Why do people help others?


To discuss why people help others we must consider whether people are by nature selfless or selfish. The dominant view today in psychology is of universal egoism; that we are fundamentally selfish, and that altruism (helping motivated by the wish to benefit another person) an impossibility.

One form of universal egoism is Piliavin et al?s "arousal: cost-reward" model, whereby faced with a potential helping situation we weigh the probable costs and rewards of alternative courses of action, then arrive at a decision which produces the best outcome for ourselves.

Darley and Batson (1973) conducted an experiment into the effect of the cost time in the decision to offer help. They found that 63% of students with plenty of time to get to their next lecture helped a man clearly ill in the doorway, whilst 45% who were right on schedule helped, but only 10% of those who were late. However, although a natural setting was used, as an experiment this evidence is not very ecologically valid.

The Sociobioligical approach also sees helping as egoistic, but in terms of the individual maximising their inclusive fitness (increasing the chances of their genes being passed on), rather than their personal fitness.

This seems to be the case when we look at the apparent altruistic behaviour of various species. For example, when a honey bee dies when stinging an enemy, "...by their sacrifice they are increasing the reproductive chances of their fertile relatives thus ensuring that their genes are transmitted to future generations." (Wilson, 1976). Socio-biology can therefore account for self-sacrifice and impulsive helping.

It could also help us to understand racism. Piliavin found that there is evidence of racism occurring in our decisions to help when he found that blacks were much more likely to help a black drunk, and whites a white drunk. This suggests that we are less likely to help those with the least genes in common with us.

Chagnon & Bugos (1979), in an analysis of fighting in Southern Venezuela, found that the likelihood of a person helping another was strongly correlated with their genetic relatedness to the person.

However, how do we account for cases of altruism on the part of animals who are not related? This could be explained by the fact that all members of a species have an element of shared genes even if not at all closely related. Trivers (1971), however, proposed the principle of delayed reciprocal altruism, whereby animals return favours, therefore helpful behaviour is worthwhile because it is likely to be returned. For example, Packer (1977) observed that male baboons which assisted another male in courting were more likely to receive this help in return.

Batson (1987), in contradiction with universal egoism proposed the "empathy-altruism" hypothesis. He saw helping as the result of feeling empathy (experiencing another?s emotions). By experimentally manipulating the degree to which his subjects experienced empathy or personal distress in a potential helping situation Batson showed that empathetically aroused subjects were more likely to help at their own cost.

Critics of this theory, however, counter these findings with the argument that the subjects were more motivated to avoid social disapproval or feelings of guilt. Even Batson himself admitted that even highly empathic people will avoid helping if the costs are high and they can escape responsibilities easily.

The evidence seems to support the idea of universal egoism; in deciding whether to help or not, humans are fundamentally selfish, and altruism is an impossibility. However, whether this egoism is driven by the motivation to maximise personal fitness or inclusive fitness is not yet clear.