Altruism Wall

So much of high school study is related to negative realities of human existence.  Whether it be the study of wars in history class, examples of violence in psychology, or reading Hamlet in English, students are constantly facing the "dark side" of human behaviour.

That is why I like this activity.

This can either by done as a traditional bulletin board, a blog, or as a WIKI.  It is up to you. I use this activity to generate examples of the human behaviour that we are about to study - altruism and prosocial behaviour.


To begin this activity, I start off with an excerpt of the film, Weapons of the Spirit. This film describes how a town in France hid Jews and saved them from the Holocaust. This film has a lot of value when we later discuss helping behaviour.  A study by Darley and Batson (1973) looked at individuals' level of religiosity and found that it did not play an important role in helping behaviour; rather, it was the situation that played a more important role.  It is interesting to compare that study to this film where social identity seems to have played a more important role than individual identity.

The task

Have students look for examples of altruism in the media.  They should find an example and then try to decide why the individual did what he or she did. Give them a copy of the following template.

Altruism template

I have left space under the title for students to add an image to make the page more attractive.  Ask them to write a brief description of the event.  They should then explain whether this is an example of altruism or pro-social behaviour.  Finally, the last section is for critical thinking - why do they think that the individual behaved in this way?

To avoid replications, I keep a running Google doc for students.  As they decide on a story, they have to write the name of an individual on the list.  Once that name is used, then no one else can use that story.

When finished, have them post their stories in the room - on a bulletin board, on the white board....  or in a digital portfolio.

Then have the students to a museum visit.  They are looking at this "wall of heroes." Their goal is to answer the following question:  What trends do we see for the reasons why people help others?

Open the class up to discussion, asking them to make specific reference to stories that they read during their "museum visit."

Debriefing the activity

When wrapping up the activity, you may want to consolidate the themes for students.  This can be done by having a student note-taker, or by you keeping a running list in a Google Doc and then sharing with the class.

Some common threads are:

  • Helpers tend to help people they know.
  • Helpers tend to help family.
  • Helpers tend to believe that it was "simply the right thing to do."
  • The action often takes place quickly, appearing to have very little (if any) conscious thought.
  • Helpers believe that helping others is simply the norm. (It is not).
  • Helpers often underestimate the risks of helping others.
  • Helpers tend to be older and have their own children.

After looking at the threads, here are some points to make.

  • Looking at the threads, could we test to see if this is actually the case?  How would we do that? 
  • Looking at the threads, why do you think that some of these points would make sense from a biological approach (natural selection, the selfish gene), the cognitive approach (cognitive dissonance, rationalization, self-esteem) or the sociocultural approach (cultural norms, social identity).
  • It is important to remember that the information that we have looked at in this activity is an example of anecdotal data, that is, they are personal stories and not empirical research carried out under controlled conditions.  Anecdotal data is good for showing us potential tendencies in human behaviour and helping us to generate hypotheses.  It is not strong evidence for a theory.
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