Helping others seems to come naturally to me. When I see others (from relatives to strangers), I feel the urge to help find a solution to their problem. Many people often describe me as a giving person willing to go the extra mile for those in need. However, there are times that I have ignored this urge to help others who are in need. Ignoring this urge has often led me to question my values and morals as an individual as well as a member of the external society. Leaving someone in need of my assistance also makes me question my identity as well as my humanity. I feel the same way when I see an individual who is well suited to lend a helping hand refusing to do so for no apparent reason.
I developed this habit of helping people including strangers when I was very young. I wanted to emulate my mother who I would see cooking food for the beggars on the street during her off-days from work. We would go around town distributing these foods to the individuals we would find on the street. There was one time my father warned us that some of the people in the street were actually pretending and taking us for a ride. They were not physically or mentally disabled, in fact they were the opposite according to my father. However, my mother brushed these comments aside stating that even the pretenders had gone to the street to beg because they had no other means of sustaining themselves.
Fast-forward to about fifteen years later and I still continue with my mother’s practice even though she died three years ago. Now I have a community of friends who help me with the cooking as well as purchasing the ingredients for the foods. My friends also help me deliver the foods to the beggars on the street. There is also an informal committee that I set up that seeks contributions from members of the public as well as creating a budget on how these funds will be spent.
There are various theories developed by socio-psychologists on why people help others. It will be interesting to understand what motivated my mother to start the initiative for cooking for the poor during her free time. It will also be interesting to understand why I did not let this tradition die with my mother and why I have worked tirelessly to give reprieve to some of the poorest people in our town.
The empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that we are more likely to help others when we feel some form of empathy towards them. The help given will depend on the proportion of empathy that one feels towards the person in need. Helping others due to empathy felt often comes without any selfish thoughts. If this were not the case, we would only help others when there is a reward and this reward far outweighs the cost of helping and spending time helping.
However, the rewards from helping others come in a variety of forms. For example, an individual might consider helping others so that he is rewarded by a sense of relief that those people are no longer in distress. As such, it is very difficult to separate completely selfish concerns and true altruism. This theory is known as the negative-state relief model whereby a person will help those in need because of his or her ego. An individual’s ego leads them to those in bad circumstances so that they can reduce their own personal distress emanating from knowing that other individuals are suffering. Based on this theory, the helping only happens when there is no other way to relieve this distress or comfort. The theory also helps to explain the avoidance behavior in people. People tend to ignore those in need when the distress of knowing of or seeing others suffering can be relieved by avoiding those in need altogether.
This theory does play into my urge to feed the beggars on the street who are hungry. There is a sense of relief when I see that these individuals are no longer suffering from hunger. They are suffering from other things such as physical and mental disabilities, homelessness, and lack of proper hygiene. However, there is a sense of relief that I have rid them of one essential problem that is constantly plaguing them, hunger. Even if I am only feeding them once or twice a week, I am relieved when I do my part.
Another theory that can help describe the motivation behind my group’s effort to feed the hungry people on the streets is the pro-social behavior hypothesis. Based on this hypothesis, individuals can aim to help others without any other goals rather than to help a fellow human being. Some proponents argue that this behavior arises as a genetic response to aid and support the wider genetic pool to extend its survival. This is known as the kin selection theory on helping behavior whereby people help others with a similar genetic base in order to increase the chances of the desired genetic pool surviving. Social conditioning can also result in pro-social behaviors (Barnyard, 2008).
Other than social conditioning and kin selection, pro-social behavior may also be attributed to the reciprocity norm. This is where individuals help others in a selfless manner hoping that when the day comes that they may need help, others will help them in the same selfless manner. In other words, reciprocal altruism is the tendency to help others with the belief or perception that there is potential reciprocation of this help in the future. Men tend to exhibit pro-social behavior for brief spats of time while women tend to work quietly for longer periods of time. Another interesting aspect of this theory is that people in good moods are more likely to help others and so are those who feel guilty about their past mis-deeds (Eisenberg, 2005; Lindsey, Yun, & Hill, 2007).
Pro-social behavior is the whole basis of charity. My group and I are a charitable body working towards providing meals to those who are unable to purchase food items on a regular basis. We educate the volunteers on how a positive attitude towards every day aspects of life can generate positive energy and make us helpers that are more effective in the society.
The social exchange theory postulates that people only want to help when they want to gain something (a form of reward) from the ones they are helping. Studies have shown that people conduct a mental cost-benefit analysis of helping others before they actually engage in the activity. They aim to minimize the cost of helping others and maximize the rewards that may stem from the activity. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the minimax strategy The degree of rewards vary from materialistic goods to non-materialistic rewards such as receiving praise and recognition from the members of the public.
In conclusion, from socio-psychology, it is easy to identify the various motivations that underlie an individual’s willingness or lack thereof to help others. Some of the reasons behind helping others can intertwine. Some people genuinely help people without requiring reciprocation at the moment but they may require some recognition from other members of the society.
Banyard, V.L. (2008). Measurement and correlates of pro-social behavior: the case of interpersonal violence. Violence and Victims 23: 83-97.
Eisenberg, N. (2005). Pro-social moral reasoning. Psychology Review.
Lindsey, L., Yun, K.A. & Hill, J.B. (2007). Anticipated guilt as motivation to help unknown others: an examination of empathy as a moderator. Communication Research, 34: 468-480.