Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Do People Only Help Others Like Themselves?

When do people step in to help?

I was standing in my kitchen the other day, pulling together the fixings for my family's Sunday tea. My phone pinged the characteristic tone of a text from my son, a Peace Corps volunteeer serving in the Kalahari region of South Africa.

"Mom, I just got mugged by three guys . . . "

Yes, he was safe. Yes, he was back in his village. No, he hadn't been specifically targetted, just a target of convenience. Back, for me, to the constant nagging worry of the parent of an adult child working in a dangerous place.

Samaritans in Manhattan

The next day, I was teaching my Research Methods class, working through one of the classic studies in Psychology: Good Samaritanism: An underground phenomenon? written by Piliavan, Rodin, and Piliavin (1969). I had chosen the piece because it was a straightforward naturalistic experiment and its statistics were simple enough for us to reanalyze ourselves: they did a chi-square.

It focuses on a simple question: When a person is in clear need, who will help? Teaching it again, I
realized that these findings from 1960's New York provided clear insight into what had happened to my son in rural South Africa almost fifty years later.

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Good Samaritanism: An underground phenomenon? is a product of the heyday of activist social psychology in the late 1960's. You can just see it in the writing. "Underground" in the title is both a playful pun on its setting in the New York City subway and an allusion to the ubiquitious 'underground' movements of the period. You can also see the 60s reflected in careful readings of the paper's footnotes. A research assistant violated the protocol and created an oddly unbalanced design because he, as a Black man in a period of sharp racial tension, refused to pretend to be drunk on a mid-town Manhattan subway. The research was halted and the research design could not be balanced because Columbia students were on strike. Science often bows to the exigencies of everyday politics and the reality of daily life.

The study takes as it's starting point the compelling murder of Kitty Genovese. Brutally stabbed to
death near her home in New York City, the case gripped the country because it was widely reported that she screamed and pleaded for help within earshot of dozens of people over the course of an hour, and not one person came to her aid or called the police for help. (See Wikipedia for other explantions for the lack of aid in this case.)

The study's goal was to extend previous research done in the laboratory to a real life setting: the
Manhattan subway. Its protocol was straightforward:

  • A confederate enters a subway car and, between stops, appears to fall to the ground, either
  • drunk or while using a cane.
  • Confederates (and the random bystanders enlisted as participants) are either Black or White
  • Research assistants observe who helps and whether they are more likely to be same or different in ethnicity from the participant.
  • A second confederate goes to help.
  • Research assistants observe whether more people help after helping is modelled.

The results are straightforward.

  • More people help a person who is in need through no fault of their own (cane condition) than someone who may be thought to have some responsibility or be of some danger to the helper (drunk condition)
  • When people are 'ill' (cane condition), there is no ethnic difference in helping.
  • When people are drunk, you get more within-group helping.
  • Once one person helps, others help too.

Samaritans in South Africa


What struck me about the study was how clearly it reflected what happened to my son.

He had been standing at a rural 'combie' stand near his village, waiting for a van with a few dozen other people in the noon sun. He was traveling back from Johannesburg, so was carrying a backpack and a suitcase. He noticed some 'sketchy' guys across the road, but figured the crowd would discourage robbers.

He was wrong.

  • He was clearly an out-group member: the only White man for probably several miles.  It is highly unusual for local Whites to take combie vans.
  • He was also carrying a backpack and a suitcase: not local. Probably a rich tourist visiting the local missionary where Dr. Livingstone (of the famous "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") had served in mid 1800's. Again, clearly an outgroup member.

He was alone and jumped by three men who worked as a team.

What is interesting is what happened after the attack.

My son fought them off, holding onto his suitcase, guarding his backpack and yelling at the top of his lungs (a very raw throat was his only serious injury from the attack). But, being an American, scared andcornered, he yelled in English. No one came to his aid. It must have lasted a long time, although time stretches when you're in a rushof adrenaline. He remembers two vans coming and going - so maybe two or three minutes.

Then his Peace Corps training kicked in. He switched languages, yelling for help in Setswana, the local language. Suddenly, help came. A man at the combie stand grabbed a piece of rebar from the road and charged the attackers, yelling and swinging wildly.

As soon as the man began his attack, the women at the stand stepped in. They grabbed rocks from side of the road and starting throwing them at the attackers, who broke contact and started running down the road. (It had never occured to me how brilliant a strategy rock throwing is for a weaker opponent against one who is stronger - it hurts at a distance and while keeping you safe from attack. David knew what he was doing when he went after Goliath.)

The muggers vanquished, the crowd helped my son pull himself together, hustled him into the next van, and sent him home. Someone walked him from the drop off point to his home, checking in with the family who looks after his welfare and making sure he was okay.

Cell phones work well in the desert.  My son texted his mom. (Attachment theory tells us that we reach out to our 'safe base' when threatened.)

The more things change the more they stay the same

This is SO similar to what happened in Manhattan in the 60's.

  • People hesitated to help someone clearly in need but not of their group. His looks and hisluggage clearly labeled my son as not local. Calling for aid in English - a language understood to some extent by probably everyone in South Africa under the age of 40 - communicated need, but did not elicit help. Itfurther labeled him as 'other'.
  • When he started yelling in the local language, people stepped in. He WAS one of them.
  • When one person helped, others did too.
  • Once the threat was gone, someone was in need, others modeled helping, and generous help was offered. And he was now clearly local - he was going home to the nearby village.


Reflections on Psychology

One of the criticisms often leveled at Psychology as a field is how culturally specific it can be. Many
- especially those of us who do cross-cultural work - wonder at the extent to which research done
predominently in the United States and often in experimental settings using participants enrolled in
Introductory Psychology courses can be generalized. Laboratory studies tell us a great deal about very small questions with very specialized populations. What do they tell us about the rest of the world?

One of the goals of the original Samaritan study was to see if the results of laboratory studies could be generalized to the real world of the Manhattan subway. It could.

It's nice to know that those results can also be generalized - almost 50 years later - to a very different culture in the Kalahari Desert as well.

And I am very grateful that it did.

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A side note . . . I remember reading, but cannot now find the reference, that people have tried to
replicate the original Samaritian study. They haven't been able to do so, but for a very good reason:
people come to help the confederate so quickly that they can't see if modeling help elicits aid.

Too many people know the results of the original study and the Kitty Genovese story and its clear
message that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. To the extent that
this is true, it is another victory for psychology.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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