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9.5 Thinking Like a Social Psychologist About Altruism

This chapter has concerned the many varieties of helping. We have seen that helping and altruism may occur in a variety of ways and toward a variety of people. Were you surprised to learn how important helping is in our social lives, and in how many different ways it occurs? Can you now see—perhaps in a way that you did not before—that helping allows us to lead more effective lives?

Because you are thinking like a social psychologist, you will realize that we help partly as a result of other-concern. We help because we care about others, we feel bad when they feel bad, and we really want to help. We help more when we see those others as similar to us and when we feel empathy for them. But we also help out of self-concern, to relieve our personal distress, to escape public shame for not helping, and to feel good about our helpful actions. Helping others is beneficial to others but also to us—we often enjoy being helpful, and helping can make us feel good and be healthy.

Perhaps your new knowledge about the causes of helping may lead you to be less surprised about the extent to which people are willing, in many cases at substantial cost to themselves, to help others. Or perhaps you are now thinking more fully about whether altruism truly exists. Do people ever help only out of other-concern, or is all helping at least partly the result of self-concern? Does your knowledge about altruism lead you to reevaluate your decisions about Brad Pitt’s helping in New Orleans?

Perhaps you will be able to use your new understanding of the situational factors involved in helping to make sure that you and others are not led to ignore the needs of others as a result of pluralistic ignorance or diffusion of responsibility. If you find yourself in an emergency situation, you may now have a better idea of how to make sure someone helps. Remember to use this information if the need arises.

And perhaps your new understanding about helping has given you new insights into your own behavior. Are you now more willing to help others? Do you think it is important to help? Can you see how you might feel better about yourself if you do? Will you try to increase your own altruistic behavior? I hope that this chapter has encouraged you to do so.