The Social Psychology Perspectives On Helping Others

Helping Others

The helping behaviour is a concept in social psychology which believes that a person voluntarily gives assistance to others, without regard as to whether a reward is expected in return or not. Various theories explain the psychology of helping – is it intrinsic, or self-motivated, or is it influenced by other variables?

Why do people help?

Intrinsic motivators

Evolutionary Theory – The Kin selection model

Given that evolution supports natural selection, one would perform behaviours to increase their chances of surviving. An example of this can be seen in a family of hunters who help each other – if they share their resources and food with one another, the chances that they will survive and reproduce is greater than a family who does otherwise.

The Norm of Reciprocity

The idea of reciprocity states that a person helps because he expects to be helped in return. Furthermore, it also states that a person who has been helped previously, would feel indebted to help back those who helped them.

Arousal: Cost Reward Theory

According to this theory, the presence of an emergency situation elicits emotional arousal in bystanders. This feeling of arousal may be fear, anxiety or sympathy. When a bystander starts to feel as such, he becomes upset and extends help to the situation to relieve such feelings. The heavier the need, the more emotionally straining it is, therefore increasing the likelihood of wanting to help.

This theory suggests that the helping behaviour is driven by the need to relieve oneself from the emotional arousal brought about by situations in which help is needed.

Extrinsic motivators

Empathy-Altruism Theory

Altruism is the idea of helping others without expecting anything in return. Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability of a person to place oneself in another’s shoes to understand what the other is feeling. This theory combines the idea of both – when one feels empathic towards another, he feels the need to help and relieve them of their suffering.

This theory revolves around ‘empathic concern,’ which are emotions felt by a person when he sees somebody in need. The person’s priority now centers around the other person’s needs and relieving them, instead of focusing on his own.

The Norm of Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is a feeling that a person has an obligation to act in such a way that benefits the whole society. With this, a person has a duty to fulfil to maintain the balance in his environment. A person may do this actively, for example donating money to government NGO’s, or passively, such as ensuring that he commits no harm to others with his deeds.

Why do people not help?

The Bystander effect

This concept states that the presence of bystanders inhibits or decreases the likelihood of a person helping another. The more bystanders there are, the less likely that the person will extend help [an experiment on bystander effect]. Several variables explain as to why this occurs.


This variable pertains to a person’s perception of how grave the need is. High ambiguity situations would cause a person to have second thoughts about helping – for example, a soft cry vs. a loud scream.


This variable affects the likelihood that bystanders will help another based on familiarity with the person in need.

Diffusion of responsibility

The presence of other bystanders leads one to believe that the others will take responsibility. This may be affected by skills or qualifications, in which one believes that others are more qualified to help, thereby avoiding giving unwarranted assistance.

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