Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
03 December, 2017

Why do some people help and others don’t?

Year 13 Psychology students investigated this phenomenon as part of their IB Diploma course and began by asking themselves a very simple question: Is there truly a selfless deed?


From giving to charity, to helping people cross the road or giving other students your revision notes, the students came up with a huge variety of ideas but in the end, it was impossible to ignore the possibility that people do good things simply because they want to feel good about themselves.  This leads us to a popular argument in Psychology that suggests we only help others after weighing up the costs and the benefits to ourselves.

  • Will I look good?
  • Will I feel good?
  • Will I get a reward?
  • How difficult is it for me to help?

From here, the reasons to help or not help get very complicated and complex and the Year 13 Psychology students began looking into what some of the different factors could be. It is generally accepted that people are biologically disposed to help others – it should be within all of us to want to help others so that we can protect and safeguard our species. However, there are many factors that contribute as to whether or not we decide to get involved.

  • Am I the same ethnicity as the person who requires help?
  • Am I the same gender as the person who needs help?
  • Am I the only person who can help?
  • Are other people helping?
  • Could I be putting myself in danger?
  • Is it obvious what I need to do to help?
  • Am I sure that they need help?
  • Am I in a good mood?
  • Have I experienced something like this before?
  • Do I have the skills to help?
  • What does my society/religion/family background suggest I do?

How can we test these factors?

There is no point in having a theory if we cannot prove or disprove it. So the students attempted to replicate a famous psychological study conducted by Piliavin in 1969. In this experiment, an actor in a carriage on the New York subway pretended to collapse. He would sometimes be a white actor, sometimes a black actor, sometimes be carrying a cane and sometimes be pretending to be drunk. The experimenters observed who helped, how long it took and what other people did.

The results of the experiment found that we are more likely to help people of our own ethnicity. Males are also much more likely to help than females. They also found we are less likely to help people who we believe have caused their own problems. They concluded that we weigh up the costs and benefits of helping, based on the answers to all the questions above.

Our Year 13 Students’ Experiment

Year 13 Psychology students tested this by having an actor fall down in our school reception area. They used different actors so they could observer the effects of gender and ethnicity. They also had the actor either having crutches or not so it was more obvious if the person required help. They had two observers watching how people reacted and counting how many people helped and how many people did not. They also interviewed some of the people to understand their thoughts.

  • They found for the female crutches condition 100% of people stopped to help and with the male crutches only 26% helped. In interviews, many said that they thought a male could help himself whereas a female might need help.
  • For victims with no crutches, 37.5% helped the male and just 22% helped the female. This goes against what we expected but there are some psychological reasons for this result, particularly in the context of the country in which we live.

We concluded that people are much more likely to help if they can see there is definitely a problem. They will also consider whether or not they are capable of helping and if the situation is safe for them to do so (both physically and socially).

What use is this?

If we know why people do or do not help, we can use this information if we get into trouble.

  • For example, one factor that we found was that people don’t help if they aren’t certain if someone needs help or not. So by clearly telling people you need help, they are much more likely to assist you.
  • Also, if people don’t know how to help, they might not offer to help - so telling people exactly what they need to do to help you should encourage them to do so.
  • In a large group, people often think that someone else will help and so they don’t have to. So by pointing at specific persons and asking for help, they understand that they directly are now responsible and won’t wait for others to help first.

Mr. Jim Hartland

Head of Psychology