Interpersonal processes pro-social behavior

Altruism

Pro-social behavior is behavior that is carried out with the intention to help others. There are many reasons why we engage in pro-social behavior, some more obvious than others. For example, sometimes we do it to get something in return in a ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ way. Psychologists talk about this in terms of social exchange theories (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Sometimes we help others because we will be able to achieve something we could not do alone. Cooperating with others in sports teams is like this. On yet other occasions we are helpful to others because we are repaying a favor. This is known as restitution. In each of these cases it is fairly obvious why we help others, but sometimes we help others for no obvious reason, even when to do so could be very costly to ourselves. For example, in cases of emergency, some people behave altruistically, risking their own lives to rescue others in danger. A sporting example might be the single-handed ocean racer who gives up a chance to win a race and achieve fame and fortune, to turn back and help a competitor in trouble.

Altruism is a sub-category of pro-social behavior and is voluntary behavior carried out to benefit another, without anticipation of external reward. Not surprisingly, explanations for why it occurs differently in different psychological perspectives (see Topic A7). In evolutionary terms the survival value of altruism is not immediately obvious, since a gene for altruism is less likely to be passed on by individuals who give away their scarce resources or risk their lives to save others. To get around this problem evolutionary psychology argues that altruism benefits the species, rather than the individual. For example, by helping several of our kin to survive, even at the cost of our own lives, we may preserve more of our genes. Freudian psychologists might invoke the ‘death wish’ to explain heroic acts. Behaviorists stress the past history of reward and punishment for acting unselfishly and point to occasions when people had been rewarded for small acts of bravery.

Bystander intervention

Bystander apathy is the term used to describe the lack of helping behavior often seen in emergencies. In contrast, bystander intervention describes helping behavior in such situations. The study of helping behavior was given impetus by a notorious incident in the 1960s, in which a young woman called Kitty Genovese, was murdered in a New York suburb. What made this murder more shocking than most was the fact that, despite the murderer taking half an hour to commit the crime, and 38 people witnessing it, no one intervened to help the victim or phoned the police. How could this apparent lack of concern for another human being be explained?

The press had their own view, namely that there was bystander apathy in people, and that they did not care for their fellow human beings, and that this was particularly true in the urban sprawl of the big city. Of course, as is often the case in psychology, human behavior proved to be governed by more complex processes than these pop theories from the media suggested.

Two psychologists, Bib Latané and John Darley, were unconvinced by this newspaper explanation of apathy and preceded to develop a more cognitive approach to explain the problem (Latané & Darley, 1970). Their model offers a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, and paints a more sympathetic view of the unresponsive bystander. They suggested a five-stage process that people go through before helping. First, people need to notice the emergency.

We know from cognitive psychology that people cannot take in everything in the perceptual world around them, and are constantly selecting aspects of the environment to attend to. Sometimes we just do not see the emergency. Think of times when you have been so engrossed in what you were doing you failed to notice someone else’s plight. It is for this reason that pool attendants and life[1]guards are employed to focus only on watching us when we go swimming.

The second stage is, that having noticed the problem, a bystander has to interpret it as an emergency. This is not as unlikely as it seems. Emergencies, by their nature, are unusual. People go around in their own worlds trying to make sense of events, and the unusual explanation for events is not the one we come to first. The untrained bystander might think someone in the water is just waving, when in fact they are struggling to stay afloat and signaling for help! Not surprisingly, studies in which the clarity of the emergency is manipulated show that the clearer the emergency, the more help is forthcoming. The third hurdle that has to be overcome before help is given in emergencies is that the helper needs to assume responsibility.

Much research has confirmed, however, that when there are more witnesses to an emergency, less help is forthcoming, and it takes longer to be given. For example, in one of their widely reported studies, Latané and Darley arranged for participants to be in a discussion with others, during which one of the others (a confederate) pretended to be having a seizure. By varying the number of witnesses to the emergency, they showed that as the number of witnesses rose, the time taken to give help rose significantly. This finding became known as the ‘bystander effect’.

Last word

The next stage in Latané and Darley’s model involves witnesses having to decide whether they have the abilities needed in the emergency; for example, do they have the first aid skills, etc. If they can convince themselves they are not well equipped to help, they are less likely to do so. Taking the swimming example, the witness might decide that as a non-swimmer, there is nothing they can do to help. Again, studies that manipulate the level of ability to help show that this is a factor in how much help is given.

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