Friday, 26 April 2013


Helping: A Cost-Benefit Analysis?

     Little Boo liked to collect flowers from the garden in a small wicker basket to give to her Grandmother for her morning prayers. This cute assistance earned her a loving pat on her head and a kiss on her nose every day. This greatly pleased Boo and she would skip away happily.
Then there was little Pummy, who greatly enjoyed painstakingly drawing her favourite animals on her elder brother’s school books, much to his chagrin but also to raucous laughter from her family!

     Boo and Pummy have both been rewarded by their family at an early age for contrasting behaviours. In Boo’s mind, helping behaviour is strongly tied to rewards such as others’ affection, approval, and happiness, whereas for Pummy, no such connection has been established between helping others and favourable outcomes for herself. In fact, she has been rewarded for being a little pest!

     Although much research on the topic consider reinforcements (rewards) offered by parents at an early age as a significant factor in determining our prosocial (helping) behaviours, many other personal and situational factors have also been identified.

     Personal factors are simply those characteristics which a person possesses. Many studies have highlighted the importance that motivation plays in helpful behaviours. If an individual is highly motivated to uphold his values of generosity and consideration for others, the more helpful he will be. 

     Many children also tend to imitate helpful behaviours of their parents or other important adults. The more people we have around us who model prosocial behaviours, more likely we are to be so ourselves. Another crucial personal characteristic is, understandably, empathy, which is our ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and understand their emotions and needs with compassion and tenderness. Closeness of relationship that one has with the person in need is also a strong motivating factor to help. 

     When we help out of empathy, where benefits for ourselves are low, this kind of helping behaviour is called altruism, or selfless help! While it is wonderful to indulge in a fantasy where every help is selfless, research shakes us awake with observations that we tend to weigh the cost we will incur (such as time, effort, money) if we extend help against the benefits we stand to gain from the same act. Aid will most likely be extended if benefits outweigh costs! Even if one assesses that a prosocial deed now will later bear fruits, one helps with the expectation of the favour being returned at a later point.

     Situational factors are the characteristics of the situation one is in. It is common for many people to walk on without helping a person who has fallen down on the street because they believe there are other people present who will help and that it is not their responsibility. This shaking off of responsibility can also be seen when a large number of people are caught in a situation and need help! Individuals then assume that their efforts at helping them will be futile as they are only one as compared to the large number of people that need help! 

     This finding is quite important as this explains why entire societies become oblivious to the pain and difficulties of other communities or groups of people in the same society. As you ponder upon this, why not try your own experiment?