After Christchurch, Where Are the Helpers?

The New Zealand shooting and responses to it reveal two sides of humanity.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

Mr. Rogers, the children’s TV host, famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

AP Photo.Vincent Yu
A mourner lights a candle during a vigil to commemorate victims of Friday's shooting
Source: AP Photo.Vincent Yu

The March 15 mass shooting at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was a deeply tragic and “scary thing” indeed. It’s hard to find signs for hope in its wake. But there is some wisdom in Mr. Rogers’s words—and the reality they reflect. 

There was the swift police response that prevented the attacks from being even worse than they were. There was the outpouring of support and sympathy exemplified by makeshift memorials and candlelight vigils. There was an offer by the government of New Zealand to pay for all of the victims’ funerals. And there was the heroism of some of the victims who, during the attacks, reportedly shielded others with their bodies. 

For a psychologist like me who studies how people respond to adversity—their own and that of others—this is welcome news, but no surprise. We know that tragedies tend to make communities rally together. For example, the researchers Tom Vardy and Quentin Atkinson recently showed that after a tropical cyclone devastated Tanna, Vanuatu, people there engaged in greater prosocial (helping) behavior in response to others’ suffering. I’ve seen similar phenomena in my own research. Following the 9/11 attacks, my colleagues and I found that people across the U.S. reported seeing increased prosocial behavior and unity. 

In short, Mr. Rogers is right: when “scary things” happen, you can usually count on there being an increase in community togetherness—you can look for, and find, the helpers. In many respects, this simply reflects what we know about human prosocial behavior more generally: We all have circles of moral concern that extend beyond ourselves to include members of our groups, including our friends and family, our fellow citizens, or potentially all of humanity. And when people in our circle of moral concern are suffering, we tend to feel a desire to help them. This is why Mr. Rogers (and his mother) remind us to look for the helpers—human nature provides us with a reason for hope.

But human nature has a dark side, too. Our circles of moral concern can be wide, potentially encompassing all of humanity, as I mentioned above. But they can also be drawn much smaller than that. When we perceive certain others as lying outside of our circle of moral concern, we can be indifferent to their suffering. More starkly, when our circles of moral concern are small, it’s likely that we will perceive the interests of those outside (“them”) as actually being in conflict with the interests of those inside (“us”). As work by Mina Cikara and colleagues highlights, when we perceive that “they” are in conflict with “us,” we come to actually want “them” to suffer.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the shooter in Christchurch drew his circle of moral concern tragically small—apparently including white people and no one else. Recent years have seen a rise in nationalism and various other “-isms” that advocate small moral circles, leaving some in and some out. 

This is a scary thing. I’m looking for the helpers.