Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

To Help or Not to Help: Capturing Individuals' Decision Policies

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

To Help or Not to Help: Capturing Individuals' Decision Policies

Article excerpt

The arousal: cost-reward model of bystander intervention developed by Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner and Clark in 1981 was tested using a within-subjects "policy capturing" methodology. Four hundred and forty nine participants read 50 scenarios and reported the likelihood they would offer help. Seventy-six percent of the participants' helping judgments could be reliably described or "captured" with a linear combination of the various costs of helping and costs of not helping specified in the model. In addition, participants were relatively aware of how the costs affected their helping decisions; although female participants may have been more aware than males. These findings provide additional support for the arousal: cost-reward model and extend understanding of the cognitive algebra that occurs before individuals decide to intervene.

In the thirty years since the publication of Latane and Darley's classic study of the "unresponsive bystander" (Latane & Darley, 1968), various theories have been proposed to explain how individuals make helping decisions in emergencies (see Schroeder, Penner, Dovidio, & Piliavin, 1995). Some of the more popular models view a bystander's actions as resulting from a cognitive decision process. Among these are the Latane and Darley (1970) decision model of bystander intervention and Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner, and Clark's (1981) arousal: cost-reward model (see also Dovidio, 1984; Dovidio, Piliavin, Gaertner, Schroeder, & Clark, 1991).

The latter model provided the focus of the present study. According to the arousal: cost-reward model, another person's distress causes physiological arousal in an observer which, in turn, initiates the process of deciding whether to help. Specifically, because people find prolonged physiological arousal aversive, they try to find ways to reduce it. The decision as to what course of arousal reduction to pursue involves weighing the perceived costs to the potential helper of helping (e.g., time, money, effort) and of not helping (e.g., guilt, criticism) and then choosing the response that incurs the smallest net cost. Thus an observer is most likely to offer assistance when the personal costs of helping are low, and the costs of not helping are high. Providing rewards also increases the probability of helping (Piliavin et al., 1981).

There are, of course, circumstances when the decision process becomes more difficult. One of these is when costs of helping are extremely high, but so are the costs of not helping. In these instances, the model posits that people will opt for responses that reduce the cost of either helping or of not helping. For example, if direct helping would produce extremely high costs for the helper, arousal can be reduced by providing indirect assistance (e.g., summoning others to help). Alternatively, when helping costs are extremely high, one may cognitively reinterpret the situation to diminish the perceived costs of not helping. One mechanism for doing this is to diffuse the responsibility for not helping. Thus, if others are present when the need for help arises, a bystander may decide that they will provide the necessary aid (e.g., Gaertner & Dovidio, 1977). In doing this, the observer reduces his/her personal responsibility for not helping, and thus the costs of inaction.

In the years since the model was originally proposed, it has undergone some changes and modifications. For example, very early in the model's development Piliavin et al. acknowledged that helping in some circumstances may be impulsive and preceded by little, if any, conscious or nonconscious decision processes (e.g., a parent seeing a child in grave danger). Somewhat later the model was revised to include a less egoistic or "selfish" characterization of the arousal that precedes the decision process. More specifically, the work of Batson (1991) and others (see Batson, 1997; Schroeder et al., 1995) led Piliavin et al. to acknowledge that the subjective experience of arousal can take many forms, ranging from fear for one's own safety, to other-oriented empathic concern for the welfare of the person in need. …

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