(2) 250 words DQ

Chapter 11:

Prosocial Behavior

Volunteers help to carry books out of a warehouse.

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Learning Objectives

By the end of the chapter you should be able to:

Define altruistic motives and egoistic motives

Differentiate ultimate goals from instrumental

goals and unintended consequences

Explain the empathy–altruism hypothesis and the debate about whether true altruism exists

Explain how the norm of reciprocity, social norms in general, kin selection, and personal differences determine helping

Explain the steps to helping and the factors that may cause someone to not help in an emergency situation

Define and describe the underpinnings of the bystander effect

Chapter Outline

11.1 Altruism

11.2 Reasons Behind Helping

11.3 Bystander Help

Step 1: Noticing an Event Is Occurring

Step 2: Interpreting an Event as an Emergency

Step 3: Taking Responsibility for Helping

Step 4: Deciding How to Help

Step 5: Helping

Reducing the Bystander Effect

Chapter Summary

* * *

In May 2010, Ione Fletcher Kleven heard yelling outside her California home. Heading out to investigate, she discovered a 14-year-old boy being attacked by men in their 20s. Trying to stop the attack, she ran toward them yelling. She grabbed the boy's arm and tried to drag him away. Stunned by an intervention in the attack by a woman in her 60s, the men momentarily stopped. When Kleven's husband, a former Marine, came out to investigate, the men got into their car and fled the scene. Kleven asked her husband to take care of the boy and call for help while she chased down the assailants, losing them in traffic. The boy was taken to the hospital for surgery and recovered from the stab wounds he suffered in the attack (De Benedetti, 2012). Kleven's extraordinary act of heroism earned her a Carnegie Hero Award in 2012.

11.1 Altruism

Life provides us with opportunities for kindness and, at times, heroism. Rarely do we encounter situations like that faced by Ione Fletcher Kleven, but daily life provides plenty of occasions for helping those around us. Imagine you were in a train station waiting for a departure when you notice a woman drop her ticket. The man behind her picks it up and returns it to her. She accepts it with a smile of relief and hurries off to catch her train. This may be an ordinary occurrence, but it leaves us with the question of why the man helped the woman by returning her ticket. Was he hoping to make a connection and get her phone number? Was he hoping for a reward? Did he want to look like a hero? Or, even though he was a stranger and not helping would not have affected him, was he just trying to make sure she made her train? When we help others, the question arises as to whether we help because we truly care about the welfare of another or whether we help to get something out of it. This is the basic question in the debate about altruism. Altruism occurs when our motive for a behavior is based entirely in the interest of the other person and is not motivated by self-interest. On the other hand, when we do something entirely for self-interest, we are being egoistic.

A passerby leans down and gives money to a young homeless woman sitting in the street with her dog.


Altruism involves bettering the welfare of others without expecting personal benefits or gains.

Imagine you bought coffee and a bagel for the person sitting next to you in the train station. If you bought those treats for your neighbor entirely because you wanted to make that person happy, you would have acted altruistically. Your ultimate goal was the happiness of the other person. An ultimate goal is the true goal, the end toward which one is aiming. In these types of situations we can also talk about another type of goal called an instrumental goal. Instrumental goals are the things we do to obtain our ultimate goal (Batson, 1990). Your instrumental goal was to buy the coffee and bagel and give them to your neighbor. As stepping stones toward our ultimate goals, instrumental goals may change depending on our ability to do them. If coffee and a bagel were not available, you might have told your neighbor a funny story to reach your ultimate goal of making that person happy.

When you engage in actions for altruistic motives, your ultimate goal is the welfare of the other person, not yourself. You might receive benefits for your action. The other person might show gratitude, your significant other might be impressed by your generosity and give you a kiss, or you might look good in front of your boss who is waiting in the train station with you. If you received benefits for an action, was your action still altruistic? For example, in the story that began this chapter Ione Fletcher Kleven received a Carnegie Hero award for her assistance of a teenage boy under attack. Given that she received benefits for her action, was it still an altruistic act? Yes: When self-benefits are an unintended consequence of an action, that action may be truly altruistic. With altruism, the ultimate goal is still the welfare of others, and the action would have been done whether or not the self-benefits were present (Batson, 2010). Kleven received recognition for her heroic act, but if her ultimate goal was to save the boy not garner praise from others, her act could be termed altruistic. Table 11.1 shows how our ultimate and instrumental goals are related to egoistic and altruistic motivations.

Table 11.1: Ultimate and instrumental goals of altruistic and egoistic actions

Motive Welfare of the Other Self-Benefits

Altruistic Ultimate goal Unintended consequence

Egoistic Instrumental goal Ultimate goal

From Batson, C. D. (1990). How social an animal? The human capacity for caring. American Psychologist, 45(3), 336–346. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.3.336 Copyright © 1990 by the American Psychological Association.

Using this terminology, actions undertaken for egoistic motives involve an ultimate goal of self-benefit (a kiss from your significant other) with the happiness of the other person being only an instrumental goal. If there had been another way to reach the goal of impressing your significant other, you may have taken that option instead. If you have ever volunteered so that you would have something impressive to put on your resume, you engaged in volunteering for an egoistic motive. The type of volunteering you might choose to do may depend on whether you are egoistically or altruistically motivated (van Emmerik & Stone, 2002). If you are volunteering to gain recognition, volunteering that has a high profile or is for a popular cause may be more attractive to you. If you are volunteering for altruistic motives, opportunities with groups you can identify with, and therefore have greater empathy for, may be more attractive.

Expand Your Knowledge: Be Inspired

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission recognizes individuals who perform acts of heroism. Click on Carnegie Medal Awardees to read the stories of some past winners of the Carnegie Medal.

We engage in altruism, according to researchers, when we feel empathy for another person. Empathy is an emotion that people feel when they adopt another person's perspective (Hoffman, 1981; Howe, 2013). By adopting that other person's perspective we are able to act in an altruistic way. This is called the empathy–altruism hypothesis (Batson, 1990; Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, & Birch, 1981). You might know what it is like to be hurrying through a train station, so when you see someone else hurrying, you may help because you have been in that person's shoes. If we see that someone else is in trouble and needs help but do not adopt that person's point of view, we feel, not empathy but, personal distress. For example, if someone slipped and fell in front of you and you did not feel empathy, you might instead be upset that you had to see blood or be inconvenienced by someone else's clumsiness. In this case you might help only because you don't want to see the injury or so that you can be on your way quickly, not because you truly care about that person's well-being. Egoistic (self-focused) motives involve personal distress, a concern about how one might be viewed by others, or a desire to feel better about oneself.

The problem researchers face in examining whether we engage in activities for truly altruistic motives is that the action itself does not clearly show the motive behind the action. That coffee you bought for your neighbor in the train station may have earned you a kiss from your significant other, but was your action egoistically motivated by recognition for your good deed or altruistically motivated by a desire to make your neighbor happy? On the surface, the action and reaction are identical. To look into altruism, researchers set up situations in which participants who were feeling empathy for someone else could either help that person or get out of the situation without looking or feeling bad. For example, in one study the participants could help by taking the place of another participant (actually a confederate) and receive electrical shocks in her place. For some participants, escape from the situation, and therefore from their own distress, was easy. For other participants escape was difficult. The idea was to see whether people were motivated by true altruism (they would help whether escape was difficult or easy) or egoism (they would help only if escape was difficult). In this, and other studies like it, researchers found that when empathy was high, people seemed to act in truly altruistic ways. Even when they could escape the situation or leave feeling happy or looking good without helping, they still helped (Batson, 2010; Batson et al., 1989; Batson et al., 1991; Batson et al., 1988; Dovidio, Allen, & Schroeder, 1990). Altruism can even occur when it violates the principle of justice. When we feel strong empathy for someone, we may act to increase that person's welfare even when that act will be unfair to others. An individual might cover for a coworker whose mother has died even when that is unfair to another coworker or to the department in general (Batson et al., 1995; Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw, 1995).

Empathy can be thought of as an emotional state that can be manipulated within a particular situation, which is what the researchers did in many of the studies cited above. People do differ in the amount of empathy they generally feel, called trait empathy. Different conceptualizations of trait empathy exist. Some focus on the emotional, describing trait empathy as an emotional response to the distress of others (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972; Mehrabian, Young, & Sato, 1988). Others focus more on the cognitive, describing trait empathy as a greater understanding of the states of others (Hogan, 1969) High trait empathy is associated with greater helping of a person who appears to be in need (Eisenberg et al., 1989). Individuals higher in trait empathy are more likely to help in a sustained way through regular volunteering. (Davis et al., 1999; Unger & Thumuluri, 1997).

Empathy is processed by the front part of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex). Individuals who are experiencing empathy toward another person show activation in this part of the brain, as well as a few other areas (Rameson, Morelli, & Lieberman, 2012). Some neural evidence suggests that empathy and helping are linked in the brain, as this is also the area that is activated for helping (Rameson et al., 2012). The activated part of the brain is an area that is also active when we are thinking about past and future experiences and taking the perspective of others, which is in line with what we know about empathy.

Altruism does vary from culture to culture (Cohen, 1972; Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003; Gurven, Zanolini, & Schniter, 2008) and may be maintained or expanded through cultural transmission across time. In a process similar to natural selection for genes, a culture that encourages altruistic behavior may, because of that behavior, continue and flourish (Bell, Richerson, & McElreath, 2009). For example, altruism is higher in Thailand than in the United States. The reasons for such differences are likely quite varied, but in interviews, Thais remarked that their Buddhist religion was an important factor in their desire to help others (Yablo & Field, 2007). Even within a nation, different subcultures or religious groups might have different views of helping. One's faith tradition might encourage helping even when one gets nothing in return or when helping puts one's own life in danger—leading to more altruistic behavior in some groups. In a study of Indian Hindus and Muslims, the Muslims were more likely to help even when the person they would help was disliked and they had a justification for not helping (Kanekar & Merchant, 2001). This is not to say altruism is entirely based in culture. Evolutionary psychologists propose that altruism is partially genetically based, and it is an interaction of genetic influences and cultural influences that determine altruism (Gintis, Bowles, Boyd, & Fehr, 2008; Knafo & Israel, 2010).

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

If someone helps another with the intention of increasing that person's well-being but receives benefits for that action was the helping altruistic?

When we put ourselves in other people's shoes we may help them out because we truly care about their welfare. This describes what term?

11.2 Reasons Behind Helping

Besides altruism there are a variety of reasons we might help others. One reason is because we want others to help us. Recall the discussion of reciprocity as a persuasion technique. We generally want to get as much as we give and give as much as we get (Gouldner, 1960). You might give a friend a ride to the airport with the implicit understanding that your friend will give you a ride when you need one. Helping, then, is really a form of social exchange. We help to be helped.

Expand Your Knowledge: Volunteering

If thinking about prosocial behavior inspires you to volunteer, click the links below to find helping opportunities.

Volunteer Match

United We Serve

Volunteer in U.S. National Parks

Global Volunteer Network

Helping may also be part of a general social norm (Staub, 1972). We often engage in behavior because we believe others engage in those behaviors (descriptive norms), or because others think we should (injunctive norms). We may help, therefore, because we believe it is what others do and what others think we should do (Schwartz, 1975). For example, in a study of potential bone marrow donors, women who ascribed to themselves the responsibility of donating bone marrow due to a descriptive or injunctive norm were more likely to volunteer to donate than those who did not have the norm or the feeling of responsibility (Schwartz, 1973). Members of a work group follow the norms for helping in a group when they are more attracted to the group (Naumann & Ehrhart, 2011). Norms for who we help may be culturally dependent. Indians were more likely than Americans to judge the failure to help strangers or others in moderate or minor need as immoral (Miller, Bersoff, & Harwood, 1990), suggesting a stronger norm for helping exists in India than in the United States. Such national norms will lead to more helping for those types of needs.

Evolutionary theorists believe people help to gain benefits through promoting the genes of those related to them (Hoffman, 1981). Individuals are more likely to help their own child than a stranger's child. We are also more likely to help a sibling than a cousin, and more likely to help a cousin than a stranger. Generally, the closer the person in need is to us in terms of genetic similarity, the greater the likelihood of helping. This tendency allows our own genes to be passed on to future generations and is called kin selection (Essock-Vitale & McGuire, 1980; Kruger, 2003; Waibel, Floreano, & Keller, 2011).

Some similarities in personality and belief exist in those people who are particularly helpful. Individuals who helped Jews in Nazi Europe had greater empathy and beliefs in the equality of people than those who did not help, though they were similar to others in most other personality characteristics (Oliner & Oliner, 1988). Helpful people tend to be high in self-esteem and self-efficacy (feelings of competence). Helpful people also tend to have a strong belief that their own actions will affect what is happening in the world (something called an internal locus of control) and attribute responsibility for making those changes to themselves (Schwartz, 1974). Moral development is also more advanced; that is, those who are helpful are more focused on societal functioning or universal moral principles than on personal outcomes (Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner, & Clark, 1981; Rushton, Chrisjohn, & Fekken, 1981; Staub, 1978). In a study of online bullying, researchers found that people high in extraversion and empathy are more likely to intervene than those lower in those characteristics (Freis & Gurung, 2013).

An older husband and wife volunteer at a soup kitchen.

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Altruistic behavior increases with age.

Many religious traditions promote prosocial behavior, leading researchers to examine whether religious people help more (Batson, Schoenrade, & Pych, 1985; Habito, 2002; Wuthnow, 1991). In general, religiosity is more strongly tied to long-term or planned helping, like volunteering, as opposed to helping in emergency situations (Galen, 2012). People who are more religious are more likely to engage in planned helping than those who are less religious, while there is no difference between those of different levels of religiosity in emergency helping (Annis, 1976; Hardy & Carlo, 2005; Mattis et al., 2000; Wilson & Janoski, 1995; Youniss, McLellan, & Yates, 1999). Due to differing motivations, people may engage in the same religious behaviors but not have the same experience. Batson et al. (1985) found that those who saw their faith as a journey or quest, or those whose focus was on their relationship with God, engaged in more prosocial behavior than those who viewed religion as a means to an end.

Altruistic types of helping increase with age and differ between genders. Children learn to help altruistically from adult models, particularly parents (London, 1970; Piliavin & Callero, 1990; Rosenhan, 1970). Preschool children show few instances of altruistic helping, while older children show these types of actions much more (Bar-Tal, Raviv, & Goldberg, 1982; Eisenberg, 1986). Altruism may continue to increase across the lifespan (Marks & Song, 2008; Midlarsky & Hannah, 1989). Men and women also exhibit differences when it comes to helping. For example, men are more likely than women to help in high-risk situations, or situations that require physical strength. Women are more likely than men to help in low-risk and low physical-strength situations (Eagly, 2009; Erdle, Sansom, Cole, & Heapy, 1992). For example, a man might pull someone from a burning house or intervene when someone is being mugged, while a woman might bring food to a grieving family or canvas the neighborhood collecting donations.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

According to the theory of kin selection, which of the following would you be most likely to run into a burning house to save: your identical twin, your cousin, your grandmother, or a stranger?

What personal characteristics are more often found in helpful people?

Social Psychology in Depth: Helping After Natural Disasters

In October 2012, superstorm Sandy headed up the east coast of the United States and brought death and damage. Millions of people lost power for days or weeks; thousands of people were left homeless, some with homes completely destroyed; and 149 lives were lost (Sharp, 2012). Thousands of utility workers from other states and from Canada were called in to help restore power, and the Red Cross brought in 14,400 workers, most volunteers, to help with disaster relief (Red Cross, 2012; Webley, 2012). When asked, 77% of Americans say they want to help in the face of such disasters (Marchetti & Bunte, 2006). What determines helping in disasters?

Our emotional reactions to disasters are important to our response. According to the empathy–altruism hypothesis, we help altruistically when we feel empathy for others. Feelings of empathy and sympathy are related to a desire to help and to eventual helping (Amato, 1986; Amato, Ho, & Partridge, 1984; Avdeyeva, Burgetova, & Welch, 2006; Marjanovic, Greenglass, Struthers, & Faye, 2009). Personal distress also affects helping. Individuals who reported shock, horror, or sickness in response to major bush fires in Australia donated more money than those who did not report feeling these emotions (Amato, 1986).

Our degree of relation to the victims of disaster and personal characteristics affect the help we are willing to provide. As would be expected from kin selection theory, individuals with friends or relatives affected by a disaster are more likely to provide assistance (Amato et al., 1984) and those individuals in need of assistance tend to receive more help in networks that are more kin dominated (Beggs, Haines, & Hurlbert, 1996). Women are more likely to provide, seek, and receive assistance when they are the victims of a disaster (Amato, Ho, & Partridge, 1984; Beggs, Haines, & Hurlbert, 1996). Those with higher self-efficacy, more education, and greater religious attendance feel more positive responsibility for helping (Michel, 2007). Individuals with higher income are more likely to provide monetary help, perhaps because they have the resources to give (Amato et al., 1984).

Integration in one's community and social network is an important component when measuring response to disaster. Those who are involved in their community are more likely to help community members in need (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005). Studies of disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, show that people with large social networks and networks that are dense, that is, those that have many ties among members, are more likely to gain assistance when they need it (Beggs et al., 1996; Hurlbert, Beggs, & Haines, 2006).

11.3 Bystander Help

View of the street where Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964.

©1984/Daily News, L.P. (New York)/New York Daily News Archive/ Contributor/NY Daily News via Getty Images

View of the street where Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964. Despite Genovese's cries, witnesses didn't call for help until after she was dead.

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. According to the New York Times, 38 people watched for a half hour as she was stalked and stabbed. By the time anyone called the police, she was dead. Although later reports suggested some changes to the basic facts (neighbors may have heard but not seen her attack and called earlier than reported), the city and the country were horrified that people could be so apathetic in the face of an unfolding tragedy. Why, everyone wanted to know, didn't someone help?

Expand Your Knowledge: Kitty Genovese

If you want to learn more about Kitty Genovese, check out the TruTV website here.

Examples of such incidents are not difficult to find. In 2008, in Connecticut, Angel Arce Torres was hit by a car while crossing the street. He lay paralyzed on the sidewalk as cars and pedestrians passed by (Goren, 2008). In 2009 a 15-year-old girl at Richmond High School, in California, was gang-raped and beaten during a homecoming dance, while at least 10 observers watched and took pictures (Martinez, 2009). When we encounter such events, when do we help and what factors might lead us to turn away? Social psychologists decided to answer that question. There are five major steps to helping (Latane & Darley, 1970). At each step one can continue to the next step or fail to continue. Looking at the five steps together, we see that a person in need of help is less likely to get that help in a crowd than when one other person is present, a phenomenon known as the bystander effect (Latane & Darley, 1970).

Step 1: Noticing an Event Is Occurring

Before people can help, they need to first notice that there is a situation present in which help is needed. If you are listening to music through earbuds or are in a noisy place, you might not hear someone scream (Page, 1977). If you do not know the event is occurring you will not help. Other than not hearing or seeing something, we might also be less likely to notice an event if we are in a hurry. In a study by Darley and Batson (1973), the researchers recruited seminary students to be part of a study supposedly focusing on vocational careers for seminary students. The students participated in the first part of the study and were asked to go to another building to complete the second part of the study. One third of the participants were told that they were late and needed to hurry to the next building. Another third were told to go directly over, they would be right on time. The final third were told they were early but could go over to the other building to wait. While walking from one building to the next, the participants encountered a man—actually a confederate of the researchers—sitting in a doorway who coughed twice and slumped down as they went by.

Of the participants who were not in a hurry, 63% stopped to help the man. Of those who were told they would be right on time, 43% helped. Being in a hurry had a dramatic effect on helping. Of those in the high-hurry group, only 10% helped. This study suggests that being distracted from one's surroundings due to hurry decreases helping.

Step 2: Interpreting an Event as an Emergency

If a person has noticed an event has occurred, the next step is interpreting that event as an emergency. Kleven, the woman described in the initial story for this chapter, needed to decide whether the shouting she heard outside her house was a potential emergency or just some teenagers having fun. Is the person slumped in a seat at the train station asleep or ill? Is the person pulling to the side of the road having car trouble or stopping to discipline a whiny child? When an event is ambiguous, we are less likely to take the next step in helping. The man who clutches his chest and groans "heart attack" is fairly clearly having a heart attack. The man slumped in a seat at the train station is less clearly in need of help.

One way we try to determine if someone needs help is to look to other bystanders. If others look alarmed at the sound of the scream in the train station, you might interpret the event as an emergency. If others look unconcerned you might interpret the same scream as nothing to worry about. When research participants were placed in a room and smoke was piped in through the heating vent, those who were alone reported the smoke fairly quickly, normally within 2 minutes of noticing it, with 75% reporting it within 6 minutes. Participants who were with confederates who showed no reaction to the smoke, rarely reported the smoke. Out of the 10 people in this condition, only one (10%) reported the smoke after 6 minutes. When three actual participants sat in the room filling with smoke, only 38% reported the potential emergency (Latane & Darley, 1968). See Figure 11.1.

Figure 11.1: Effect of group membership in emergency situations

Horizontal bar graph showing data from the Latane and Darley 1968 study. When two passive confederates were present, 10 percent of subjects reported smoke. When three naïve subjects were present, around 40 percent of subjects reported smoke. When the subject was alone, around 75 percent of subjects reported smoke.

In the Latane and Darley (1968) study, only one out of 10 subjects reported the smoke when paired with two unalarmed confederates, however, 38% reported smoke when there were three actual participants, and 75% reported smoke when left alone.

Adapted from Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215–221. doi: 10.1037/h0026570. Copyright © 1968 by the American Psychological Association.

Our tendency to collectively misinterpret situations in this way is called pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance can be reduced if we know the other people we are with, perhaps because friends are more likely to discuss what is going on rather than rely on the nonverbal signals strangers are likely to send. In a study involving a potential emergency, two friends responded more quickly than two strangers, though individuals that were alone still responded most quickly (Latane & Rodin, 1969).

Expand Your Knowledge: 10 Notorious Bystander Stories

For additional stories about the bystander effect, take a look at Listverse's list of 10 notorious bystander stories here. Some you may know about, some may be new to you. The list includes Kitty Genovese's story as well as stories about big events like the Holocaust and smaller-scale tragic events like the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi.

We interpret situations differently depending on what we believe is the relationship of those involved in the situation. In an emergency involving a victim and an attacker, we are less likely to intervene when we believe there is a relationship between the individuals. A tragic example of this phenomenon occurred in the United Kingdom in 1993 when 2-year-old James Bulger was killed by two 10-year-old boys. James was kidnapped by the boys from a shopping mall and dragged 2½ miles to railroad tracks where he was killed. Many people saw the boys together and noticed little James' distress but assumed it was two older brothers taking home a reluctant little brother. This type of interpretation and reaction was supported in research. When researchers staged an attack of a woman, three times as many people intervened when she said "I don't know you" (65% intervened) to her attacker than when she said "I don't know why I ever married you" (19% intervened) (Shotland & Straw, 1976).

Step 3: Taking Responsibility for Helping

Once we have interpreted an event as an emergency, we may still not help if we fail to take responsibility for helping. In a study investigating this step to helping, research participants heard another participant apparently having an epileptic seizure in another room (Darley & Latane, 1968). The seizure was staged. One group of participants believed they were the only ones hearing the seizure, another group thought there was one other person besides them, and a third group believed that four others were also hearing the seizure. After 6 minutes, 85% of those who believed they were alone, 62% of those who thought there was one other person, and 31% of those who thought there were four other people, went to find help. The individuals who did not seek help were still concerned. When the researchers went to get them at the end of the study they showed signs of nervousness and asked about the condition of the person apparently having the seizure.

A man leans down to help a woman pick up the spilt contents of her purse.

David De Lossy/Photodisc/Thinkstock

You are more likely to help a person in a stressful situation when you are the only witness.

Most of the time, as in the study with the alleged seizure, having a larger group observing an emergency seems to inhibit helping. The responsibility for helping gets diffused, or parceled out, in large groups. In a group of four you might assume that someone else can take responsibility for helping because you are not the only one hearing the emergency. When you are the only witness in an emergency situation, all responsibility to help falls to you. The result of this diffusion of responsibility is that less helping occurs with a larger population of bystanders (Darley & Latane, 1968).

Larger groups are not always detrimental. Groups made up of friends are less likely to show diffusion of responsibility than groups made up of strangers and are more likely to help. It may be that these groups are used to working together and can, because of their familiarity with one another, quickly assign different jobs to different group members. Generally, men are more likely to help in emergency situations (Fischer et al., 2011). However, in some situations, such as when a female group is confronted with an emergency involving a female victim, having a larger group can actually increase helping (Levine & Crowther, 2008). Women may feel vulnerable helping someone under attack when they are alone for fear of being attacked themselves. While in a group, women may feel comfortable that together the group could overcome an attacker.

Whether the potential bystander is male or female, a passive bystander can be helpful when there is a potential for danger. When a bystander was present and the thief looked frightening people were more likely to intervene in a bicycle stealing scenario than when that bystander was not there (Fischer & Greitemeyer, 2013). Rather than less help because of diffusion of responsibility, the bystander may have given people courage to help even with potential danger because that bystander could become a helper. When no bystander was present, is it possible people weighed the risks and, without potential backup, decided against intervention.

Step 4: Deciding How to Help

Once we take responsibility for helping we may still not help if we cannot decide how to help. If you see someone along the road with a car trouble, you have several options for helping. You could stop and see if you can fix the car yourself. You could call a repair shop or the police yourself or stop and offer the stranded motorist your cell phone to call for help. Of course, you would only stop and fix the problem yourself if you knew how. Competence or training makes helping in this way more likely. Individuals with Red Cross training in first aid are more likely than those who do not have such training to offer direct help to someone who appears to be bleeding (Shotland & Heinold, 1985). Having the skill to help does matter.

Step 5: Helping

Even if someone notices an event, interprets it as an emergency, takes responsibility, and decides how to help, that person may still fail to help in the end. One reason for lack of actual help is feeling embarrassed or self-conscious in the presence of other people. This reaction is called audience inhibition (Latane & Darley, 1970). This type of inhibition applies to more than emergency situations involving helping. When a coupon for a free cheeseburger was available to riders in an elevator, these individuals were less likely to take a coupon when others were present (Petty, Williams, Harkins, & Latane, 1977). The presence of an audience makes us generally less willing to act.

Individuals may also fail to help if they determine that the costs outweigh the benefits of helping. For example, if you see a hitchhiker on the side of the highway you may decide you are the only one who could help (the highway is deserted) and knows how to help (give the person a ride) but decide that the potential costs to you are too great. If individuals decide the potential costs are too high or the potential benefits too low, they may decide not to help (Avdeyeva et al., 2006; Banyard & Moynihan, 2011; Morgan, 1978). One potential cost might be embarrassment. Individuals who are more likely to be embarrassed are slower to help others when pointing out when people have food caught in their teeth or something on their face than those less likely to be embarrassed (Zoccola, Green, Karoutsos, Katona, & Sabini, 2011). The cost–benefit calculation may be, in part, responsible for the finding that in some dangerous situations, where the victim's life may be in danger, greater helping has been found with larger groups (Fischer, Greitemeyer, Pollozek, & Frey, 2006). In these types of situations, the benefit of potentially saving the life of the victim may outweigh the potential costs to the helper, and the group may protect the individual helper from harm from, for example, a large, potentially dangerous attacker. These types of situations might also be less ambiguous, reducing pluralistic ignorance. Bystanders are indeed more likely to intervene when the situation is dangerous rather than in a nondangerous situation (Fischer et al., 2011).

Within this cost–benefit calculation is also the cost of not helping. If people could help but do not, they may feel guilty or lose social status. Helping might bring praise or other rewards (Fritzsche, Finkelstein, & Penner, 2000; Piliavin et al., 1981). If the benefits for helping were high, the costs of not helping were high, and the costs of helping were low, the logical thing would be to help. As noted, putting these five steps together we find that in an emergency situation, a person is less likely to get help when there are a large number of people around as opposed to just one person. Kitty Genovese, who was murdered while 38 of her neighbors watched or listened, would have been more likely to get help if a neighbor knew, or believed, he or she was the only one to hear Genovese's struggles.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Does being in a hurry have an effect on helping in emergency situations?

When a potential emergency occurs, people look to others to help them interpret what is going on. If everyone in the situation collectively misinterprets the event as a nonemergency what is this called?

What are some factors that lead to greater helping with more people present?

Reducing the Bystander Effect

If you are the one in need of help, what should you do? Take a few minutes to consider before looking at the suggestions below.

Step 1

Make the emergency situation noticeable. The first step to helping is noticing something is happening, so if you are part of an emergency situation make that situation noticeable to others. Depending on the situation, yell, put up signs, light a flare, or wave your arms. In order for people to help they must first see that something has occurred that deserves their attention.

Step 2

Make it obvious that the event is an emergency. While bystanders might notice something is happening, they may not offer you help if they do not realize the event is actually an emergency. Individuals yelling "Help!" are more likely to get help than those who are silent (Shotland & Heinold, 1985). If others are present, remember the danger of pluralistic ignorance and do not rely on the nonverbal signals of others. Make friends with others and discuss whether you think an emergency situation is occurring. Remember that friends respond more quickly than strangers (Latane & Rodin, 1969). If you are the victim of an attack, remember that you are more likely to get help if bystanders believe your attacker is a stranger (Shotland & Straw, 1976).

Step 3

If you have an emergency situation, you want to be sure someone takes responsibility for providing help, so single someone out to help you. Point to someone, say his or her name if you know it, and ask that person specifically to provide help (Markey, 2000). If you have ever been through CPR training you know that one of the first things you are asked to do is point to someone specific and ask them to call 911 while you do CPR. The Red Cross knows about bystander research and has implemented the research findings in its training.

Steps 4 and 5

Make the type of help you need evident and do what you can to reduce costs and increase benefits. Individuals who know what help to provide will be more likely to actually provide that help. If you need someone to call 911, say so. If you need help changing a tire, make that clear as well. A clear task or instructions on what to do may help reduce audience inhibition. As we learned from Milgram's studies of obedience, individuals who are acting on specific orders feel less responsible for their actions and, therefore, may feel less inhibition to help even when observed by others.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

If you need help in an emergency situation, what should you do?


People may help for a variety of reasons. Whether one of those reasons is altruism, truly caring about another without any self-focus, is a matter of debate within social psychology. Helping may occur because of reciprocity, social norms, or evolutionary benefits. Some individuals may be more helpful than others. Bystander helping in emergencies takes place when the steps to helping have been taken, with people generally less likely to help when other people are present.

Chapter Summary


Helping that occurs for altruistic motives occurs when the ultimate goal is to increase the welfare of others and any self-benefits are an unintended consequence. According to the empathy–altruism hypothesis, when we feel empathy for another person we may help for altruistic reasons.

Reasons Behind Helping

Helping may occur because others have helped us in the past or because we hope they will help us in the future. A general social norm also promotes helping those in need. Evolutionary theory suggests we help to promote our own genes, so we help those who are genetically similar. Individuals with particular qualities or personality traits may be more likely to help.

Bystander Help

There are five steps to helping. One must first notice an event and then must interpret that event as an emergency. When individuals are busy or distracted, they may not notice an event. The presence of others who do not react to an event may cause one not to react either, leading to pluralistic ignorance. Once the event is seen as an emergency, one must take responsibility for helping. When others are present, we may not take responsibility because of diffusion of responsibility. The final steps are deciding how to help and helping. When others are present, individuals may not help because of audience inhibition. The overall tendency to not help when others are present is the bystander effect.

Critical Thinking Questions

Do you believe true altruism exists? Why or why not?

Does it matter whether we do things for altruistic or egoistic motives if another person is helped in the end?

A variety of things are suggested in this chapter to increase likelihood of helping in emergency situations. What other things do you think might be helpful?

If situational factors are so powerful in determining likelihood of helping, can we blame people if they do not help? If most people do not help in bystander situations, then who is to blame for nonintervention?

Think about a time when you were deciding if a situation was an emergency and whether you should help. How do the steps to helping apply in that situation?

Key Terms

Click on each key term to reveal the definition.


audience inhibition

bystander effect

diffusion of responsibility


empathy–altruism hypothesis

instrumental goals

kin selection

pluralistic ignorance

ultimate goal