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Social Norms for Helping

2 February, 2016 - 14:08

The outcome of reinforcement for and modeling of helping is the development of social norms of morality—standards of behavior that we see as appropriate and desirable regarding helping (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). One norm that we all are aware of and that we attempt to teach our children is based on the principles of equity and exchange. The reciprocity norm is a social norm reminding us that we should follow the principles of reciprocal altruism—if someone helps us, then we should help that person in the future, and we should help people now with the expectation that they will help us later if we need it. The reciprocity norm is found in everyday adages like “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” and in religious and philosophical teachings such as the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The reciprocity norm forms the basis of human cooperation and is found in every culture. For instance, you can see a list of variations of the golden rule as expressed in 21 different religions. Because the rule is normally followed, people generally do help others who have helped them (Whatley, Webster, Smith, & Rhodes, 1999).

Because helping following the reciprocity norm is based on the return of earlier help and the expectation of a future return from others, it might not seem so much like true altruism to you. But we might also hope that our children internalize another relevant social norm that seems more altruistic—the social responsibility norm. The social responsibility norm tells us that we should try to help others who need assistance, even without any expectation of future paybacks. The social responsibility norm involves a sense of duty and obligation, in which people are expected to respond to others by giving help to those in need of assistance. The teachings of many religions are based on the social responsibility norm that we should, as good human beings, reach out and help other people whenever we can.

Research Focus: Moral Hypocrisy

We have seen that the reciprocity norm teaches us that we should help others, with the expectation of a future return, and that the social responsibility norm teaches us that we should do the right thing by helping other people whenever we can, without the expectation of a payback. And most of us believe that we should be helpful to others. The problem is that these goals may not always be easy for us to follow because they represent a classic case in which one of the basic human motives (other-concern) conflicts with another basic human motive (self-concern). Trying to do the best thing for ourselves in the short term may lead us to take the selfish road—taking advantage of the benefits that others provide us without returning the favor. Furthermore, we may be particularly likely to act selfishly when we can get away with it. Perhaps you can remember a time when you did exactly that—you acted in a selfish way but attempted nevertheless to appear to others not to have done so. Daniel Batson and his colleagues (Batson, Thompson, Seuferling, Whitney, & Strongman, 1999) created a simple moral dilemma in the laboratory that pitted the desires of individual student research participants against the interests of other students. They compared what the students said they should do with what they actually did. Each participant was told that there were two tasks being used in the research: in the positive task the participants would engage in an interesting task and have an opportunity to compete for a $30 prize, but in the neutral task the task was described as boring and there was no opportunity to win anything. The moral dilemma was created when the experimenter informed the student participants that there was another student who had supposedly come to the experiment at the same time, and that each student had to be assigned to one of the two tasks. Furthermore, it was the job of the student participant to determine who should get which task. The students were told that they could make the decision however they wanted and that the other student would never know who had made the decision. And they were also given a coin that they could use to help them make the decision if they wanted to use it. The coin was clearly marked—on one side it said “SELF to POSITIVE” and on the other side it said “OTHER to POSITIVE.” The participants were then left alone in a room and asked to determine who should get the positive task and then to indicate what they thought the right decision should be. In terms of what they thought they should do, Batson and his colleagues found that of the 40 students who participated in the experiment, 31 said that flipping the coin was the most morally right thing to do, five said assigning the other participant to the positive consequences task was the most morally right decision, and four said that there was no morally right way to assign the tasks. These results show that the students believed that being generous, or at least fair, was appropriate. This would suggest that most students would have flipped the coin and chosen whatever side came up. It turned out that 12 of the participants decided not to flip the coin at all. Of these 12, 10 assigned themselves to the positive task and two gave the positive task to others. These students were clearly putting self-concern ahead of other-concern. But what about the 28 students who chose to flip the coin? They were clearly trying to do the “right” thing by being fair. By chance, we would have expected that about 14 of these 28 students would have assigned the other person to the positive task, because the coin would have come up “OTHER to POSITIVE” about half of the time. But in fact only four actually did so; the other 24 took the positive task themselves, a significant difference from what would have been expected by chance if the participants had fairly used the actual results of the coin flip.
It appears that the students who flipped the coin wanted to be fair—they flipped the coin to see who would get the positive task. But in the end, they did not act on the principles of fairness when doing so conflicted with their self-interest. Rather, they tended to accept the results of the coin toss when it favored them but rejected it when it did not. Batson’s research makes clear the trade-offs that exist between helping ourselves and helping others. We know that helping is the right thing to do, but it hurts!

Key Takeaways

  • Altruism refers to any behavior that is designed to increase another person’s welfare, and particularly those actions that do not seem to provide a direct reward to the person who performs them.
  • The tendency to help others is at least in part an evolutionary adaptation. We are particularly helpful to our kin and to people we perceive as being similar to us. We also help people who are not related or similar as the result of reciprocal altruism. By cooperating with others, we increase our and others’ chances of survival and reproductive success.
  • We are more likely to help when we are rewarded and less likely when the perceived costs of helping are high.
  • Social norms for helping include the reciprocity norm, which reminds us that we should follow the principles of reciprocal altruism, and the social responsibility norm, which tells us that we should try to help others who need assistance, even without any expectation of future payback.
  • Helping frequently involves a trade-off between self-concern and other-concern. We want to help, but self-interest often keeps us from doing so.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Determine whether the following behaviors are, or are not, altruism. Consider your answer in terms of your ideas about altruism, but also consider the role of the person and the situation as well as the underlying human motivations of self-concern and other-concern.
  2. Idris donates a litre of blood in exchange for $10.
  3. Bill stops to help an attractive woman on the highway change a flat tire.
  4. In 2007, the U.K. band Radiohead decided to buck the recording industry system and offer its new album In Rainbows directly to fans at whatever price they felt like paying. Although they could have downloaded the songs for free, thousands of people paid something anyway.
  5. When Sherry renews her driver’s license, she checks off the box that indicates that she is willing to donate her organs to others when she dies.
  6. Nawaz volunteers once a week at a local soup kitchen.
  7. George is a Buddhist and believes that true self-understanding comes only from selflessly helping others.


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