Altruism and bystander behaviour

Altruism and bystander behaviour

Altruism is an example of pro-social behaviour and can be defined as helping someone at a cost to yourself. Much debate surrounds this topic as it is often unclear whether a behaviour is motivated by altruism or egoism (seeking personal reward).

(Note: See topic on "Determinants of animal behaviour" for biological explanations of altruism; kin selection and reciprocal altruism).

We empathise with people in distress, which motivates us to help relieve the person's distress (Bateson, 1991). The reason for helping could be egoistic or altruistic depending how we feel.

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An egoist helps to make him/herself feel better and an altruist helps as a result of empathic concern to make the distressed person feel better.

A supporting study showed that participants with high empathic concern were more likely than those with low empathic concern to take the place of someone receiving electric shocks even if they could easily reduce their personal distress by leaving (Batson et al., 1981).

It has been suggested that it is naïve to assume that humans behave in ways that are not self-serving (Darley, 1991). But there is much evidence to suggest that people are prepared to help others even if there are no rewards for such behaviours (Fultz et al., 1986).

All helping behaviours are motivated by the desire to relieve personal distress, whether or not it is caused by the presence of someone in need of help. But help will only be given if the personal distress cannot be relieved by anything else, such as walking away (Cialdini et al., 1987). This means there is no altruism, only egoism.

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Chialdini's experiments also involved participants taking the place of people receiving electric shocks. However, high empathy participants were less inclined to help if they had been praised by the researchers. It is thought that this praise helped to lift their mood so that it was not necessary to help the person receiving the shocks.

Some support for Batson's theory stems from the fact that some participants did still help the person receiving the electric shocks. This suggests that they were motivated by altruism rather than egoism.

You are probably aware of the tragic tale of Kitty Genovese, the young New Yorker who was brutally murdered in 1964. Thirty-eight people heard or observed her ordeal, which lasted more than half an hour. No-one contacted the police in that time, let alone went to her aid. Why not?

Latané & Darley (1968) suggested three reasons for a bystander not intervening to help.

Term: Definition:
Pluralistic ignorance Each bystander looks to the others to see how to behave. If no one acts, then the situation is interpreted as not an emergency and no help is given.
Audience inhibition People do not want to look foolish in public by over-reacting to potentially safe situations.
Diffusion of responsibility When other people are present, people assume someone else will deal with the situation.

These notions are supported by evidence that participants on their own are more likely to react to smoke filling a room or someone having an epileptic seizure than if they are in company (Latané & Darley, 1968).

Latané & Darley (1970) attempted to explain the action (or inaction) of bystanders in terms of a series of decisions. Help is only given if the bystander answers all five of the questions positively.

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  1. This model gives good reasons why bystanders may not intervene but does not explain the motives of people who do help.
  2. Factors other than the presence of other people inhibit helping behaviour (Piliavin et al., 1981).

A study carried out on the New York subway showed that people were more likely to help 'blind' rather than 'drunk' confederates who had collapsed (Piliavin, 1969). According to Piliavin et al. (1981), two factors need to be considered when explaining the bystanders' helping behaviour:

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People are more likely to help someone if the costs are low and the rewards are high. This is an egoistic explanation because the potential helper is motivated by self-interest. However, evidence exists that altruism may also motivate helping behaviour (Batson et al., 1981). In fact, Piliavin has since recognised the existence of altruistic behaviours in humans (Piliavin & Chang, 1990).

Whiting & Whiting (1975) compared the levels of altruism in 3 to 10 year olds in 6 different cultures. The results showed significant differences. Put these cultures in order from most (1) to least (6) altruistic:

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It has been suggested that there are two reasons for cultural differences in altruism (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989):

  1. Industrial societies place value on competition and personal success.
  2. Co-operation at the home in non-industrial societies promotes altruism.

Within many cultures across the world, rural areas seem to have higher incidences of altruistic behaviours than urban areas. However, moving from the city to the country may lead to a person becoming more altruistic, perhaps because they have fewer factors demanding their time (Milgram, 1970).

Problems with cross-cultural research include:

  1. Few studies follow the same method in each culture.
  2. What is meant by 'help' differs across cultures, as do the motives for giving help.

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