- Offering help, in some cases, can perpetuate perceptions of inequality and incompetence.
- Unsolicited help can contribute to dysfunction.
- Compassion fatigue and burnout can limit one's helping ability.
The virtue of helping others is well chronicled. Celebrities like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, LeBron James, and Bono all champion charitable education and public health causes with personal endorsements and by donating their own money. In the United States, the average household gives 2 percent to 3 percent of their annual income to charity in a given year. In fiscal year 2021, the U.S. foreign aid budget was approximately $44 billion. Personally, you might fund a family in need, help a roadside stranger in distress, or devote time to a struggling student by assisting with homework. While these altruistic behaviors may seem kind and considerate, there are at least five situations when offering help can lead to surprising and undesirable outcomes.
1. Help may promote perceptions of incompetence
The type of help we offer others can have unintended consequences. Providing too much assistance can actually undermine learning and self-confidence. In a recent study, Sierksma (2023) discovered that when 6- to 9-year-olds helped struggling peers, the type of help varied based on the perceived competence of the peer. Children were more likely to give "empowerment help" — useful problem-solving hints that build skills — to peers judged as smart. But they tended to simply provide answers to peers seen as less competent. While well-intentioned, this denies less competent peers the chance to practice critical thinking. Sierksma concluded that this biased helping could reinforce achievement gaps between students. Her work highlights the need to better understand how even our best intentions can sometimes inhibit others' growth. With greater awareness, we can offer help that empowers, rather than diminishes, those we aim to assist.
2. Help may promote dysfunctionality
Providing unbounded assistance can foster unhealthy dependence and erode self-sufficiency. Research on “learned helplessness” shows that repeatedly helping someone without encouraging independent problem-solving can make them passive and overly reliant on others (Maier & Seligman, 2016). The recipient may reduce their own effort and shift accountability to the helper. Furthermore, offering help without boundaries or accountability can enable dysfunctional behaviors. For instance, studies suggest that removing assistance can increase substance abuse and addictive eating in those who have grown dependent on the aid (Beattie, 2008). While the intention to help is admirable, it is essential to empower recipients to take responsibility for their actions and develop self-reliance. With care and wisdom, helpers can avoid inadvertently promoting dysfunctionality or eroding the very capabilities they wish to enhance.
3. Helping can hurt
One incentive for helping lies in our intrinsic desire to validate our sense of self-worth. Consequently, we anticipate acknowledgment from others when we engage in acts of kindness. However, when assistance is offered without a commensurate exchange of appreciation or reciprocation, it can sow the seeds of resentment in the heart of the benefactor. Pragmatically speaking, offering help carries tangible repercussions. Helping impacts personal convenience, as well as the investment of time and resources that could otherwise be directed toward self-care and personal growth. An undercurrent of animosity may begin to develop towards the very recipients of our assistance, leaving the helper with a sense of underappreciation and a feeling of being taken advantage of. In some cases, this animosity can escalate to such an extent that certain individuals develop a covertly resentful "martyr complex," an expectation of reciprocity for their sacrifices and a subsequent sense of despondency when positive feedback is withheld (Exline et al., 2004).
4. Consider unintended consequences
When offering help, we send subtle signals to others about ability. Unsolicited help can serve as a cue that the recipient is lower in ability, leading to negative self-perceptions. As bystanders, school-aged children judged peers who received unsolicited help from teachers as lower in ability compared to non-helped peers, even when their performance was equal (Graham, & Barker, 1990). Unsolicited help is especially problematic for parents. While we often believe that sympathy, generous praise, and minimal criticism may be positively motivating we can inadvertently communicate that the child cannot complete the task without help. Thus, we should always consider unintended effects of help, while still recognizing the overall value of such practices.
5. Beware of burnout
Sometimes our desire to help those in need can be so strong that we develop a sense of unrelenting passion toward help-giving. However, excessive passion can promote “compassion fatigue,” which is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can occur when individuals are repeatedly exposed to the suffering and trauma of others. Compassion fatigue can result in a loss of compassion as the helper's emotional resources are depleted. The syndrome is especially prevalent for healthcare professionals and repeated exposure to helping can promote job dissatisfaction, health issues in the helper, and eventual career derailment (Sinclair et al., 2017)
Offering help and support can lead to burnout when the demands of caregiving or helping exceed the individual's ability to cope. This chronic stress and exhaustion can lead to feelings of detachment, cynicism, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, resulting in the inability to offer help on a continuing basis (Maslach et al., 2001).
What it all means
Yes, we should aid those in need, but the best practice is to consider the totality of the circumstances before offering help. Unsolicited help is a double-edged sword as the offering can have negative consequences. While the act of offering help may be well-intentioned, it can inadvertently contribute to dysfunctional behaviors in recipients and impact the well-being of the helper. It's important to strike a balance between offering assistance and promoting independence and personal growth in others.
Beattie, M. (2008). The new codependency: Help and guidance for today's generation. Simon and Schuster.
Exline, J. J., Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J., Campbell, W. K., & Finkel, E. J. (2004). Too proud to let go: Narcissistic entitlement as a barrier to forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 894-912.
Graham, S., & Barker, G. P. (1990). The downside of help: An attributional-developmental analysis of helping behavior as a low-ability cue. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 7-14.
Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367.
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397-422.
Sierksma, J. (2023). Children perpetuate competence-based inequality when they help peers. NJP Science of Learning, 8, 41. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-023-00192-9
Sinclair, S., Raffin-Bouchal, S., Venturato, L., Mijovic-Kondejewski, J., & Smith-MacDonald, L. (2017). Compassion fatigue: A meta-narrative review of the healthcare literature. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 69, 9-24.