By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
People generally help if they share genes or expect some gain or feel empathy. The idea that people who can easily put themselves in someone else’s shoes engage in more altruistic behavior is seen in both real world and research settings. Research in neuroscience now suggests that people who are high in empathy show distinct patterns of brain activity.
In a 2018 study, researchers compared how two different types of people reacted, at a neurological level, to a series of painful tasks. Half of these people had engaged in an extraordinary act of altruism; they’d donated a kidney to a stranger. The other half of people had not. Each person was paired with a stranger to complete a series of trials—one set involved the person receiving painful pressure on their right thumbnail, the other set involved the person watching their partner receive that same pressure.
During both sets, the researchers used fMRI imaging to see which parts of the brain were most active. For most people, experiencing pain themselves feels far worse than watching a stranger experience pain and we show different patterns of brain activity in response to these two situations. But people who’d demonstrated extraordinary altruism showed almost the same patterns of brain activity in response to these two situations, suggesting that the way they processed watching a stranger experience pain was almost precisely the same way they processed their own pain.
For people who feel others’ pain at such a deep and personal level, helping the others makes them feel better.
Interestingly, there was an fMRI study of interacting brain regions published in 2016: Inducing empathy can increase altruism in selfish people, yet not in generous people. This surprising result continues in the other direction. Inducing self-centered feelings of tit-for-tat reciprocity can increase altruism in people already inclined to be generous, yet have no effect on the altruism of selfish people.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Decision-tree Model of Helping
The most famous model to explain when we help others also describes the process as a far-from-straightforward process of five distinct steps. This model, the decision-tree model of helping, proposes that providing help to someone in an emergency requires making a series of decisions.
This model was created following a famous case that took place in New York City in 1964, when a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered late one night outside her apartment building. An article in The New York Times described her death as resulting from the callous behavior of her neighbors, who the article claimed had seen the attack, yet failed to intervene or even call the police. The case prompted a flurry of research in psychology on a phenomenon that came to be known as the ‘bystander effect’.
Ironically, follow-up research into this particular case published in 2007 revealed that this description of what had taken place was not exactly right; at least two people did call the police and a friend came to her aid and was with her when she died. But regardless, this case led to the development in the late 1960s of a famous model in social psychology known as the decision-making tree model. This model describes the decision to help someone in an emergency as a complicated series of decisions, proposing that people make their decision to help based on a series of five steps.
The First Three Steps
First, you have to notice that something is happening. This seems like a pretty obvious point, but in some situations, people may fail to pay attention to their environment and therefore not be aware that an emergency is happening. This tendency may be especially common for people living in big cities, who are constantly surrounded by noise and potential distractions.
Second, even if you do notice something, you have to interpret it as something that requires help, i.e., as an emergency. And here’s one of the challenges we’re often faced with when deciding whether or not to interpret something as an emergency: We often look to other people’s behavior to figure out what’s going on. But if everyone is looking to everyone else to figure out what’s happening, no one may actually step up and help.
Third, even when people clearly recognize that an emergency is occurring, they may fail to act unless they feel responsible for doing so. In group settings, we experience a diffusion of responsibility, meaning the more people who are present, the less we personally feel responsible for helping, and the more we’re likely to engage in what is described as social loafing.
The Fourth and Fifth Steps
According to the fourth stage of the decision-tree model, even after you’ve identified something as an emergency and taken responsibility for providing help, you need to decide how to help, and this isn’t necessarily easy. First, because emergencies are rare and unusual events, people do not have lots of experience in handling them and may not have any direct personal experience in how to cope. Second, different situations call for different types of help, and one may hesitate to help because they aren’t sure what the best option is. Third, most emergencies are almost by definition unforeseen; they emerge suddenly, and therefore people are not able to think through various options and develop plans of action.
The fifth, and final, step in the decision-tree model of helping is actually providing help in some way. This step typically closely follows the fourth step, as once we’ve decided how to provide help, we’re pretty likely to continue on with our intentions.
Common Questions about Altruism
The decision-tree model of helping describes the process as a complex process of five distinct steps. This model proposes that providing help to someone in an emergency requires making a series of decisions.
The decision-tree model of helping was created after a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment building in New York City in 1964. A newspaper article described her death as resulting from the callous behavior of her neighbors, who the article claimed had seen the attack, yet failed to intervene or even call the police. The case prompted a flurry of research in psychology.
In group settings, we experience a diffusion of responsibility, meaning the more people who are present, the less we personally feel responsible for helping.