THE BLOG
09/22/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Why People Help Strangers and Risk Their Lives for Strangers?

Why do people risk their lives for strangers? My discussion of this will also shed some light on why they often do not. We have biological potentials for caring about others' welfare, as well as turning against others. Already a day or two after birth infants show a primitive form of empathy; when they hear crying by another infant they begin to cry, but not when they hear a noise of the same intensity.

How these potentials develop is based on experience. Already at age 3 children whose parents have been pointing out to them the consequences of their behavior on other people, in this study of their harmful behaviors, are more likely to show empathy for others. Stressing to children the human consequences of their actions, both negative and positive, also contributes to children feeling responsible for others' welfare. In a relevant study Carnegie Heroes, people recognized by the Carnegie Hero foundation for risking their lives to save the life of someone not related to them, were more likely to report than other people that their parents expected them to help people.

Children raised with love and affection, and guided by positive values that stress caring for other people, are likely to develop positive feelings for and inclinations toward human beings. The example adults set, or modeling, is also important. When adults tell children to share, but they themselves are not generous, the children show the same discrepancy in their words and actions.

Experience with helping is of special importance. We learn by doing, change as a result of our actions. When sixth grade children in my research were guided to spend time helping others, making toys for poor hospitalized children, or teaching younger children, they were later more helpful than children who engaged in similar but not helpful activities -- for example, just learning how to make toys.

Even children who learn to care can learn to draw lines between their "ingroup," however that is defined (family, religious community, ethnic group, race, nation), and people outside the group. The ease with which this happens is probably the result of our genetic disposition, based on human history in which people lived in small groups. However, instead of teaching children to draw such lines, adults can teach them to be inclusively caring -- to care about all human beings.

An important example is rescuers, members of groups that perpetrate genocide who endanger themselves to save intended victims. There were "rescuers" in the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey, in the Holocaust, in the genocide in Rwanda, and probably in all genocides. They act contrary to the wishes of the authorities and usually also to the prevailing attitudes in their groups. Research with rescuers in the Holocaust has shown that they grew up in families (such as Polish Catholics) that had positive relations with people outside their group, including Jews. Frequently one parent was a humanitarian, who modeled helping. Engagement with outsiders and the example of helpful parents contributed to inclusive caring.

As a result of socialization and experience personal characteristics develop that motivate helping--- empathy, moral values such as commitment to justice, and a "prosocial orientation." Many rescuers possessed one or another of these. Prosocial orientation consists of a positive view of human beings, and a feeling of and belief in one's personal responsibility for others' welfare. In studies my students and I have conducted this personal characteristic was associated with helping someone in physical distress, in psychological distress, and with being "constructively" rather than "blindly" patriotic. Boys with stronger prosocial orientation were also less aggressive.

Adults can guide children to care about other people, including strangers. Helping strangers is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. Principles of reciprocity are powerful and generally understood. People tend to help those who have helped them, and also to like those who helped them. There is also generalized reciprocity; someone who receives help from one person is more likely to help a third person. Positive actions create ripples that come can back to oneself, to one's children, can create better societies. Social norms may develop in a whole society, or subgroups of it, for people to help others.

Helping often requires both motivation and confidence in one's ability. In one of my studies a combination of prosocial orientation and belief in their capacity to improve others' welfare was especially likely to lead people to report helping in a wide range of situations. The role of competence is also likely to explain why men are more likely to be heroic when this requires physical prowess, while women as likely or more likely in situations that do not require it. When in one study a student of mine collapsed, under varied circumstances, on a street in Cambridge, MA. there was no difference between men, women, old or young approaching him to help. (But some people, after a single glance turned away, and never looked back).

Helping that is risky may allow deliberation, as in the case of rescuers, who could take at least a little time to decide whether they will hide a person in their home, or in a hole in the ground, as some rescuers did in Rwanda. Or it may require immediate action, to save someone from a fire, or to catch a child falling out of a four story window, as one Carnegie Hero did.

A combination of characteristics that embody motivation for helping, competence, decision making ability, and perhaps an action orientation create a readiness for such "spontaneous helping," When someone has this, the deliberation usually required for important decisions is short circuited, so that heroic action becomes possible.

Ervin Staub is Professor of Psychology Emeritus, and Founding Director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at the University of Massachusetts. His relevant books include The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults and groups help and harm others, and the forthcoming The roots of goodness and resistance to evil: Inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandership and heroism. New York: Oxford University Press. see www.ervinstaub.com.