Psychology of Helping Others

Instructor: Joshua Mummert

Josh teaches Special Education courses for graduate students. He has a Master's of Science in Psychology and is in the process of earning his Ph.D in Psychology.

In this lesson, we will understand the three primary psychological theories as to why people help one another. We will also describe the essential components of the three theories and identify altruistic behavior.

Psychology of Helping Others

Consider the following situation...

You are at a local fair with your friends and all of a sudden, a man approaches you and tries to take your wallet from you. Before you can yell for help, the man is tackled by a complete stranger and is held down until police arrive. The man hands you back your wallet and walks away.

Now, why would someone jump in to help you when they don't even know who you are? In a more extreme situation, why do people risk their lives to help complete strangers when disasters strike?

Psychological models

Social psychologists have explored this at great length, and as a result, many theories have emerged. Three primary models exist to explain helping behavior.

Evolutionary Model

The first model is the evolutionary model. The evolutionary model maintains that people are naturally inclined to help one another because it contributes to the survival of the species. This is especially true in situations that are considered low or moderate risk.

In higher risk situations, however, a phenomenon called kin selection occurs. Kin selection mandates that people are more likely to help their relatives during high risk situations, which will result in like genes to carry on. As has been the theme of evolutionary theory in general, the primary objective for helping behavior is to continue the survival of humans as a species.

Egoistic Model

The second psychological theory of why humans help others is the motivational model.

Whereas the evolutionary model seems to employ a more collective effort for helping behavior, the egoistic model suggests that sometimes people egoistically help others because helping elicits some type of reward. These the rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic in nature. People who are intrinsically motivated help others because it makes them feel good inside. Think of it this way: when you give a donation to a cause about something you care about, are you necessarily expecting anything in return? Sometimes, you're not. However, you deeply care about that cause, so your helping carries the cause forward and it makes you feel good about being a part of it.

Now, let's say that you give a donation to your cause, but you do so knowing that you are getting a gift card to your favorite restaurant in return. Your motivation to donate is extrinsic because you are getting something back that benefits you. Although this may seem like a selfish motive, extrinsic motivation is not necessarily a bad thing. As an example, think about helping someone and receiving something in return to benefit your family. Although the welfare of your family can be seen as an extrinsic gesture, it may be intrinsically motivating to know they are healthy, safe, and happy. Of course, we can also see an example of the evolutionary perspective here as well: You are helping someone and receiving something in return in order to enhance the survival of your family, which in turn carries on your genes.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation
Image of two heads, text inside and outside of heads.

Altruism Model

We've reviewed the evolutionary model and motivational factors in why people help one another. However, think back to the scenario at the beginning of this lesson. Why did this man, who has no tie to you, jump in to help you? Realistically, his life could have been put at risk if the robber had a weapon with him. Could your rescuer been intrinsically motivated to know your wallet would be safe and he felt like a hero doing so? This could be argued, but we would never know because we don't know the rescuer. Is it possible that he helped you just to ensure your safety and nothing else?

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