People generally want to help each other, study finds

It’s been an incredibly hard past few days for everyone, so if you need a bit of positivity and good news consider the latest study out of Ohio State University. Researchers have concluded that people generally want to help and do right by each other, even when it may not necessarily be convenient or beneficial.

Recent events have shown the full spectrum of human behavior. George Floyd’s murder was horrific and symbolized the absolute worst in mankind, but the response, outcry, and outrage since then has displayed the good in all of us. This research backs up the notion that people overwhelmingly want to be good to each other, even strangers.

The study’s authors wanted to see what typically motivates one person to help or be generous to another. What they discovered, however, was that people almost always choose to help each other, regardless of external motivators.

“We wanted to do an exhaustive study to see what the effects of those motivations would be when combined – because they are combined in the real world, where people are making choices about how generous or kind to be with one another,” says David Melamed, lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, in a university release.

Melamed and his team set out to examine why people act in a prosocial manner. So, what exactly is prosocial behavior?

“It means doing something for someone else at a cost to yourself,” he explains. “So one example would be paying for the person behind you’s order at the coffee shop. Or right now, wearing your mask in public. It’s a cost to you; it’s uncomfortable. But you contribute to the public good by wearing it and not spreading the virus.”

Now, sociologists have generally agreed that there are four main motivators when it comes to helping other people.

1. Someone does something nice for you, so you feel inclined to return the favor for that person at some point.
2. You see someone do something nice for someone else, motivating you to act similarly in the future.
3. You feel you will be rewarded for your generosity, so you act pro-socially.
4. After someone does something nice for you, you “pay it forward” by performing an act of kindness for someone else.

Up until now, however, those four motivators had only been studied separately, or perhaps two at a time. This is the first research project ever to examine how all four interact and affect one another in a real-time setting.

“In the real world, the conditions under which people are nice to each other are not isolated – people are embedded in their networks, and they’re going about their daily lives and coming into contact with things that will affect their decisions,” Melamed comments. “And these experiments show that all the motivations work. If you want to maximize prosocial behavior, it was a really great thing to see.”

The research included over 700 participants and was conducted online. Each person was asked to decide for themselves how to distribute a “10-point endowment” out to a group of other people. Each point had monetary value; so giving up each point, in theory, cost participants something.

Whenever a participant was asked to divvy up endowments, researchers created a different scenario that featured some combination of the aforementioned motivators.

The team at OSU had hypothesized that combining those motivators would lead to a “canceling-out” effect. For example, if a participant was told that one person had done something nice for them, they would be less likely to be kind toward a third party.

“People have a self-bias,” Melamed says. “If you do something nice for me, I may weigh that more than if I see you do something nice for someone else. But we found that all the motivators still show up as predictors of how much a person is willing to give to someone else, regardless of how the differing motivators are combined.”

In summation, these findings suggest that there isn’t one concrete reason or motivation behind why people help each other. It’s not always about reciprocation, gaining something in return, or being rewarded; we’re naturally inclined to be kind to each other.

“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s kind of perplexing that it even exists, because you’re decreasing your own fitness on behalf of others,” Melamed concludes. “And yet, we see it in bees and ants, and humans and throughout all of nature.”

The full study can be found here, published in Science Advances.