3 Reasons Why People Refuse to Help Others

Too selfish, cheap, or cruel to help? Perhaps there is another hidden reason.

Posted Oct 03, 2017

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

Some of us are highly motivated to help those in need, while others couldn’t care less and vehemently object to giving money or volunteering time in the service of others. How many times have you avoided eye contact and walked away from a homeless person? How much “junk” mail requesting financial contributions from charities have you tossed in the trash without a second thought? How often have you been too “busy” to volunteer your time at a local church, school, or soup kitchen? If you are like many Americans, the answer is frequently.

Giving and helping estimates vary dramatically, but if you are like most Americans, you probably help others only by donating money. The majority of us donate to either religious or educational causes, with the average total donation by taxpaying individuals equaling about 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which converts to approximately $2,000 per household. The percentage of people who volunteer time is considerably less, with Department of Labor estimates indicating that 3.3 to 9.4 percent of the over 15 population on a given day work at an organization for no pay. Females, people over 65, and those with more formal education are most likely to volunteer, giving about five hours of time during an average workweek.

Conversely, some individuals devote their entire lives to helping others. First respondents, law enforcement officers, teachers, and health care workers often sacrifice their well-being and financial potential in the service of others. People with public servant and non-profit careers often make less money than they might earn working for lucrative corporations, but nevertheless, they willingly make career choices in the helping professions. Why are some people so generous with time and money and willing to engage in what psychologists call pro-social behavior, yet others disdain the thought of working for no pay or parting with their hard-earned cash?

Helping others contributes to emotional well-being

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

Science reveals that pro-social behavior is personally rewarding in at least three ways. First, some people help because it satisfies the universal need to be emotionally close to others (Correll & Park, 2005). When we share we create social bonds with like-minded individuals who have similar needs and desires as our own. Second, helping is a mood enhancer. Many people report feelings of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction when participating in charitable and volunteer activities (Wegener, Petty, & Smith, 1995). Third, investing time or money in helping gives us social and materialistic benefits (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005). Helping and sharing are perceived as admirable and commendable qualities across cultures, races, and religions.

Taken together, the key personal benefit gained by being kind and helpful is our mental satisfaction. Ultimately, helping others and sharing resources boosts self-worth. When we dedicate effort in the service of others, we exhibit egoism for personal gain (Batson, Ahmad & Stocks, 2011). In other words, we get those warm and fuzzy feelings inside when we think we have acted appropriately according to the rules and customs of our culture. Other times, we help because we feel bad about ourselves and the act of helping produces positive emotions. The positive feelings alone can motivate a person, even when the act of sharing or giving is perceived as burdensome or uninteresting.

Why and when we may refuse to help

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

One reason you may object to lending a hand or giving money is that the need to feel good about yourself is satisfied in different ways. Not everyone needs an inflated ego and some people genuinely have feelings of empathy for those less fortunate. Frequently, when individuals are contemplating assistance to others, they undergo a cost-benefit analysis calculating the personal rewards of helping, as well as the psychological and physical drawbacks of offering help. If the emotional costs are deemed too high, such as when individuals feel overly threatened, insecure, or not personally accountable for offering help, they will be far less inclined to exhibit adaptive helping behavior

A robust field of research indicates when people are willing to offer help. First, people are much less compassionate and less inclined to offer assistance to others when part of a group in comparison to when alone. The infamous bystander effect accounts for ignoring the pleas of others in a crowd. Individuals help more when the psychological cost of helping is low, and the need of the person needing help is considered to be substantial. We hesitate to help when we believe the person in distress could have prevented the problem through a proactive and decisive action of his or her own (Batson, 2010). Holding the person accountable for their circumstances often accounts for refusing to give contributions to panhandlers or to people we think “put” themselves in the position of needing assistance.

The sordid side of assistance

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

Unfortunately, willingness to assist others is also a function of many superficial associations between the helper and the person needing help, such as the perceived degree of physical, intellectual, racial, and gender similarities (Mallozzi, McDermott, & Kayson, 1990), as well as perceptions of in-group membership (Stürmer, Snyder, & Omoto, 2005). We tend to help others that we think are like us. Much of the research on helping suggests that many altruistic behaviors such as donating money or sharing our personal resources are motivated by self-interest, how we see ourselves in relation to others, or an external standard of personal accountability. Next time you lend a hand, think about your motive and how a lack of support for others may be more of a function of a content ego, not unwillingness or the lack of financial ability.


This article was inspired by Dr. Hoffman’s life-long mission of solving the mystery of motivation.  Want to know more about WHY you do the things you do?  Follow Dr. Hoffman on Twitter at @ifoundmo or check out his author page on Amazon.com.

Batson, C. D. (2010). Altruism in humans. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Batson, C., Ahmad, N., & Stocks, E. L. (2011). Four forms of prosocial motivation: Egoism, altruism, collectivism, and principlism. In D. Dunning (Ed.), Social motivation (pp. 103– 126). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Mallozzi, J., Mcdermott, V., & Kayson, W. A. (1990). Effects of sex, type of dress, and location on altruistic behavior. Psychological Reports, 67(3), 1103–1106.

Correll, J., & Park, B. (2005). A model of the in-group as a social resource. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(4), 341–359.

Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A., & Schroeder, D. A. (2005). Prosocial behavior: Multilevel perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology, 56(1), 365–392. http://dx.doi. org/10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070141.

Stürmer, S., Snyder, M., & Omoto, A. M. (2005). Prosocial emotions and helping: The moderating role of group membership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 532–546.

Wegener, D. T., Petty, R. E., & Smith, S. M. (1995). Positive mood can increase or decrease message scrutiny: The hedonic contingency view of mood and message processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(1), 5–15.