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Measures of helping and altruism

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Researchers often want to examine the determinants of altruistic, helpful, pro-social, and cooperative behavior. They might, for example, want to show that consumption of glucose can, in some circumstances, increase the likelihood that individuals will help a deprived stranger (e.g., DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, & Maner, 2008). A variety of measures and procedures have been developed to assess such helping.

Hypothetical scenarios

To assess the extent to which individuals are likely to help someone else, hypothetical scenarios are sometimes presented to participants. In one study, conducted by DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, and Maner (2008), for example, participants read six hypothetical scenarios in which they were granted an opportunity to donate money or to offer assistance. The scenarios revolved around donating money to a homeless person, donating money to children with terminal illness, offering a car ride to an unfamiliar classmate, providing directions to a lost person, lending a mobile telephone to someone, and offering food to a homeless person. For each scenario, participants were asked to specify the likelihood they would help in these situations, on a scale from 1 to 9.

After engaging in a difficult task that demanded considerable concentration, participants were less inclined to help in these scenarios (e.g., DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, & Maner, 2008). This findings is consistent with the proposition that any tasks that demand self control subsequently reduce the likelihood of helping behavior--and also corroborates the validity of this measure of helping.

Obviously, social desirability biases could distort responses to these questions. One method that partly circumvents this problem is to specify a series of options, ranging from the least taxing to the most taxing. For example, in Study 3, as reported by DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, and Maner (2008), participants were exposed to an anecdote about a person who was soon to be evicted his or her apartment, because of an inability to pay forthcoming bills. Participants are asked whether they would, for example, not act at all, provide the person with a guide to vacant apartments, help the individuals search for another place, offer the person to live with them, either transiently or permanently, and so forth. The researchers then assigned each answer a number from 1 to 7, depending on the extent to which the response involved effort.

After engaging in a task that demanded considerable concentration, participants were less likely to choose a taxing option--unless the person they who might be convicted was depicted as a relative. This pattern of findings, which is consistent with the proposition that a diminution in the mental resources that underpin self control curbs altruism that is unnatural, partly validates this measure of motives to help.

Perceptions about the prevalence of dishonesty

Gino, Norton, and Ariely (2010) administered a series of measures, intended to ascertain the extent to which participants perceive other individuals as unethical--a perception that can increase the prevalence of unethical behavior. First, participants were asked to report the extent to which people they know would engage in unethical acts, such as return clothes after wearing the garments, board a plane before their seat rows were called, pilfer office supplies from work, inflate their business expenses, or lie to insurance companies about the value of lost goods.

Second, participants were asked to estimate, on a 9 point scale, the likelihood that various statements, like "Sorry I'm late& the traffic was terrible", are usually lies. Other statements included "Yes, John was with me last night", "It was good meeting you& let's have lunch sometime", or "Sure, I'll start working on that tonight".

Finally, participants read two scenarios, each describing an opportunity for someone to engage in unethical behavior. Participants specify the extent to which they feel the protagonist would act unethically in these scenarios.

Consistent with hypotheses, when participants were told to wear counterfeit glasses, an act that purportedly increases the salience of inauthentic behavior, they assumed people are more likely to behave unethically. These findings support the validity of these questions.

Requests for donations and support

In several studies, participants receive a request as to whether they would like to contribute time, money, effort to a specific campaign--which might be a bona fide initiative or a contrived scheme (see Batson, Sager, Garst, Kang, Rubchinsky, & Dawson, 1997& DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, & Maner, 2008& Maner, Luce, C.L., Neuberg, Cialdini, Brown, Sagarin, 2002). Typically, participants are, ostensibly, randomly assigned to one of several conditions. Usually, the randomization process is contrived to ensure they are exposed to a specific scenario or anecdote. The anecdote might describe a person or collective who are severely disadvantaged or distressed, such as a girl whose parents have died and must provide care to her younger siblings. Participants then answer questions about this scenario, primarily to conceal the genuine purpose of this scenario.

Next, participants are often informed the study has ended, and even some debriefing is provided or the promised remuneration is paid. Finally, participants are asked, somewhat incidentally, whether they would like to offer some help to a scheme that was established to help this person, perhaps by placing pamphlets in envelopes, for example (e. g., DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, & Maner, 2008). They are asked to indicate the number of hours they are willing to dedicate to this initiative, from 0 to 9 or more.

DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, and Maner (2008) showed that engaging in a task that demands careful concentration reduced the tendency to volunteer time to this project. This association diminished, however, after participants consumed a drink high in glucose. This pattern of results shows that perhaps the depletion of mental resources, which is replenished with glucose, could curb the inclination to help other individuals. Furthermore, these findings partly validate the procedure to assess motives to help.

Similarly, in a study conducted by Porath and Erez (2009), to assess helping behavior, participants were asked whether or not they would also partake in another study, without receiving credit. Consistent with the hypotheses of this study, participants were less likely to agree to this request if they earlier witnessed rude behavior.

Reports of past behavior

Past behavior in the community

Some measures are intended to gauge the inclination of individuals to have engaged in altruistic, charitable acts in the past. One scale, for example, was constructed and validated by Rushton, Chrisjohn, and Fekken (1981). Participants are asked to specify the frequency with which they engage in various altruistic acts, such as "I have helped carry a stranger's belongings (books, parcels, etc)" or "I have offered to help a handicapped or elderly stranger across a street" on a six-point scale from never to very often. Cronbach's alpha for this scale approximates 0.9.

Interestingly, this scale does not correlate significantly with measures of social desirability bias (Rushton, Chrisjohn, & Fekken, 1981). That is, the items refer to overt acts, which may be less susceptible to self deception. Furthermore, if the responses are anonymous, impression management is also less likely to distort the responses.

Past behavior in organizations

A broad diversity of measures have been developed to assess the extent to which individuals engage in helpful, cooperative, pro-social, and altruistic behaviors in the work environment. These measures assess a broad range of discretionary and helpful behaviors, called organizational citizenship behavior (Organ, 1990), organizational spontaneity (Cotton & Hart, 2003), contextual performance (Motowildo & Van Scotter, 1994), and extra-role behavior (Katz & Kahn, 1996).

A variety of researchers have developed questions that assess organizational citizenship behavior--discretionary behaviors that are intended to be helpful and are not rewarded formally by the organization (Organ, 1990).

One set of questions was developed by Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Moorman, and Fetter (1990). This set of items according to confirmatory factor analysis, encompasses five facets of organizational citizenship behavior: conscientiousness (e.g., "I obey company rules and regulations even when nobody is watching"), sportsmanship (e.g., "I consume considerable time complaining about trivial matters"), civic virtue (e.g., "Keeps abreast of changes in the organization"), courtesy (e.g., "I take steps to prevent problems with other workers"), and altruism (e.g., "Helps orient new people even though it is not required"). The Tucker-Lewis goodness of fit index associated with this five factor model was .941.

Many other specific facets of such helpful behaviors can be measured as well. Mooran and Blakely (1995), for example, developed a measure of individual initiative, which describes the tendency of employees to communicate suggestions that could improve individual and group performance. This scale comprises 5 items, such as "I often motivate other individuals to express their ideas and opinions". Cronbach's alpha was .90 in the original validation study (Mooran & Blakely, 1995).

Similarly, Van Dyne and LePine (1998) developed a self report measure of global altruism and helping behavior in the work environment. This measure entails seven items, such as "I help others in this group learn about the work" and "I attend functions that help this work group". Alpha reliability has been demonstrated to equal .93 (Neubert, Kacmar, Carlson, Chonko, & Roberts, 2008).

Dimensions of helping

Some scholars have attempted to distinguish between different forms of helping. Roth (2008), for example, differentiated two categories of helping: self orientated helping, in which individuals assist someone to enhance their reputation, and other orientated helping, in which individuals focus more on the needs of another person.

Self orientated helping comprises four items, such as "When I am helping another person, I boast about it or I only help someone else if others know about it". Other orientated helping also comprises four items, including "When I help someone else, I try to be attentive to his or her needs and If someone refuses my help, I try to understand why".

Interestingly, self orientated helping was related to the perception that individuals would receive warmth and affection from a parent only if they were helpful, as gauged by items such as: "As a child or adolescent, I often felt that I would lose much of my father's affection if I stopped being helpful and considerate of others". In particular, this conditional regard from parents increased the likelihood that individuals would experience a sense of compulsion, rather than choice, to help.

Other orientated helping, however, was related to the perception that individuals were granted autonomy by their parents in contexts in which helping is suitable. That is, these parents justified the importance of helping as well as attempted to understand the perspective of their children--but did not reward or punish behavior in these contexts. This autonomy increased the likelihood that individuals would feel that helping reflects a personal choice rather than compulsion or coercion (Roth, 2008).

Van Lange and Joireman (2008) actually distinguish six different orientations that relate to the degree to which people are helpful or cooperative: altruism, cooperation, equality, individualism, competition, and aggression. That is, by definition, altruistic individuals attempt to maximize the utility or happiness of other people. Cooperative individuals attempt to maximize the joint utility or happiness of both themselves and other people& they are not as concerned with who experiences this happiness. Individuals who experience an equality orientation strive to minimize disparities in utility, attempting to maintain fairness. Individualistic people merely strive to maximize their own utility or happiness. Competitive individuals attempt to maximize their relative utility& that is, they strive to outperform other people. Finally, aggressive individuals want to minimize the utility or happiness of someone else.

Implicit measures

Word fragment completion tasks

In a study conducted by Bartz and Lydon (2004), participants completed a task that was designed to assess the extent to which their motives are likely to be cooperative or communal rather than competitive and agentic. Specifically, participants received a series of 23 word fragments, such as co - pe - - tive. Their task was to identify the words by replacing the dashes with letters. Specifically, 6 of these items could be completed with words that relate to communion and cooperation--half of which were negative terms& 6 of these items could be completed with words that relate to competition and agency--half of which were negative terms. Finally, one item, co - pe - - tive, could be completed with either cooperative or competitive. Most of these items could also be completed with words unrelated to cooperation or competition.

As shown by Bartz and Lydon (2004), after individuals reflected upon a supportive relationship, they were more likely to identify positive communal words, like kind, warm, and cooperative. This result validates the proposition that such a task measures the degree to which individuals experience communal, cooperative motives.

Theories of helping

Social learning theories of helping

Previous studies, utilizing these measures, have uncovered some very fruitful theories. Perhaps the most prominent account of the antecedents and determinants of helping is social learning theory. According to social learning theory, behavior is shaped by both personal reinforcement and observational learning. That is, individuals are more inclined to enact behaviors that have attracted rewards in the past--regardless of whether they or someone they observed engaged in this act.

In the context of helping, two classes of rewards are often differentiated: subjective and material (Batson & Powell, 2003). Subjective rewards comprise all improvements in affective states, such as alleviation of negative emotions. Individuals might, for example, engage in helpful behaviors that have curbed unpleasant emotions, such as guilt, in the past--called the negative state relief hypothesis (Cialdini, Darby & Vincent, 1973). Furthermore, individuals in a positive mood are motivated to maintain this state and, thus, might learn to engage in helpful behavior to fulfill this goal (Isen & Simmonds, 1978).

Material rewards, in contrast, relate to more tangible outcomes, such as money, resources, or status. Individuals, for example, may help someone with the expectation this person will reciprocate in the future (Enzle & Lowe, 1976).

Proponents of social learning theory have often differentiate four motives to help: principalism, egoism, collectivism, and altruism (Graziano, Habashi, Sheese & Tobin, 2007). First, individuals are sometimes motivated to help as a means to uphold a moral principle, a motive called principalism. The adherence to a moral principle may alleviate guilt and other negative states and thus might attract subjective rewards. Second, individuals are sometimes motivated to help merely to improve their own wellbeing or status, called egoistic motives. That is, helping could translate into some personal gain for themselves--either material or subjective (Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley & Birch, 1981). Third, individuals might be motivated to improve the wellbeing or status of their broader social environment (Batson, 1994), such as a specific organization or humanity in general, called collectivist motives. Finally, helping might sometimes be altruistic, representing the genuine motivation to curb the distress or improve the wellbeing of another individual (Batson & Shaw, 1991).

These motives, however, might overlap. To illustrate, altruistic motivations to help are usually preceded by a feeling of empathy towards the potential beneficiary (Batson & Shaw, 1991). Individuals experience this empathic concern, however, when they experience a sense of connection with the other person--that is, a sense of shared or merged identity (Maner, Luce, Neuberg, Cialdini, Brown, & Sagarin, 2002). Accordingly, altruistic motives might merely represent collectivist motives (see also Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce & Neuberg, 1997).

Determinants of helping

Many researchers have developed measures of helping to understand the determinants of such behavior. Indeed, a variety of studies have been undertaken to assess the antecedents to helpful, pro-social, or charitable behavior. First, some of these studies have examined personality factors, showing for example that agreeableness promotes helping behavior (Graziano, Habashi, Sheese & Tobin, 2007).

Second, other studies have shown how dyadic factors--that is, properties of the relationship between two individuals--can affect the incidence of helping. Individuals, for example, are more likely to offer help to someone with whom they share some key similarities (Batson & Powell, 2003). They are more inclined to help someone of the opposite sex, especially if such assistance does not involve any direct contact between themselves and the beneficiary (Bickman, 1974).

Blame and self help

To some extent, whether individuals cho0se to donate money to victims of a disaster depends on the perceived cause of these tragedies. As Zagefka, Noor, Brown, de Moura, and Hopthrow (2011) showed, if people feel the disaster was caused by humans in some sense, even if not the victims, donations tend to diminish.

In one study, reported by Zagefka, Noor, Brown, de Moura, and Hopthrow (2011), participants read an excerpt about a humanitarian disaster on a tropical island. Specifically, the dams collapsed after a storm permeated the island, flooding and damaging buildings, livestock, and crops. Some participants were informed the dams had been built proficiently, but the storm was stronger than weather events experienced in other parts of the globe. Other participants were informed the dams were not built properly, because government had stolen some of the funds that were dedicated to this infrastructure.

Next, participants were asked to indicate the amount of money they would dedicate to this island. If the disaster was partly ascribed to human activity--in this instance, dam walls that were not built properly--participants were not as inclined to donate money.

In Study 2, some participants read about the Tsunami disaster of 2004. This disaster is usually ascribed to natural causes. Other participants read about the catastrophes in Darfur, usually ascribed to human activity. Next, they specified the extent to which they perceive the victims as blameless or responsible for the plight. In addition, they indicated whether the victims had acted as resourcefully as possible to avert the disaster. Finally, the degree to which they are willing to donate money was assessed.

People were more willing to donate to the Tsunami disaster of 2004 than to Darfur. This association was mediated by the extent to which victims were perceived as blameless and could not have undertaken any other actions to avert the problem (Zagefka, Noor, Brown, de Moura, & Hopthrow, 2011).

Study 3 showed that people are more inclined to donate money to famines they feel can be ascribed to natural disasters rather than armed conflict. In short, the findings indicate that people like to perceive the world as just. If the disaster can be partly ascribed to human activities, people like to feel that victims were blameworthy in some sense, curbing donations. If the disaster cannot be ascribed to human activities, people recognize that victims cannot possibly be blameworthy (Zagefka, Noor, Brown, de Moura, & Hopthrow, 2011).

One of the practical implications of these findings is that campaigns to attract donations should emphasize how the victims are not related to the human activities that sparked the disaster. Furthermore, and more interestingly, these campaigns should emphasize how the victims are attempting to address the problem themselves, but nevertheless need support. As Study 4 showed, procedures that reduce the degree to which victims are blamed but increase the extent to which they demonstrate attempts to help themselves attracts donations (Zagefka, Noor, Brown, de Moura, & Hopthrow, 2011). Finally, these campaigns should highlight how weather conditions or other natural events amplified the problem.

Neurological underpinnings of cooperation, helping, and altruism

Emonds, Declerck, Boone, Vandervliet, and Parizel (2011) used fMRI to distinguish two primary motivations of individuals to cooperate. That is, some people feel an inherent drive to cooperate, partly governed by a need to behave morally and to comply with social norms. Brain regions such as the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, the inferior parietal lobe, and the anterior superior temporal sulcus underpin this motivation. In contrast, some people cooperate with other individuals primarily because this behavior will maximize their returns. This more calculative drive is underpinned by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (Broca's area 9), the temporo-parietal junction near the posterior superior temporal sulcus, and the precuneus.

Specifically, in this study, participants first completed a measure of their social value orientation, to ascertain whether they are more cooperative, called pro-social, or competitive, called pro-self. Roughly, participants could choose between various outcomes. For example, participants could choose between one alternative that maximized the joint reward to themselves and to a stranger or other alternatives that maximized their own reward to the detriment of this stranger. Pro-social people, in contrast to pro-self people, sacrifice their own reward to maximize the joint reward.

Next, all individuals participated in a prisoner's dilemma or coordination game. In the prisoner's dilemma, participants need to decide whether they will cooperate or defect with another person. For example, they may need to decide whether they will invest some money into some scheme, a form of cooperation, or not invest any money, a form of defection. The complication is their reward depends on the response of their opponent.

In one condition, for instance, if both individuals cooperate--that is, if they both invest--they both earn a very large reward. If only one individual cooperates, they earn a modest reward& because of their investment, the person who cooperated earns a smaller profit. If neither individual invests, they both earn no reward. Hence, they should cooperate, but only if they feel the other person will cooperate. The coordination game is similar, except the parties earn the largest reward if they choose the same response as one another.

In this study, interestingly, the cooperative, pro-social people were not necessarily more likely to cooperate than were the competitive, pro-self people. Nevertheless, fMRI indicated that different brain regions governed the decisions of these two clusters of people. Compared to the pro-self people, in the pro-social people, the lateral regions of the orbito-frontal cortex or Broca's area 10 was activated. This region enables individuals to predict which actions will evade a punishment. This region also motivates people to comply with norms, perhaps to avoid these punishments. Furthermore, in these pro-self people, the inferior parietal lobule, Broca's area 40, and the anterior superior temporal sulcus, Broca's area 22, were activated significantly. The inferior parietal lobule underpins a sense of agency, increasing the likelihood that people experience a sense of moral responsibility.

These findings indicate that pro-social individuals were primarily motivated by the need to comply with moral obligations, ultimately dictated by the need to avoid punishment. This motivation to comply is amplified by a sense of moral responsibility rather than moral disengagement.

Compared to pro-social people, pro-self people demonstrated more activation in the dorsolateral preftonal cortex. This region underpins working memory and cognitive deliberations, enabling individuals to calculate the benefits and drawbacks of various alternatives. These individuals also demonstrated significant activation in the precuneus, a region in the top part of the parietal cortex, hidden in the medial longitudinal fissure. The anterior portion of this region is activated when individuals relate information to themselves, such as rate their personality. These individuals, therefore, were governed by logical considerations, perhaps intended to enhance their own needs.

Interestingly, the anterior superior temporal sulcus, near the temporal-parietal junction, was activated in the pro-social people, whereas the posterior superior temporal sulcus was activated in the pro-self people. The reason for this difference is not certain. Arguably, the posterior superior temporal sulcus is more involved in moral decisions that demand executive functions and thus logical considerations.

Activity of the vagus nerve

Activity of the vagus nerve also corresponds to the degree to which individuals are cooperative and altruistic. That is, when activity in the vagus nerve is moderate, rather than especially low or high, people tend to be more prosocial (Kogan, Oveis, Carr, Gruber, Mauss, Shallcross, Impett, van der Lowe, Hui, Cheng, & Keltner, 2014). The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves--a series of nerves that sprout from the brainstem---but is central to the parasympathetic nervous system, inhibiting activity in the heart and facilitating digestion, for example.

To illustrate the association between vagal activity and prosocial tendencies, Kogan, Oveis, Carr, Gruber, Mauss, Shallcross, Impett, van der Lowe, Hui, Cheng, and Keltner (2014) conducted a series of studies. To gauge vagal activity, they measured respiratory sinus arrhythmia. In particular, vagal activity itself cannot be measured directly. However, a measure called respiratory sinus arrhythmia reflects activity of the vagus nerve. To demonstrate, during inhalation, the vagus nerves are suppressed, and heart rate thus increases. During exhalation, vagal activity is reinstated, decreasing the heart rate. If vagal activity is pronounced, this heart rate should decrease appreciably. Consequently, pronounced variability in the heart rate across a breath indicates strong vagal activity.

Kogan, Oveis, Carr, Gruber, Mauss, Shallcross, Impett, van der Lowe, Hui, Cheng, and Keltner (2014) examined whether this vagal activity was associated with various measures of prosocial tendencies. For example, in one study, participants indicated the degree to which they experience compassion and gratitude along with other positive emotions. In another study, participants completed measures of agreeableness and their capacity to establish strong relationships, with items such as "People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others". Finally, in a third study, researchers assessed the degree to which the participants actually helped a stranger. In each study, moderate rather than low or high levels of vagal activity coincided with prosocial tendencies, such as compassion, gratitude, agreeableness, and cooperation.

Arguably, if vagal activity is too low, physiological arousal is excessive. Individuals may thus feel too distressed or agitated to orient their attention to the needs of other people. If vagal activity is too high, physiological arousal may be constrained. Individuals may not become engaged enough in their environment.

Related measures


The Activism Orientation Scale was designed to assess the propensity of individuals to engage in social action (see Corning & Myers, 2002). Participants specify the likelihood they will engage in 35 various actions in the future. The scale comprises two factors: conventional activism, which relates to 28 of the items and high risk activism, which relates to 7 of the items. An example of conventional activism is "display a poster or bumper sticker with a political message". An example of high risk activism is "engage in an illegal act as part of a political protest". The items can be accessed from Activism Orientation Scale).


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