- Biological, cognitive and sociocultural factors all play a role in our choice to help someone.
- Psychological theory can be applied to increase the likelihood of prosocial behaviour.
In 2007 Wesley Autrey, a 51-year-old African American father of two young girls, earned the title “The Subway Hero” when he saved the life of a 20-year-old art student. The art student suffered a seizure and fell on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. With only seconds to spare, Wesley jumped down on the tracks and lay on top of the young student, pushing him down into the space between the tracks. The train went over the top of them and both men survived. When asked why he did it, Autrey replied, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”
Stories of people taking risks to help others always make a great impression on us. Heroes like the German Oskar Schindler, or Paul Rusesabagina – the Hutu manager of the Hotel Milles Collines who saved the lives of many Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide - have been the focus of very successful Hollywood films. What is it that makes these people risk their own lives to save people from certain death while others do not get involved? Are heroic individuals just special, or are there psychological explanations for why they are more likely to help than others?
ATL: Thinking critically
Based on your understanding of the sociocultural approach, how well does Social Identity Theory predict that Wesley Autrey would help the art student? What about Oskar Schindler or Paul Rusesabagina?
What hypothesis would you make at this point in the chapter to explain why these men made the choices that they did?
Prosocial behaviour can be defined as behaviour that benefits another person or has positive social consequences (Staub 1978). Prosocial behaviour is seen as behaviour that is intended to help or benefit another person, a group of persons or even society as a whole. In other words, prosocial behaviour is often planned with the goal of “making a difference”. Going to a hospital to assist at a children’s clinic or donating money to charity are examples of prosocial behaviours. Prosocial behaviour can be motivated by empathy or the concern about the welfare and rights of other people. It is also possible that more egoistic motives are behind prosocial behaviour. It could be that a person is more focused on his or her social reputation than the welfare of others. It could also be that prosocial behaviour is motivated by the wish to reduce one's own negative feelings. Another possibility is that people expect something in return. No matter the reasons for prosocial behaviour, Helliwell and Putnam (2004) have found that engaging in prosocial behaviour - both individually and with others - is robustly related to happiness and life satisfaction.
Altruism is when one helps another person for no reward, and perhaps even at some cost to oneself. Altruism is thus seen as an unselfish interest in helping another person. Wesly Autry’s courageous act of saving the young art student is clearly an act of altruism. He put himself at risk in order to save the life of a stranger. This is also the case of heroic helpers who willingly risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. You might argue that the purest form of prosocial behaviour is motivated by altruism. In the following chapter, you will investigate how psychologists attempt to explain this behaviour.