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Cooperation after a tragedy: When our hearts know better than our minds.

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

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“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.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers

The exact details of what happened today on Boylston Street are still being sorted out, but multiple reports are confirming that two bombs were detonated close to the finish line of today’s Boston Marathon, killing at least two people and wounding dozens of others.

As a social psychologist, there are so many reasons to expect that this should end up revealing an absolute low point for humanity. First of all, the bombing itself is just horrendous. I can’t say any more about it, because there is nothing else to say. There is no perspective, opinion, logic, or reason that I could ever find to explain or even hope to understand any of it.

But based on what we know about altruism and helping behavior, there’s another reason why a social psychologist might have expected that today would be even more dismal. After all, everything that our research says about altruism — using phrases like “bystander effect” or “diffusion of responsibility” and throwing around names like “Kitty Genovese” — points to the idea that in the wake of such a terrible tragedy, we should have been faced with a general public that shied away from cooperating, lending a hand, and providing crucial support and assistance to those in need. Yet after the explosion, spectators lent runners blankets, sweaters, and phones. People helped each other up, provided crucial assistance and care, and put their own needs on hold to attend to those of perfect strangers. Across the city of Boston, the past few hours has revealed an outpouring of support, cooperation, and altruism.

So why might we not have expected this outpouring of support today?


1. The Marathon was in Boston.

A cross-cultural analysis of helping behavior in rural and urban settings all around the world reveals that strangers are significantly less likely to help each other when they are in urban areas (like New York or Boston) as opposed to rural areas. An injured pedestrian or lost child, for example, would be far more likely to receive crucial help from an onlooker in a town of 1,000 people than in a town of 5,000 people, and more likely to receive help in the town of 5,000 than in the town of 10,000.

This is not because “city dwellers” are fundamentally jerks, nor is it because the rural folk are inherently more kind. We know this because it’s the size of the town where the person lives now that matters when it comes to helping behavior, not the size of the town in which someone grew up. Rather, there are a couple of potential reasons why strangers tend to help each other so much more in small towns than in cities. First of all, Stanley Milgram argued that in large cities, people often fall victim to stimulus overload; if your senses are constantly being bombarded with lights, smells, sounds, and crowds, you quickly get used to narrowing your focus and shutting out most of that sensory input swarm when you go about your everyday life. If you’re in this mode, it’s easy to accidentally overlook someone who needs your help, simply because less of the environment will grab your attention at any given time. Secondly, there are effects of diversity. People are more likely to help others that are similar to them, like in age, race, or gender. Urban areas have more diverse populations than rural ones; this increases the odds that any given person who needs help will be somehow different from the potential helper. A somewhat dismaying finding, but potentially important nonetheless.

There were over 20,000 runners at the Boston Marathon this year, not to mention family members, friends, and Boston residents who came out to join the race day fun. Not only is Boston a major city, but the event itself contains its own unique brand of “stimulus overload.” And diversity? People came to run Boston from all over the world! Any of the reasons why you would expect to see less helping behavior in large cities were certainly also present today at the Boston Marathon. And lest we forget another major factor…

2. More onlookers, less help.

Research on the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility suggests that the more onlookers there are in a tragic or troubling situation, the less likely it is that any one of those onlookers will provide crucial assistance. This is why one of the best pieces of safety advice that any self-defense class can ever teach you is that if you find yourself in trouble, you should not just vaguely scream for “Help” — you should single out specific people to target with your pleas. If you do not, people in large crowds will often assume that there are enough people around that “someone else will probably help,” thereby diffusing the responsibility for helping and making it less likely that any help will actually be provided. In short — more bystanders, less personal sense of responsibility, less help.

With this in mind, the fact that there was a humongous crowd at the Boston Marathon certainly should have made it very unlikely that anyone would step up and help the injured/panicking runners & spectators. The tens of thousands of people around should have made it much more likely that everyone would freeze, assuming that “someone else” would jump in and take responsibility for helping out.

3. It’s difficult to help when the situation is ambiguous.

Many times, in an emergency, it’s not exactly clear what’s going on. What happened? What help is needed? Is this even an emergency at all?

Imagine being near the finish line of the Boston Marathon today when the bombs exploded. You hear two loud noises that sounded somewhat like thunder, according to eyewitness reports. You see smoke. Many people were not sure exactly what was going on — was this planned? Is this an attack? Is this a mistake? What is even happening?

People are significantly more likely to provide help in a dangerous situation if they are clearly aware of what is going on. For example, in one study, participants who watched someone faint and slowly regain consciousness were much more likely to help out than those who simply walked in on someone who had already fainted. If you don’t know what’s going on, there’s a lot more confusion — a reaction that tends to lead people to freeze rather than actively help.

These were some of the big reasons why we might not have expected to see people helping today. This is social psychological research, replicated and confirmed dozens of times. This is what I teach my students in class each semester when we learn about “altruism.” Everything in the Social Psychology textbook suggests that people should not have stepped up to help their community members, fellow runners/spectators, and complete strangers today. There was a large crowd, in a large city, thrown into a frightening, ambiguous situation. Research tells us that this is exactly the kind of situation that should lead people to freeze up, diffuse responsibility, and assume that “others” will help if it is needed.

But here’s what I want to point out. Here’s what I wrote this entire post to point out. That’s not what happened.

When faced with unimaginable tragedy, in a terrifying situation where people did not know how to respond or behave, when no one could know if there would be any more bombs being detonated or any more people being harmed, in a set of circumstances that, by all logic and reason, should have discouraged most people from lending a hand, people still jumped into the crowd and helped. In droves. They stepped up, pitched in, helped strangers. They put themselves in potential danger to make sure that strangers were okay.

It’s so easy to get dismayed about humanity on days like today. To wonder how people can do such horrible things. But this is why I like Mr. Rogers’ words of wisdom. This is why I have decided, today, to look at the helpers. Because the helpers show us that even when faced with unimaginable tragedy, terror, and tumult, there is a monumentally strong force within each of us that truly wants to help our fellow man. We all have that seed of good. It can defy logic, reason, and empirical scientific data. And even when everything around us — those “powerful situations” that us social psychologists love to say determine everything about what we do and who we are — combines in perfect synchrony to create the exact blend of factors that should push anyone away from helping, we can’t underestimate the power of that drive within us all that doesn’t care about what the textbook says and pushes us towards doing good anyway.

What a beautiful thing.

Steblay, N. (1987). Helping behavior in rural and urban environments: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 102 (3), 346-356 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.102.3.346

Milgram, S. (1970). The Experience of Living in Cities Science, 167 (3924), 1461-1468 DOI: 10.1126/science.167.3924.1461

Latane, B., & Nida, S. (1981). Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89 (2), 308-324 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.89.2.308

Darley, J., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8 (4, Pt.1), 377-383 DOI: 10.1037/h0025589

Piliavin, J., Piliavin, I., & Broll, L. (1976). Time of Arrival at an Emergency and Likelihood of Helping Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2 (3), 273-276 DOI: 10.1177/014616727600200314

Image from the aftermath of the Boston Marathon by Aaron Tang via Flickr; available under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Image of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings map by Anna Frodesiak via Wikipedia, created using OpenStreetMap; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Image of Mr. Rogers with his quote on helping via Liberty for Kids.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

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

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  1. 1. elakdawalla 6:39 pm 04/15/2013

    Thank you for this, Melanie. It’s so easy to focus on the few bad actors and forget that most of the humans in this story are good actors.

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  2. 2. cryofpaine 8:18 pm 04/15/2013

    I think it’s a matter of scale. The examples you gave all involve circumstances on a personal level. You’re talking about one individual deciding whether or not to help another individual. In a tragedy like this, it’s no longer about one individual helping another. The attack was against a community, and as such, the community comes together to protect itself. The only reason that is still valid is not knowing what to do, but the other two are not just invalidated, but replaced with a motivation to do something.

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  3. 3. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 8:36 pm 04/15/2013

    I totally get that and see your point. However, theoretically, one would still expect to see diffusion of responsibility when it comes to helping the individual people in that situation who are hurt or need help. If anything, the fact that there are so many “individual people” who need help and so many thousands of spectators should make it fairly easy to fall victim to the bystander effect and assume that someone else will take care of it. You might be outraged or motivated to do something in terms of volunteer efforts in the aftermath a week or so later, or something like that. Well after the fact, when it becomes a symbolic action that represents defending one’s community and standing up for your people. However, right there in the moment — where, keep in mind, you’re still not sure if there are going to be other bombs or further attacks — the tendency “should” still be to hang back and assume that other people will do the hard work of actually helping. Actually breaking through and helping individual people still goes against the “bystander effect,” even if a lot of the factors that we think about when we think about things like the “Kitty Genovese” case are quite different.

    Does that make sense? Basically, I totally agree with you that this type of situation should lend itself to a “motivation to do something” in terms of the fallout and later collective action. But within the moment itself, when personal safety is still an issue and you aren’t sure what’s going on (and there are thousands of other people there who could offer help, making it easy to diffuse responsibility and assume that someone else will take care of any actions that could potentially put you in harm’s way), I think there are still a lot of those “individual” factors and motivations coming into play. That said, I don’t know of any empirical data contrasting these two situations directly. But I think it would be very interesting.

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  4. 4. karagi 8:59 pm 04/15/2013

    Melanie, could seeing one or a few people helping spur others to jump in and help? In other words, while one’s instinct is to pull back because of the reasons you brought up, once you see that you won’t be alone in taking a risk to help you no longer hold back.

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  5. 5. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 9:47 pm 04/15/2013

    That’s a good question. I’d have to look more into that. I am not overly familiar with the literature that would have research on that, unless we think about the effects of group size on conformity (up until about 3-4 people, the larger a group is, the more likely someone is to conform to what they are doing). Do you think that might be what you are thinking of?

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  6. 6. Quantumburrito 10:55 pm 04/15/2013

    I find myself agreeing with karagi. It’s sort of what happens in public talks when the speaker (often a famous one) opens the floor to questions. Nobody dares to ask a question…until the first question is asked by some brave soul. Then the floodgates open. Another example comes to mind, this time from an old children’s story about the frogs and the log. When one brave frog steps on the giant log and proves that it’s harmless then the rest of them join in and start jumping on the log. Based on these examples I get the feeling that all it takes (in most cases) is for that one brave soul to speak up or act. I wonder how the research supports or refutes this.

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  7. 7. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:05 pm 04/15/2013

    But then I suppose the question would be (as it would be in any situation when people end up overcoming the bystander effect and helping others), what encourages that brave soul to be the one who first acts?

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  8. 8. syzygyygyzys 1:18 am 04/16/2013

    There are those who are by their nature not bystanders. If something needs to be done, they do it. In the moment it doesn’t occur to them to wonder if they are first to act.

    Many would act to protect family in a crowd. I had not thought about this question in exactly this way before, but maybe some see all human beings as family? If you asked them, I doubt they consider themselves brave. It just needed doing. And they knew they could.

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  9. 9. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 1:33 am 04/16/2013

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Another thing that I teach about when I lecture on altruism in my Intro Social Psych class (which I wish I had time to bring up in this piece — but, understandably, I was in a rush to write it and get it out as quickly as possible) is that there are three “motives” for altruism. There are two “selfish” motives — one is social concern (you want to look like a “good person” or seem like the kind of person who does good things), and one is personal distress relief (you become upset when you see others suffering, so you help to end your own negative feelings). However, there is also genuine empathy. Even when you remove all possible personal distress or social concern motivations from the equation, you still see some people who are high on empathy helping others and being altruistic for no reason other than the fact that they genuinely want to help. Research looking at this was the first to show that there can be a such thing as a truly selfless “good deed.” There are people who will genuinely help others, even if they get nothing out of it, even if no one will ever know that they helped them, and even if it doesn’t benefit them in any obvious or direct way (aside from the joy of helping others).

    It gives me hope for humanity, just knowing that this purely empathic motivation can (and does) exist.

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  10. 10. curiouswavefunction 11:12 am 04/16/2013

    I think the feeling of community does help. Knowing that there’s an attack not on an individual but on an entire community probably makes it easier for people to come forward and help each other. Witness the many cases of horrific strategic bombing in World War 2. The bombing failed to weaken people’s resolve in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo and a collective spirit of solidarity ultimately prevailed. This spirit was something that the war planners never factored into their calculations.

    I do have a kind of “operational” question though. When I see someone spontaneously coming forward to help someone else, how do I know whether he or she is doing it because of genuine empathy or because of “selfish altruism”? Is it really possible to cleanly separate these driving forces from each other in a causal way or is it likely that an act of assistance is a combination of these different impulses?

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  11. 11. syzygyygyzys 11:42 am 04/16/2013

    Please do not interpret this as criticism. It isn’t meant that way.

    Why is it important to determine which type of altruism is in play? But, one indication might be whether or not they stay to receive thanks.

    Why would someone be an “observer” in such a situation?

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  12. 12. curiouswavefunction 1:27 pm 04/16/2013

    syzygyygyzys: Thanks for your response. It just seems to me that if we are trying to dissect different motivations for people acting the way they do (for instance “genuine empathy” vs “selfish altruism”), it’s worth asking if there is an experiment that could tease out the contributions of each one of these factors in different situations. I just think it’s a scientifically interesting question. And I think you make a good point about trying to point out people who stay vs those who don’t.

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  13. 13. JustSayingPA 3:01 pm 04/16/2013

    Isn’t there also a body of research on “convergent volunteerism” that shows that we shouldn’t be surprised at all by the acts of kindness surrounding yesterday’s bombing?

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  14. 14. vagnry 3:04 pm 04/16/2013

    Not a matter of thanks, but a matter of humanity!

    A couple of days ago, I was driving to the theatre, saw a woman lying on the boardwalk, a man beside her, I immediately stopped the car (was in a rescue service ages ago), but the ambulance had been called, at man came out of the nearest house with a blanket, I was assured she had a pulse and was breathing, and I drove on.

    After the theatre, we went dining with my adult son, he told he had seen a man falling on the railroad tracks at another platform, he looked to see if any trains were coming (as his father, I approve), ran over the tracks, hauled the drunkard up on the platform, and, as the drunkard was “Unsafe at any speed”, he got him out of harms way.

    Waiting for thanks, no way, he ran across the rails again, and caught his train.

    I was immensely proud of him, but anything less would have been a disappointment.

    As “The Boss” sings, we take care of our own (species, which he doesn’t sing)

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  15. 15. syzygyygyzys 3:08 pm 04/16/2013

    Okay. Yeah, I see that point.

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  16. 16. plswinford 3:36 pm 04/16/2013

    I would say that the fact that a group had formed with a common purpose (supporting the marathon) defined a loosely joined in-group. Then the group was attacked, making them a more strongly defined in-group.

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  17. 17. Chris Cocking 5:57 pm 04/16/2013

    I’m a Social Psychologist based in the UK that has a research background in looking at how altruism and co-operation in mass emergencies can be explained by the emergence of a shared common identity amongst those affected that encourages co-operative rather than selfish behaviour. Please see my blog link below for my thoughts on how the Boston marathon bombings have been portrayed by the UK media and how this highlights the resilience vs vulnerability dichotomy in emergency planning & response

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  18. 18. jackelope64 2:38 pm 04/17/2013

    This is not just any crowd, it’s a marathon crowd who run toward suffering.

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  19. 19. Pazuzu 4:28 pm 04/17/2013

    One contributing factor may be that there was such an elated feeling of joy and community among the spectators and athletes around the finish line at the moment of the attack, and that Might have created a much stronger sense of community than there was, say, in the Kitty Genovese case.

    Another possibly contributing factor may have been that the very fact that the circumstances we’re chaotic, with none of the familiar power structures controlling events for at least a few moments, that people might have reacted in a communal spirit the way they do, say, when a long term disaster occurs. I’m referring to, for example, the way people pitched in and engaged in mutual cooperation after the San Francisco earthquake. This is well documented in Rebecca Solnit’s book “Paradise built in Hell.”

    Finally, this is such a much more enlightening and civilized discussion than we typically get when the topic has to do with the climate, or any of lots of other hot button issues.

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  20. 20. gesimsek 6:36 pm 04/17/2013

    Unfortunately after the shock when people came to their “senses”, they started to talk about killing all muslims!

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  21. 21. syzygyygyzys 5:13 pm 04/21/2013

    I’m curious where you might have heard that? Shouting USA! USA! after they caught those two doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means.

    I’ve been watching a lot of news coverage. I haven’t heard a single soul on ANY network talk about killing Muslims, much less all of them. Well, I don’t watch any of the Arab channels. Maybe someone is saying that over there? That’s a really odd and surprising comment.

    If you are Muslim in this country, I don’t think you have much to worry about, unless you are placing bombs and shooting at people.

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  22. 22. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 4:30 pm 04/23/2013

    Ahh, syzygy. I truly wish that I could agree with you, but sad to say, I think you are very lucky if you are living in an area/exposed to parts of the internet where you have not heard any of that. Very unfortunately, it has not been uncommon at all. Working on a post about this for later this week, actually.

    For more:

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  23. 23. syzygyygyzys 6:06 pm 04/23/2013

    I’ll be interested to read your next post.

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  24. 24. syzygyygyzys 6:16 pm 04/23/2013

    I had not seen any of that. It’s unfortunate.

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