We as human beings like to believe we live in a world where people will help each other in a time of crisis. However, this is generally not the case and this article will explore some of the barriers that prevent people from helping.

Why humans help each other?

Everyday, people help each other in different ways. From babysitting other people’s kids for free to pushing someone away from a falling tree so they will get injured themselves are all considered acts of altruism. It is advantageous for humans to perform acts of altruism as such acts ensure the survival of the human race.

Think about what would happen if a bystander simply let someone bleed to death in a car accident or orphanages no longer existed and children were simply abandoned on the streets.

Altruistic behaviour is generally explained in two ways:

Reciprocal altruism: people perform acts of altruism with the expectation that other people will also perform acts of altruism for them when they are in need. This type of altruism creates social obligations and social bonds. To put into context: “If I am willing to push you away from a falling tree so you will be saved but I will be injured, I expect you to do the same for me.”

Indirect reciprocity: people who perform altruism out of the reciprocity principle gain a better reputation for themselves and this reputation gives them a more positive image which increases the chance other people will help them when they are in need. To put into context: “If I help people more, other people will see me as a kind person and will show more kindness towards me and may be more likely to help me.”

But why me?

In March 1964 a New York woman named Kitty Genovese was viciously attacked and then stabbed to death near her home. What was unique about this incident was the fact that the act was witnessed by a dozen of neighbours in her neighbourhood yet no action was taken to stop the attack or aid the victim in any manner during the attack.

The attack attracted much attention from the psychology community and the phenomenon of the bystanders has been termed the “Bystander effect” where bystanders in an incident use other people around them as a means to decide whether further action should be taken. If the general consensus of the others around them does not wish to take further action, people will usually conform to the majority decision in order to conform to the dominate ideology and not stand out.

Why do I have to do it?

Not only do people make decisions from the general consensus, people are also influenced by the number of people around them. When a person is surrounded by a lot of other people, the probability that they will offer their help is reduced as people tend to believe since there is a lot of people around them, someone else will help. This effect is termed a “diffusion of responsibility”.

But is it safe?

Many First-responders to an emergency whether a paramedic or a police officer will in no doubt be aware of the dangers of their job, nevertheless they perform their jobs as they have received the training and resources. However, the ordinary citizen has neither the resources nor skills to respond in a crisis. This selfish instinct is justified as it is a mechanism for self-preservation which can be explained from a evolutionary point of view.

But that’s not my problem

In an emergency situation, people are not obligated to help another. Now let’s go back to the tree example, just because a tree is falling onto someone who’s now in a wheelchair doesn’t mean a bystander would necessarily help this person.

Research has shown people are much more likely to perform acts of altruism towards people who are related to them. The more closely related to them someone is, the more likely they are in helping them. This ties in well with the evolutionary view that humans actually want family members and off-springs to survive.

To increase the probability that someone will assist another person, they must personally feel responsible, that is they need to have a stake or a sense of obligation in order to feel motivated to help. This is why delegation of responsibilities in an emergency is so effective as bystanders become personally involved.

So I hope the next time someone is in need of help you remember to overcome the factors mentioned in this article and make a difference to the world by helping someone in need of assistance.