In the Garden of Good and Evil

From altruism to violent conflict.

Empathy, Compassion, Responsibility in Altruism and Heroism

Feelings of responsibility are especially important motivators of helping

Ervin Staub

Empathy, and it close relative sympathy, have long been proposed, and have been found in research related to and motivating people to help others. Understanding how another feels, cognitive empathy, and experiencing (vicariously) the feelings of another person or emotional empathy, have been the primary focus of theory and research as the motivators of helping and altruism.  Feelings of empathy, and sympathy, which Nancy Eisenberg defined as “feeling sorrow or concern for a distressed or needy other,” mean that a person cares about another. Personal distress, which looks similar to empathy, is in contrast self-focused. It is being impacted and distressed by others’ distress. It is associated with helping if that is the only way for a person can reduce his or her own distress, but not if this person can escape from the presence of a distressed other. A term relatively recently introduced into scientific discourse and research is compassion, which Emma Seppala defined as “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.” 

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While all these caring emotions are important, and enter into the motivation to help others in need, the strongest motivator appears to be the experience of responsibility for others’ welfare. This can be induced by circumstances, or by who a person is, or their combination. Empathy, sympathy and compassion may contribute to, can be building blocks for,  feeling responsible.

Latane and Darley, in their series of studies that identified what came to be called the bystander effect, that as the number of people who witness an emergency increases the likelihood that any one person takes action decreases, suggested diffusion of responsibility as one of several reasons for this effect. As more people are present, each person feels less responsible to help. Latane and Darley appear to be right about the role of responsibility, except that they considered circumstances alone in affecting feelings of or belief in one’s responsibility. But personal beliefs and values can focus responsibility on a person and make both helping, and resisting harmdoing probable.

With regard to the influence of circumstances, when a person is alone witnessing someone’s need and distress, the situation focuses responsibility on this person. When a person is appointed the leader of a group and later there is an emergency this person, presumably feeling more responsible, is the most likely to act. 

In a study with young children I conducted, the experimenter told each child in one condition, before leaving the room, that ‘if anything happens you are in charge.’ Kindergarteners who were told this did not help more, when while working on a drawing heard a crash and sounds of distress from an adjoining room, than those who were told nothing. But first graders who were told that they are in charge helped more. Still, kindergarteners were affected in that a number of them, presumably feeling responsible but not feeling competent or ready to act, blocked their ears when they heard the distress sounds. The children who were not told that they are responsible did not do this.

With regard to the role of responsibility as a personal characteristic, in a number of studies, using varied measures, the more people previously indicated belief in their own responsibility the more they helped another person. Schwartz and Clausen (197) found that when a person had an apparent epileptic fit, participants in their study with higher scores on a measure of personal responsibility helped more. The difference between those who scored high or low on this measure was greater when there was an increase in the number of bystanders who were present. High scorers, especially women, were relatively unaffected by the number of witnesses.

I and my students have conducted a number of studies to assess the relationship between what I call a prosocial value orientation (PVO) and helping. First we used a combination of measures, than I developed a single measure to assess this personal orientation or value. It components are a positive versus negative view of human nature and human beings, concern about others’ welfare, and a feeling of and belief in one’s own personal responsibility to help others. 

In one study, male participants heard distress sounds from another room, which they later learned was related to a stomach ailment. The stronger their prosocial value orientation the more they helped, in a number of ways. In other studies women with stronger PVOs responded more helpfully to a distressed women, someone whose fiancée just broke off their relationship, refusing to explain why. High PVO score was also associated with more constructive patriotism. Constructive patriots believe that it is their responsibility to take action when their country deviates from universal human values, usually involving human welfare, and the country’s own core values.

I used a questionnaire that the magazine Psychology Today asked me to develop and then published, which 7000 plus readers returned, to assess both PVO and self-reported helping of varied kinds. I attempted to verify the truthfulness of self reports of helping in unobtrusive ways, for example, by asking people to describe the date and nature of recent help they provided to other people.  PVO was strongly related to varied forms of helping, and to the combination or average of different kinds of helping.  In a large study researchers studying rescuers during the Holocaust, Christians who endangered themselves to save the lives of Jews, found that something similar to PVO, which they also called prosocial orientation, was associated with and was an apparently strong motivator of helping by many rescuers.

In another study Kohlberg and Candee assessed the moral judgment of participants in one of Stanley Milgram’s studies of “obedience to authority.” They found that among participants whose role as teachers was to administer increasing levels of shocks each time a learner made a mistake on a task, those whose moral judgment focused on responsibility to other people were highly likely to refuse at some point to administer more shocks.

Beliefs in and feelings of responsibility can be powerful in leading people to respond to others’ need or refusing to harm people. They can lead to helping even when circumstances do not focus responsibility on a person. Such a personal orientation may be fostered in a variety of ways.  One of them is practices by parents and teachers, such as warmth and affection, combined with values that stress helping others. Pointing out to children the consequences of their behavior on others, the positive effects of positive actions and the negative effects on others’ well being of negative actions, is likely to generate both empathy and feelings of responsibility. Giving children responsibilities to help others leads to learning by doing. A likely component of this learning is responsibility for others’ welfare.

A recent as yet unpublished study by Shari McNamee and Faith Weselik compared child rearing by parents that Carnegie Heroes reported, people who received a medal from the Carnegie Foundation for having saved someone’s life while risking their own, with child rearing that a group of randomly selected people reported. The only difference was Carnegie Heroes reporting more that their parents expected them to help other people. Such expectation presumably focuses responsibility on children to help. Parents, teachers, people who guide children, will ideally be concerned not only with children developing empathy and caring values, but also a feeling of responsibility for others’ welfare. Through their example, and by guiding children to help others beyond their own group, they can expand this feeling of responsibility to everyone.  

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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