, rushed for time), and believe that their task is more urgent than the other person’s need for help. Secondly, they need to recognize that there is a need to respond [1]. Often, the cues presented in a social situation may not be clear. For example, two people arguing may or may not appreciate an intervention. Also, when other bystanders are present and they have chosen not to interfere; it is taken as a sign that one should also stay back [1]. Such pluralistic ignorance stems from the assumption that when one is unsure about the appropriate response, social cues play an important role in deciding how to respond. People seem to believe that others could have more information than they do; and so they should follow the lead of these others [3].

Even when an individual recognizes the need for help, they need to feel personally responsible to act [3]. People tend to wait for some expert on the problem to act before them, often believing that ‘they could do more harm’. The number of bystanders also affects the feeling of responsibility, as with each increase in the number of bystanders, an individual believe that ‘someone else will be able to help’ [3, 4]. This diffusion of responsibility across all bystanders is often the reason why people sometimes do not receive help even when a number of people are present, but do when only one of two others are present [3]. Scientists have found that people really do delay responding to problems when there are many others around who are also not responding, and wonder if this is because people want to conform to the majority, or whether they think that others may have information that they don’t. It seems that both these thoughts effect the decision to act at different points [4]. Once the decision to act is taken, the person can only be of help if they have the expertise of the knowledge to do so. When someone believes that they do not have the ability to help, they may stand back even when they wish to help. On the other hand, a person who chooses to respond and has the expertise must then complete the last step of actually helping by performing the required actions [1].

Reasons why people help

There are many different hypotheses as to why people offer to help others. The most unselfish hypothesis suggests that people help others Out of empathy for them, and because they would like to see the lot of others improved [2, 4]. Other hypotheses that predict helpful behaviour are more selfish. One of them suggests that people help others to maintain a good mood. Since helping others is a ‘good thing’, it can help maintain a positive mood, and change a negative mood because an individual feels good about themselves when they offer help [1, 5]. It must be noted that when the help offered can negatively impact the person helping (for example, by making them late for an appointment), people are less likely to offer help to manage their moods. A third hypothesis states that people help others because they Feel that it should be done, and believe that helping others is a social act that will gather them positive social capital [3]. Finally, evolutionary studies propose that people help others who are similar to them (or may carry similar genetic material) in order to facilitate the survival of genetic material that they value (because it is similar to their own) [1].

Who helps others?

Some people just happen to be more helpful, and may even inconvenience themselves to help others. Such ‘naturally’ helpful people seem to have some traits in common, including [2, 4]:

  • Empathy – Helpful people are more able to empathize with the perspectives of others, and so feel motivated to reduce their distress.
  • Just world belief – Such people also believe that there should be justice in the world, and offering help to someone who needs it is the right thing to do. They also believe that good behavior is rewarded, and that the effort they take to help others will be rewarded in some way.
  • Social responsibility – These people typically feel a sense of social responsibility, and so are motivated to reset order by helping others achieve their goals, particularly when these goals are perceived as being for a valuable cause [4].
  • Internal locus of control – Helpful people are more likely than non-helpers to believe that they can control the events in their lives, so that they will be able to maximize the benefits received and reduce problems through their own actions.
  • Lower ego-centricism – Typically helpers are less self-centered, and more interested in the conditions of others lives. They are also more able to keep their personal agendas aside temporarily in order to focus on those of another person.

An individual having these traits is said to have an Altruistic personality, and such people are more likely to be involved in social causes because they are motivated to do so [3]. These traits slowly develop in an individual through life, and can be encouraged in children if they are provided with cues that value such behavior [3].


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Prosocial Behavior”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 302 – 333.

[2] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Altruism and Aggression”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 221 – 244.

[3] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “Helping others” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 389 – 434.

[4] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Prosocial behaviour: Doing what’s best for others”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 255 – 586.

[5] Weinstein, Netta & Ryan, Richard M. “When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 98(2), 2010, 222-244.