Psychological theories about why people help others

Author: Appiah Poku Yankyera (Health Psychology, MSc.)
Founder, Life Developers Movement, Ghana.

Literally, to help means to make it easier or possible for others to do something that they cannot do alone by providing assistance to them. A classical illustration of an act of genuinely helping others can be traced to Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:30-35. The Samaritan man described in this passage exhibits a clear sense of altruism; filled with compassion, he offers to assist a total stranger with all his resources (time, energy and money) without any expectation of repayment. Contrary to this story in the Bible are unfortunate instances where helpless and innocent persons suffer due to lack of concern from onlookers. A classical story in history, is the shocking murder of Miss Kitty Genovese in 1964 (Gross, 2001). Even though close to 40 people witnessed her murder, none was able to assist her by calling for help. She was killed in the early hours of the morning on her way home from work. The disturbed neighbours interrupted her murderer several times by switching on their lights to see what was happening yet he still managed to come back three times and eventually killed her. The pertinent question here is why did the witnesses fail to offer help?

Throughout history, humans have struggled over the question, ‘Why do we help people?’ Is it an intrinsic trait unique to certain individuals or it’s a matter of culture? The truth is that there are number of reasons why people help each other, just as there are a number of reasons why people sometimes do not help each other. Several psychological theories, principles and processes account for why people do help. These include the Social Exchange Theory, Social Norms, Evolutionary Psychology and the Bystander Effect.

To begin with, the Social Exchange Theory suggests that all relationships have give-and-take, although the balance of this exchange is not always equal. Social Exchange theory explains how we feel about a relationship with another person depending on our perceptions of the balance between what we put into the relationship and what we get out of it; the kind of relationship we deserve and the chances of having a better relationship with someone else. The central premise of this theory suggests that the exchange of social and material resources is a fundamental form of human interaction and is characterized by two main themes – Empathy and Self Interest in disguise. Thus, humans have a tendency to help either to expect an exchange (Self-interest in disguise) or not (Genuine empathy-induced altruism). Helping, therefore, is characterized by both self-serving and/or selfless considerations. Whatever the case, with this theory unconsciously in mind, not as though, it is a calculated attempt to weigh the pros and cons in any given relationship before an exchange takes place, human beings are likely to offer help based on this assumption of Social Exchange Theory.

In addition, social norms can account for why we do help others. They can be referred to as the accepted behaviours within a society or group. An example of social norm is a societal rule that tells people they should help others even if it may not benefit them (Bicchieri, 2006). Two themes under this concept which may explain why we do help are the Reciprocity Norm and Social Responsibility Norm. The Reciprocity Norm is a very common social norm which says that if I offer help to you then you must return the favour. Reciprocity also works at the level of liking; we like people who like us, and dislike those who dislike us. People are therefore likely to help those who recognize them, live close enough to return the favour and have the recourses to return the favour. On the other hand, Social Responsibility Norm posits that people positions of authority are expected to help others because society has placed them on a pedestal as a “hero” of sorts. On another level of Social Responsibility Norms, parents teach their children to mind their own business while others train their children to help someone in abusive situation. Thus, when people are considered as victims of circumstances, like natural disaster, then by all means others are expected to be generous, whereas, if they appear to have created their own problems, by laziness, immorality or lack of foresight, then they should get what they deserve.

Furthermore, evolutionary psychology may also explain why we help others. Human beings, like other animals, have an evolutionary history that predisposes them to behave in ways that are uniquely adaptive for survival and reproduction. Kin Protection and Perceived Similarity are factors that may induce willingness to help. Kin Protection study by Burnstein et al. (1994), showed that people generally, offering help is proportional to relatedness. Thus people help family members over non-family members. If individual self-interest inevitably wins in genetic competition, then why does non-reciprocal altruism toward strangers occur? What caused Mother Theresa to act as she did? What causes soldiers to throw themselves on grenades? Human societies have evolved ethical and religious rules that serve as brakes on the biological bias toward self-interest.

Lastly, the bystander effect is one interesting contributing factor to why people may want to help others. This principle claims that the more bystanders are present to witness an emergency or someone in need of help; the smaller the chance that anyone will actually come to that person’s aid as it happened in Ms. Genevose’s case. Self-categorization and perceived diffused responsibility are two factors that can induce bystander effect. The theory of self-categorization with relation to the bystander effect suggests that the desire to help will depend on how the bystander perceives the person in need (Levine et al., 2002). If the bystander considers the person as a member of his in-group and therefore believes they share common characteristics or interests, the bystander is more likely to help the victim than a person part of the out-group. Additionally, bystanders may be more reluctant to associate themselves with a victim when there are more people around because of perceived diffused responsibility whereby every bystander assumes that it is the responsibility of the other person to offer help. In the long run, no help will be offered at all since each person feels less responsible to initiate the process of helping the victim when there are more people gathered around.

In a nutshell, the ability to help is a successful meme in many human cultures, i.e. self-sacrifice in various forms is held in high regard. Commandments such as; “Love your neighbour as yourself” admonish us to balance self-concern with concern for others and thus contributing to the survival of the human race. Moral development may also influence the development of pro-social or altruistic behaviour such as sharing, cooperating, and helping performed for the benefit of others without expectation of a reward. An altruistic person is concerned and helpful even when no benefits are offered or expected in return. So anytime you are offering help, pause, think, question and reconsider your motivation to offer help.


Bicchieri, C. (2006). The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms,
New York: Cambridge University Press

Gross, R. D. (2001). Psychology; the Science of Mind and Behaviour. Hodder & Staughton, London. p. 434

Levine, M., Cassidy, C., Brazier, G. and Reicher, S. (2002). Self-Categorization and Bystander
Non-intervention: Two Experimental Studies Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32 (7), 1452-1463. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2002.tb01446.x

©2016 Scientect e-mag | Volume 1 (1): A5

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