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What Are the Costs of Lending a Helping Hand?

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I boarded my commuter train with all of five minutes to spare, so I knew my prospects for getting a seat were slim. That didn’t bother me too much since the vestibule was mostly empty—there was a man standing at the other door silently rocking out to whatever was playing on his headphones, so I took my place at the other door. (Having to stand in a crowded vestibule is much worse than having to stand at all.) A few other harried passengers slipped past me to try their luck with a seat, and I went about initiating my train-riding ritual, which basically entails detangling my headphones and making sure my ticket is within easy reach for when the collector arrives.

It was just about then that a man about my age burst into the vestibule waving a few dollars in his fist. He looked frantic. I had my headphones on, but it was clear he was looking for money to purchase a ticket. I couldn’t help him And my vestibule companion either couldn’t or wouldn’t help—he glanced at him and went back to staring out the window at the dark wall next to the train. Clearly frustrated, the man seeking assistance swore at us, shook his head, and swooped into the next car to try his luck.

I don’t know if he got the money he was looking for that night, but it did make me wonder how it is we choose to help those in need. I didn’t have cash on me, but if I had been truly moved to help, I could have gotten off the train and purchased a ticket for him. But that would have meant I’d have missed the train. And how did I know he really needed the money for a ticket anyway? How do we weigh the costs of helping?

Prosocial behavior—voluntary actions that contribute to the well-being of others—is not unique to human beings. Helping, sharing, donating, and cooperating have been found in many social species, including insects, birds, bats, cetaceans, small mammals, and primates (1, 2, 3). However, humans may be unique in the magnitude of help offered, displaying a tendency to routinely help others even at great cost to self. It’s possible that altruistic tendencies may have developed to help kin or to provide reciprocal aid to those who might later provide assistance (i.e., “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”) (4). In the former case, helping the people who share your genes means you’re also helping preserve those shared genes. In the latter, both parties stand to benefit even though there is no genetic impetus for lending assistance because you share resources as members of the same network.

While this might paint a rather jaded picture of altruism—we only help others when there’s something in it for us?—providing assistance is a nuanced decision. Helping someone in need doesn’t necessarily result in an instant repayment—these actions are banked and balanced in time if the network is a stable one. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests that while altruism may have originally developed for specific evolutionary purposes (e.g., to protect and further one’s genetic line), over time motivation has been disconnected from evolutionary goals (4)—a bit like sex, which is meant to serve reproduction, but honestly, is reproduction what we’re thinking of when we’re trying to inspire an amorous encounter?

When it comes to helping someone, very often we don’t often consciously weigh the potential pay-offs. If someone slips, for example, we might immediately reach a hand to steady them. Or we’ll hold the door open for someone with their hands full. If someone is hurt, we ask what happened so we can offer comfort appropriately. We offer assistance because we’re able to recognize a need in others:

“In humans, the most commonly assumed motivation behind altruism is empathy. We identify with another in need, pain, or distress, which induces emotional arousal that may translate into sympathy and helping (4).

Our ability to recognize this need is likely strongest when it comes to people within our network whose social signals and cues we’ve become adept at reading. And that’s important because asking for help isn’t always easy—there are costs.

The higher the cost of assistance to the helper, the greater the debt incurred by the help seeker. And in addition to issues of social debt, there are additional concerns about asking for help:

If help is needed on a difficult task, it may be attributed to an external factor, task difficulty; while if help is needed on as easy task, it may be attributed to an internal factor, individual inadequacies. Help needed on a difficult task may then lead to less loss of esteem than help needed on an easy task, and help seeking should be more common on difficult tasks than easy tasks (5).

These social judgments regarding frequency of requests and task difficulty could alter perceptions about the help seeker, which makes being able to offset these debts is important. And this perhaps is one of the reasons why obtaining help from within your social network is easier than from a stranger—there are fewer opportunities to balance the debt with a stranger, with whom there is no history or likely future encounter. There is less certainty that a stranger will help if the costs are high, and this knowledge might generate anxiety about having to ask for help.

That doesn’t mean a stranger won’t offer or agree to assistance, however. As someone who isn’t entirely sure on her feet all the time, I’ve been on the receiving end of aid on a number of occasions from strangers who have tried to break my fall. Sociologists believe that a sense of responsibility may be an important in directing assistance, particularly in emergency situations when the parties involved may not necessarily have a relationship:

“(O)ne of the crucial steps preceding helping that is guided by feelings of moral obligation is that the potential helper feel some sense of responsibility to relieve the need of the victim” (6).

In as much as a person can help, if they are made to feel that they are responsible for the event in some way, they’ll provide assistance. However, if the person seeking help absolves onlookers by blaming himself or attributing the incident to chance, he reduces the sense of responsibility onlookers might feel and reduces the chances of receiving assistance.

Strangers are in the unique position of citing an inability to help without facing social repercussions—that is, they don’t necessarily have to prove they can’t help someone, while people closer to that individual might have to provide a reason for withholding help or they’ll face public criticism within their network. So if the cost is high, and the sense of responsibility is low, with a stranger there is less chance of offered or acquired help. Or help may be offered in a limited way. In the case of the man looking for money for a train ticket, giving him a dollar or two could have been a means of offering assistance without committing wholly to helping him. It is easier to turn to the wall, however, and not consider balancing these costs—although the question then becomes what happens if you’re the one in need of help and you’re beyond the comfortable boundary of your network?

Bartal, I., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats Science, 334 (6061), 1427-1430 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210789

de Waal, F. (2007). With a Little Help from a Friend PLoS Biology, 5 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050190

Shapiro, E. (1980). Is Seeking Help from a Friend Like Seeking Help from a Stranger? Social Psychology Quarterly, 43 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3033629

Schwartz, S., & David, A. (1976). Responsibility and Helping in an Emergency: Effects of Blame, Ability and Denial of Responsibility Sociometry, 39 (4) DOI: 10.2307/3033505

Stevens, J. (2004). The selfish nature of generosity: harassment and food sharing in primates Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271 (1538), 451-456 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2003.2625

Additional Reading:
Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism Nature, 425 (6960), 785-791 DOI: 10.1038/nature02043

Horner, V., Carter, J., Suchak, M., & de Waal, F. (2011). Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (33), 13847-13851 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1111088108

1. de Waal (2007) | 2. Stevens (2004) | 3. Bartal (2011) | 4. de Waal (2007): 1406 | 5. Shapiro (1980): 259 | 6. Schwartz and David (1976): 406

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Hasufin 5:20 pm 01/17/2012

    In the situation you describe, I think a major inhibition is wariness. Because the person asking for a ticket is a stranger, it’s not so much that one *can’t* help, in most cases, but a belief that probably the need isn’t real. I know I’ve seen a great many scams which revolve around someone trying to get enough money for bus fare or a train ticket.

    This extends further, of course. Personally, I’m very reluctant to give direct monetary assistance. However, if a friend who you knew tended to overspend came to you for help in paying bills, would you offer it? Or would you believe that they could afford to pay those bills if only they stopped going out to eat?
    On a larger scale, many people don’t donate to charities because they feel they’re supporting people who could help themselves, if only they wanted.

    In turn, this leads to considerations in social factors – who *else* is rendering assistance? As I’ve mentioned in the past, I organize a small coffee salon. Periodically we decide to provide help to a homeless shelter, or recently to the Occupy protests. Ultimately, it’s invariably the same set of people who step up and do the actual work or come up with money. This is usually simply because of ability: some of us have money, or time, or relevant skills, and others do not. But it’s invariably the same people, and that’s wearying. Before long there’s a strong desire to let someone else take up the slack, and a feeling that one is being taken for granted.

    So far, I’ve not seen any resolution to these issues. A closely connected social group can provide certainty on the actual need for assistance, and might provide feedback such that members of the group know when a frequent donor is burnt out, but it seems these are problems which are wrestled with in any group.

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:43 am 01/19/2012

    I agree that there is wariness when you’re approached by a stranger for help. I’ve seen this particular scam in action. I’ve also been approached by the “Please, I need bus fare” person three times over three weeks, prompting me to ask him, if all he needed was a dollar to get his ticket, why that hadn’t happened yet. (I was not having a particularly good day that day.) These factors do add up to reluctance to help—but there are occasions when you can tell the need is genuine. For example, a high school student boarded the LIRR a few months ago, and he clearly looked like he’d been in a battle with someone: shirt torn, face bruised and battered, blood on his clothes. He had a ticket, but he needed to pay the difference and he had no money on him. The conductor was giving him a hard time (sometimes they’ll let you slide), and he was being a smart ass in response. But I paid the difference, and when he thanked me, I told him to pay it forward. So it boils down to instinct in a lot of cases.

    But I wanted to address the who else is rendering assistance because that was something I was actually discussing with someone about this piece, and that is sometimes people need “permission” to intervene. They need to know it’s okay to help. When I fall—as I do often—after one person offers assistance, typically others will follow. It’s almost as though they’re waiting for that one person to vet the situation and assess that the need is real. That said, I absolutely agree that within your social circle having to help the same person over and over again gets tiresome, as does feeling like you’re the only person doing it all. And there is a limit I think, but it varies from person to person and it’s somewhat culturally dependent. And there are consequences for both parties. If the social norm is to help—even if you know the person is taking advantage—not helping will cause you to loose status. I’ve seen that in the Indo-American population where people are stressed financially and emotionally and feel they cannot not help. Western society has a sense of agency that allows people to say “Enough” which is sometimes missing elsewhere.

    I don’t know either how you deal with feeling burnt out—I’ve been there myself. I can only say the sense of obligation can be strong at times.

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  3. 3. Hasufin 1:18 pm 01/20/2012

    Determining if an individual deserves assistance is definitely a personal judgment call. Unfortunately, there are people who are professionals at making themselves seem needy; oftentimes they’re better at it than the legitimately needy. I think this has some serious bleedover into larger issues – it’s not just “do I give to this guy who wants a ‘solid quarter’ for bus fare?” but also “Do these people on welfare legitimately need assistance, or are they just being lazy?”
    How people make such decisions can be very formative for public policy.

    This, I think, ties too into the perception – real or not – that certain people are always giving and others always taking. But, as you say, there are cultural issues involved. Especially in a heterogenous culture like the US, this can yield very disproportionate efforts: people who are poor may feel nonetheless obligated to share and donate heavily, whereas people with significant wealth may feel no need for philanthropy; clearly this is a significant factor in current social moods.

    Regarding the “permission” aspect, from a personal level I find that I’m reluctant to intervene in support of someone I don’t know. The person may be offended; indeed it’s common for a victim to turn on their own would-be rescuer, as often happens to police in domestic abuse situations.
    On a group scale, there’s the Bystander effect ( and Diffucion of Responsibility ( Basically, the assumption that it’s the responsibility of “someone else”, except *everyone* makes that assumption.

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