Predictors of Helping
Since the brutal attack and murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, many studies have been performed over the years attempting to determine what causes people to intervene in times of help or refrain from getting involved. Some have focused on the decline of empathy, others on the product of living in morally absent urban environments, and even more examining the particular environmental and situational factors involved in helping behavior (Darley & Latane, 1968). This often leads into the nature versus nurture debate in which factors most contribute to the likelihood of someone helping.
Some predictors that others have investigated, such as urban environment, desensitization to crime and violence, parental influence, or the diminishing moral fiber of society, are all environmentally related. The roots of why people act or don’t may have been in development since birth, but nonetheless, have been fostered through the environments leading up to and including the event itself. Even research performed on empathy, or internal feelings shared with another, have been found to be heavily dependent upon the situation involved, and even more dependent upon the personal risk in that situation (Paciello, Fida, Cerniglia, Tramontano, & Cole, 2013). All this is to say, that whatever genetic factors may be involved, they are still completely subordinate to the environmental factors contributing to the situation.
As will be further discussed in the next section, the majority of the research performed on bystander intervention and helping behavior has failed to link any personality traits, characteristics, or qualities to the predictive ability of whether or not someone offers assistance. So, besides anecdotal evidence of seemingly weak, shy, or timid individuals performing acts of heroism, there’s also a large body of research that has failed to correlate any specific genetic traits to predicting bystander assistance.
If genetic factors have little to no relevance, how can anyone be sure that environmental factors have more predictive ability? Well, common sense would indicate that if it isn’t genetically related, then it should be environmentally related. Considering this further, we know that people intervene to help in situations daily, and if there is no known genetic link, perhaps the situations themselves have some commonalties? Many have heard stories of a stranger running into a burning building to rescue someone, pedestrians rescuing children and animals locked in hot cars, or diners rushing to give the Heimlich maneuver to a choking patron. In every case, one thing seems to be similar, the situation itself is what provoked the assistance, regardless of individual characteristics.
Research and Examples
Some of the earliest research performed on bystander intervention, performed by Darley and Latane (1968), investigated both personality traits and characteristics versus that of the quantity of witnesses present, an environmental influence. This early work clearly demonstrated the lack of correlation between individual characteristics and helping behavior, while showing strong support for the predictive ability of bystanders present.
Further research by Darley and Batson (1973) again demonstrated no link between the personality trait of religiosity (which I might also argue is a developed environmental trait rather than a genetic one) and offering help. However, they found significant predictive ability in the situational factor of hurriedness, or how rushed a test subject was when encountering a person who might require assistance. This lends additional evidence to the environmental components at play and also provides a very specific variable to whether or not someone is likely to intervene.
Other research has tied situational empathy, personal distress, and moral disengagement (mitigating factors of cognitive dissonance) to helping behavior (Paciello et al., 2013). Additionally, authors Huston, Ruggiero, Conner, and Geis (1981) set out to investigate the desensitizing nature of crime and personality traits in predicting helpful intervention. They unexpectedly found that not only was prior experience with crime predictive of a helpful response or action, but that personality traits had absolutely no significance in predicting intervention. Time and again, character traits have been investigated for their predictive abilities on helping behavior, and the vast majority of literature has failed to find any relationship of significance. Furthermore, many of these same studies were able to successfully correlate different environmental variables to offering assistance.
If evolution is the changing and adapting of a species to better acclimate to its environment for survival, then aren’t all processes genetic? After all, isn’t there a strong argument to be made that Western individualism versus Eastern collectivism are cultural traits influenced by environmental factors needed for survival? So, even if the origins are due to environmental adaptation, once they become a characteristic of a species they should be considered genetic factors. This way, whether or not someone acts to help is a product of evolution. Therefore, if any one individual offers help, it is a product of that particular person’s evolutionary path. Even though many people might react differently upon the same set of variables, it isn’t situationally dependent (environmental or nurturing factors) so much as genetically influenced through millennia of evolution. This would be like attempting to differentiate cultural differences between the Inca, Maya, Cherokee, and Iroquois. If they are all the original natives to the Americas, shouldn’t they all have similar cultures and responses to their environments? Yet, we have seen through historical records that each culture acted very differently.
This adds evidence that the environment creates evolutionary changes which take place on the micro level, causing genetic differences in turn. Then, these genetic differences present in each culture react upon each scenario requiring helping behavior. Therefore, it isn’t individual character traits or personality that dictates how one will react in an emergency situation, but the genetic cultural differences created through the evolutionary process.
Counter to Oppositional Reasoning
While individualism versus collectivism has some definite differences in worldview, the vast body of research performed on bystander intervention seems to negate any differences that might be culturally related. For instance, religiosity (specifically Christianity) could be viewed as a cultural variable. Authors Darley and Batson (1973) found that religious belief of helping others in need, even when currently thinking about that particular virtue, had little to no impact on offering help when participants were in a hurry. Furthermore, every study investigated set out with the notion that personality traits may have some influence in helping behavior, yet each one found no correlation at all with any characteristics.
One might claim that the right set of traits hasn’t been investigated yet, and remain elusive. If this were the case, then it would seem that some traits would at least be closer to being significant than others, but this doesn’t appear to be the case in any of the literature. Even if this were noticed, it still doesn’t negate the fact that every study refuting the influence of individual genetic factors, or characteristics, has significantly correlated other variables to helping behavior. Put another way, even if we were able to say that a doctor’s words of encouragement helped with the healing process of a broken leg, it still would have a minimal effect compared to the cast, rest, medicine, and therapy.
The other counterpoint to the above oppositional reasoning is that evolution is a continuous process. According to the theory, as environments change, so does the process of adaptation. This means that as species change genetically to better fit into their environments, their reactions to their environments work on an individual level. So, whether or not a person has evolved with collectivist or individualist ideals, means little when that person has to weigh immediate environmental factors such as personal risk, empathy, cognitive dissonance, personal responsibility, time constraints, past experience, number of others involved, and much, much more. Even if genetic traits influenced each of these environmental variables, it’s still the unique situation forcing the behavior.
Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108. doi:10.1037/h0034449
Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,8(4), 377-383. doi:10.1037/h0025589
Huston, T. L., Ruggiero, M., Conner, R., & Geis, G. (1981). Bystander intervention into crime: A study based on naturally-occurring episodes. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44(1), 14. doi:10.2307/3033858
Paciello, M., Fida, R., Cerniglia, L., Tramontano, C., & Cole, E. (2013). High cost helping scenario: The role of empathy, prosocial reasoning and moral disengagement on helping behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(1), 3-7. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.004