Experiments with People: Revelations from Social Psychology

By Robert P. Abelson; Kurt P. Frey et al. | Go to book overview

20
Love Thy Neighbor
or Thyself?: Empathy
as a Source of Altruism

“Act so as to treat humanity… never as a means only, but always at the same time as an end. ”

—Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), German philosopher


BACKGROUND

Chapter 19 investigated the phenomenon of bystander nonintervention—the tendency of people in crowds to stand idly by while someone suffers before their very eyes or within earshot. On the face of it, such passive behavior betokens an appalling lack of human sympathy: It seems to prove just how threadbare the fabric of public morality has become. However, social psychological research has established that bystanders stay put for quite another reason: the sheer ambiguity of the situation. Bystanders wonder: Whose responsibility is it to help? Is it really an emergency if no one else is doing anything? Tellingly, when bystanders do define a situation as an emergency, accept it is up to them to intervene, and feel confident they can be of assistance, they quickly channel their concern for victims into concrete action (Latane & Darley, 1968). Hence, the underlying goodwill of people in large gatherings need not be doubted. The problem stems from without. The presence of others fosters perceptions that make the expression of goodwill less likely. True, damsels (and swains) in distress suffer the consequences of being ignored regardless of why they are ignored. Yet it is some consolation that the hearts of passive bystanders are in the right place even if their bodies are not.

In this chapter, we delve deeper into people's motives for helping each other. In particular we consider research that seeks to answer the following

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