To this point in the chapter, we have proceeded as if helping is always a good thing—that people need to receive help and that they are appreciative of and thankful to the people who help them. But perhaps this is not always true. We haven’t yet considered the cognitive and affective reactions of the people who are receiving the help. Can you remember a time when somebody tried to help you make a decision or perform a task, but you didn’t really want the help? How did that make you think and feel about yourself? Maybe there are costs involved in receiving help, just as there are in giving it.
Although people who receive help often really need the help and may indeed feel appreciative and grateful to those who help them, receiving help may also have some negative consequences. When we help another person, it indicates that we have enough resources that we can afford to give some of them to the recipient; it also indicates that the recipient is dependent on our goodwill. Thus helping can create a status disparity in the sense that the helper is seen as having higher status than the person being helped. This inequality makes giving help an indication of high status and power, and receiving help a potentially self-threatening experience for the recipient (Nadler, 2002; Nadler & Halabi, 2006). There are a variety of emotions that help recipients might feel in these cases, including embarrassment and worry that they are, or are seen as, incompetent or dependent (DePaulo, Brown, Ishii, & Fisher, 1981; Nadler, Fisher, & Itzhak, 1983). Research has found that people frequently respond negatively when they receive help and may in some cases even prefer to endure hardships rather than to seek out help (Nadler, 1991). Receiving help, then, can be a potential blow to our self-esteem.
The negative feelings that we experience when receiving help are likely to be particularly strong when the recipient feels that the implication of the helping is that they are unable to care for themselves. In these cases the help is perceived as being dependency oriented (Nadler et al., 1983). When the helper takes control of the situation and solves the problem facing the individual, leaving little left for the individual to accomplish on his or her own, the behavior may be seen as indicating that the individual cannot help herself. The potential recipients of help are likely to reject offers of dependency-oriented help, refrain from seeking it, and react negatively when it is offered.
Another situation in which people may not appreciate the help they are receiving is when that help comes on the basis of one’s presumed need. For instance Blaine, Crocker, and Major (1995) found that people who imagined that they had been hired for a job because they were disabled experienced lower self-esteem and felt that they were less likely to work hard on the job than those who imagined that they were hired on the basis of their job qualifications. You can see that government programs, such as those based on the notion of affirmative action, although likely to be helpful for the people who receive them, may also lead those people to feel dependent on others.
In contrast to dependency-oriented help, autonomy-oriented help is partial and temporary and provides information to the other, for instance, by giving instructions or guidance or providing ideas about how to help oneself. Autonomy-oriented help reflects the helper’s view that, given the appropriate tools, recipients can help themselves (Brickman, 1982). Autonomy-oriented help allows help recipients to retain their independence despite their reliance on the more resourceful helper. This type of help is less likely to clash with the recipients’ view of themselves as capable people who can help themselves.
There are also observed gender differences in the willingness to seek help. Boys and men are less likely to ask for help overall, perhaps in part because they feel that asking for help indicates to others that they are less capable of handling their own affairs or that they have low status (Addis & Mahalik, 2003; Mansfield, Addis, & Mahalik, 2003).
In short, when we help others we must be careful that we do it in a way that allows them to maintain their independence and that reminds them that they are still able to help themselves. This type of help will be more easily accepted and more beneficial in the long run.