Good or Evil?

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Your Helping Instincts May Be Stronger Than You Realize

In times of need, most of us instinctively reach out to help

By now the ritual has become all too familiar. In times of disaster or tragedy, we first learn of the damage to human life, and then almost immediately afterwards, we watch the brave helpers who rush in to assist the victims. Each time, the media proclaim in wonderment about how willing people are to sacrifice their lives for the sake of others. 

Many commentators and viewers undoubtedly have lodged in the recesses of their memory the infamous story of Kitty Genovese, the young Queens NY woman raped and murdered in 1968, reportedly, in front of dozens of silent bystanders, none of whom reached out to help.  Most people forget that the story was highly exaggerated and that most people living in the neighborhood either had no idea about what was happening or actually did try to call police. True, research by Princeton psychologist John Darley and his associated Bibb Latane did provide empirical support for the “diffusion of responsibility” theory. Participants in this research hear what they think is a fellow student in need of help such as having fallen off a ladder in the hallway outside the lab. However, in no case did 100% of the participants in this research actually refuse to help.  It’s safe to say that the bystander effect is over-rated as a general human tendency.

We can look to the many nationally televised scenarios in which bystanders and fellow victims performed rescue attempts, often at their peril, for anecdotal support to challenge the bystander effect. However, we have even better evidence from the empirical studies of very young children, whose helping tendencies seem to spring up almost instinctively when an adult experimenter seems to need their help.

Many parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, can certainly attest to this phenomenon.  You’re at a family gathering, and the toddler next to you tries to shove a well-chewed cracker into your mouth, wanting to share the delicious treat. Perhaps you’ve been trying to get some chores done on a Saturday morning, and your two-year-old insists on picking up the vacuum cleaner. Sometimes it seems more difficult to encourage a child not to help, then to ask that child to help.

Lab studies show that, for example, even by 6 months of age, infants prefer characters who they see help rather than those who they see hinder a third character’s goals. By the time they’re one year old, they will offer help to an adult who’s dropped an object in their view, either by pointing to it or helping the adult in the search.  By the time they’re two years old, children have developed a number of helping skills, including sharing their toys and comforting others in distress.  As they get older, their helping behavior begins to include taking into account the specific goals of the person in need.  Yale University psychologists Alia Martin and Kristina Olson (2013) studied “paternalistic helping,” in which you attempt to figure out what someone needs in order to achieve a specific goal, and then provide that help.  For example, if someone asks for a glass of water, but that glass is broken, there’s no point in giving that particular glass so you’ll need to find a different one.  This seems obvious to adults, but to young children, it actually takes some cognitive effort. The child has to infer the other person’s goals (to get water), realize that the original object won’t accomplish the goal, find an alternate object, and then provide it to the person making the request.

Martin and Olson developed an ingenious method in which they gave a sample of 3-year-olds pairs of objects.  One was dysfunctional in some way (such as a cracked cup) and the other was functional (a normal cup). The critical trials involved the experimenter asking the child for the dysfunctional object rather than the functional object. In 68% of the cases, the child handed over the functional object instead, showing evidence of paternalistic helping. In another condition, the researchers asked children to do the opposite- to throw a perfectly good object into the trash rather than the one that was broken. In these cases, the children followed through with the adult’s request. Therefore, it didn’t seem as though children simply prefer to hand over a functional vs. a dysfunctional object. Even more complex was a third condition in which the adult asked for a dysfunctional object that could be used for a task (cutting a circle of play-doh with the broken cup). As long as the object could serve a purpose, even a novel one, children handed over the requested object. However, if it couldn’t serve the purpose, then the children were more likely to hand over the object that would work (the intact cup for the water).

In sum, the Martin and Olson experiments showed that by the age of 3, children provide adults with help in achieving their goals, and can also decide how best to help adults when their requests aren’t compatible with their goals. This shows that they both are willing to help, to adjust their helping to the specific requests of the person in need, and to weigh different options before they offer that help.  The urge to help may be instinctive, but the ways in which children offer help gain in complexity as they gain in cognitive abilities.

These and the emerging studies on so-called “prosocial” (helping) behavior in young children should provide us with encouragement as we ponder the horrific outcomes of mass tragedies, whether in our own communities, in our countries, or in the world at large. Perhaps the media should be more surprised when people don’t help than when they do. 

The good news is also that it shouldn’t take much for adults to nurture helping behavior in their children, no matter how young they are. Children seem to have an inner sensitivity to the hurt in others.  When adults are trying to figure out what to say to children, whether it be their own, or children who are students, relatives, neighbors, or friends, a focus on how they can help may be the ultimate way to promote healing.

If you’re one of the seeming minority who believes that you can’t, or shouldn’t, reach out and help those in distress, it’s likely that somewhere along the way you lost touch with your own inner altruistic instincts. There is ample evidence that helping others is one of the best ways to provide you with a greater sense of life satisfaction. Tapping into your “inner child” may ultimately help you tap into those inner helping instincts and, ultimately, your own sense of life fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Martin, A., & Olson, K. R. (2013, February 4). When Kids Know Better: Paternalistic Helping in 3-Year-Old Children. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031715

Photo: Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images, Former New England Patriots player Joe Andruzzi carries a woman from the scene on Exeter Street after two explosions went off on Boylston Street near the finish line. 4/15/2013

Good or Evil?