AskDefine | Define helpfulness

Dictionary Definition



1 the property of providing useful assistance
2 friendliness evidence by a kindly and helpful disposition [syn: kindliness]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The act of being helpful.

Extensive Definition

In social psychology, the everyday concept of helpfulness is technically defined as (1) the property of providing useful assistance, and (2) friendliness evidenced by a kindly and helpful disposition [syn: kindliness].
For many years, social psychologists have been searching for answers to these questions:
  • Why, and when, will people help?
  • Who will help?
  • What can be done to lessen indifference and increase helping?

Why Do People Help?

Several theories of helping agree that, in the long run, helping behavior benefits the giver as well as the receiver. One explanation assumes that human interactions are guided by a "social economics". We exchange not only material goods and money but also social goods - love, services, information status (Foa & Foa, 1975). In doing so, we use a "minimax" strategy - minimize costs, maximize rewards.
  • Arousal: Cost-Reward Theory. The arousal: cost-reward theory suggests that people feel upset when they see a person in need and are motivated to do something to reduce the unpleasant arousal. People then weigh the costs of helping versus not helping. The clearer the need for help, the more likely people are to help. The presence of others inhibits helping behavior due to diffusion of responsibility, a belief that someone else will help. Environmental and personality characteristics also influence helping.
  • Empathy-Altruism Theory. According to the empathy-altruism theory, helpfulness is seen in those who have empathy with the person in need.
  • Evolutionary Theory. Evolutionary theories propose that people help others to ensure the survival of their genes, at the risk of endangering themselves.

When Will People Help?

Circumstances that inhibit or enhance helpfulness include:
  • Number of bystanders. Victims are less likely to get help when many people are around (Latane & Darley, 1975).
  • Helping when someone else does. People are more likely to help others if they have just observed someone else modeling that specific helping behavior, e.g. Los Angeles drivers offering help to a female driver with a flat tire (Bryan & Test, 1967), New Jersey Christmas shoppers dropping money in a Salvation Army kettle (Bryan & Test, 1967), British adults donating blood (Rushton & Campbell, 1977).
  • Time pressures. People leisurely on their way to an unimportant appointment usually stopped to help, but those late for an important date seldom stopped (Batson, et al, 1978).
  • Similarity. People are more empathetic and helpful toward those similar to them (Miller, et al, 2001), e.g. in dress (Emswiller, et al, 1971; Gary, et al, 1991), in race (Benson et al, 1976; Clark, 1974; Sissons, 1981), in beliefs (Myers, 2005).

Who Will Help?

  • Personality traits. People high in positive emotionality, empathy, and self-efficacy are most likely to be concerned and helpful (Bierhoff, et al, 1991; Eisenberg, et al, 1991; Krueger, et al, 2001). Those high in self-monitoring are attuned to others' expectations and are therefore helpful if they think helpfulness will be socially rewarded (White & Gerstein, 1987).
  • Religious faith. People who rate religion as "important" are more likely to report working among the needy (Colasanto, 1989; Wuthnow, 1994; Deuser & DeNeve, 1995), to campaign for social justice (Benson, et al, 1980; Hansen, et al, 1995; Penner, 2002), and to give away higher percent of their incomes (Hodgkinson, et al, 1990, 1992), especially over the long-term (Myers, 2005). Furthermore, they are likely to give money to missionary causes, rather than secular, objective organizations that have no motive of religious conversion.

Whom to Help?

  • Victims of disaster, crime, and poverty
  • People who are worse-off than the helper (to varying degree)

How To Increase Helping?

Research studies by social scientists have suggested that the following factors can help to increase helping:
  • Reduce ambiguity, increasing responsibility. Personal appeals for help are much more effective than posters and media announcements (Jason, et al, 1984). Nonverbal appeals can also be effective when they are personalized (Snder, et al, 1974; Omoto & Snyder, 2002). So does reduction of anonymity (Solomon & Solomon, 1978; Solomon, et al, 1981).
  • Guilt and concern for self-image. People who have been reprimanded for their transgressions are more likely to offer help than those who have not been reprimanded (Katzev, 1978). People who have given door-in-the-face responses are likely to agree to a smaller and more reasonable request (Cialdini, et al, 1975). Labeling people as helpful can also increase helpful contributions (Kraut, 1973).
  • Teaching moral inclusion. Broadening the range of people whose well-being concerns us (Batson, 1983) and inviting advantaged people to put themselves in others' shoes, to imagine how they feel (Batson, et al, 2003), helps.
  • Modeling altruism. It's better not to publicize rampant tax cheating, littering and teen drinking, and instead to emphasize - to define a norm of - people's widespread honesty, cleanliness, and abstinence (Cialdini, et al, 2003). Norms for generosity could perhaps be cultivated by simply including a new line on tax forms that requires people to compute - and thus to know - their annual donations as a percentage of income (Ayres & Nalebuff, 2003). Modeling effects were also apparent within the families of European Christians who risked their lives to rescue Jews in the 1930s and 1940s and of 1950s (London, 1970; Oliner & Oliner, 1988; Rosenhan, 1970; Staub, 1989,1991,1992).


  • Bernstein, Penner, Stewart & Roy. Psychology, Sixth Edition (Online outlines). Houghton Mifflin.
  • Myers, D. (2005). Social Psychology. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
helpfulness in Swedish: Hjälpsamhet
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