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?

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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


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Image credit: Cohen Van der Velde