Have you ever wondered what makes us help each other? We each have our own theories on why we think humans decide to help each other, or not. Maybe you believe people only help others when there’s something in it for them, or maybe you believe in true selflessness! In any case, check out these scientific theories on why we choose to help!
Theory 1: It’s Sociobiological
Evolutionary psychology looks at human behavior from a biological perspective. Evolutionary psychologists believe that human behavior is like physical traits. Human bodies have evolved through adapting certain traits that are helpful, like having hands and fingers. Similarly, our behaviors might exist because they are helpful to us.
In terms of helping, this means we are more likely to help when it’s our own family members, or when helping someone outside the family will benefit our survival. When we help people outside our family, that person is expected to also give help later. This is called “reciprocity.” So, in short, the sociobiological theory of helping is that we help when it will benefit us and make sure our genes get passed on.
Theory 2: It’s a Social Norm
“Social norms” are general ideas of what we are supposed to do. In other words, they are guidelines for acceptable behavior. One of these norms is the norm of reciprocity. Reciprocity as a social norm is slightly different than reciprocity as an evolutionary adaptation. From a social perspective, we may not help because it’s beneficial to our survival.
Instead, we help because when someone does something nice for us, we feel a strong need to pay that person back somehow. The strength of reciprocity can be different in different societies, based on their cultural backgrounds. Essentially, the society determines how strong the need to reciprocate is.
There are many different “social norms” that can determine whether we help others or not. The norm of “social responsibility” says that we should give help when help is needed because we should be good people. Helping is seen as inherently good. If a society puts emphasis on being good, then the social responsibility is stronger.
Other societies might adopt the norm of “social justice.” This isn’t the same term you hear when discussing politics. The norm of social justice means we give help only when we determine that person deserves help. There is a highly judgmental part of this norm. For example, if someone asks to borrow your notes, you might not give them your notes if they give a bad reason like, “I skipped class.” This norm can also lead to “blaming the victim.” For example, blaming homeless people for laziness. Norms of social justice usually arise when we are more suspicious of other people harming us. Instead of being neighborly, we become more individualistic and help only when we think it’s justified instead of because it’s right.
Overall, social norms are very powerful influences on our behavior. The structure of society can dictate how we choose to help or to not help other people.
Theory 3: It’s Behavioral Conditioning
Another theory of why we help has to do with behavioral conditioning. This is very similar to social norms but more specific. When we are young, we might be conditioned by teachers or parents to be helpful through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is basically giving reinforcement when you act a certain way.
For example, when I was in kindergarten, I played a lot with a shy girl who transferred to school. At the end of the year, I was given an award for being kind. When others reward us for certain behaviors, we are more likely to do them in the future.
In the same way, we can learn what is a “good behavior” by seeing teachers reward other people. This is called “social learning.” If someone sees their mom reward their sister for being helpful, that person may act helpful because they also want a reward. Or, they might “model” their sister. Young kids tend to copy the way their parents or older siblings act. This is because they don’t yet know how to act, so they copy others to figure out how.
To summarize, we may help others because we are taught to, or we learn it is something we are supposed to do.
Theory 4: It’s Cost vs. Reward
Another theory is “social exchange theory.” This is the idea that we act by evaluating the costs versus the rewards of a certain action.
The “Good Samaritan” Study
Researchers did a study at Princeton Theological Seminary. The subjects completed a questionnaire on their religious beliefs and then either heard the bible story of the “Good Samaritan” or did not. The story is about a stranger helping a man who had been robbed while two other religious leaders did not.
Afterward, the researchers told one group they needed to go to the next building immediately and the other group that they had to get to the next building in a couple minutes. A man was slumped over on the walkway between the buildings the students would walk through. The researchers wanted to see who would stop to help: the students who were more religious or the students who heard the helping story?
Surprisingly, only the students who had more time to get to the next building stopped to help. The students in a rush actually did not notice the man slumped over on the walkway. This is an example of exchange theory. If the students had to be somewhere, they couldn’t take the time to stop. The cost of stopping and helping would be too much.
We also like to help people that are more physically attractive. This has to do with the “halo effect” or the fact that we think more attractive people have other good qualities, too. However, when people discover that the person is in a relationship, the desire to help goes away. The possible reward for helping someone attractive is potentially becoming romantically involved with them, but if that is not on the table, there is no reward and no reason to help.
Lastly, helping someone can actually affect our mood. According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, if we’re in a bad mood, we are more likely to help others. Helping others tends to make us feel better about ourselves. However, kids younger than ten-years-old don’t usually help when they’re in a bad mood. This might be because they haven’t yet learned helping is necessarily “good.”
Theory 5: It’s Altruism?
There is a big debate in the psychology field over whether altruism really exists or not. Altruism is when we help out of the goodness of our hearts, even if it is not at all beneficial to us. According to Dr. C. Daniel Baston, people help others in need out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being. Simply, if someone feels empathy for another person, meaning if they feel for what that other person is experiencing, they will help them even if they don’t gain anything.
Other researchers say that there can be no such thing as true altruism. Again, people are more likely to help when they are in a bad mood in order to make themselves feel better. Even people who are empathetic tend to help more when they are unhappy. So, even if there is not a different benefit to helping, there is always the benefit of feeling better about ourselves.
Still, Baston claims that the good mood is a byproduct of helping, not the reason behind it.
How About You?
Humans are incredibly complex beings, and helping is just one behavior with so many theories behind it! There is nothing more interesting than what makes us tick. Now that you know more about helping, why do you help? Maybe one of these theories made the most sense to you! How about the debate on altruism: do you believe it exists?
If you enjoyed this article, check out these:
West, Stuart A.; El Mouden, Claire; Gardner, Andy (2011). “Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans”. Evolution and Human Behavior. 32 (4): 231–62. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.08.001.