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Intergroup helping as status relations model

Author: Dr Simon Moss


A variety of motives initiate the inclination of individuals to help someone else. Individuals might feel empathic. They might feel they will receive some benefit in return. They might feel obliged to offer assistance, and so forth. Typically, these motives encourage individuals primarily to help someone they perceive as a member of their own collective, community, or group (e.g., Flippen, Horenstein, Siegal, & Weitzman, 1996).

According to the intergroup helping as status relations model (e.g., Nadler, 2002), individuals frequently help members of other collectives, communities, or groups--even rivals and competitors. Specifically, they offer help to reinforce their status, behavior that is referred to as defensive help (see also Nadler & Halabi, 2006).

The intergroup helping as status relations model explains some fascinating discoveries. For example, after individuals feel the superiority of their community, organization, group or club has been challenged, they actually become more likely to help members of competitors or rivals (Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2009). This theory also predicts that assistance to other groups, such as deprived communities, will often be either unhelpful or even rejected.

Motives to offer defensive help

Sometimes, individuals experience a threat to their social identity. That is, some event can compromise the beliefs and assumptions that individuals have formed about the qualities and norms of their collectives, communities, or groups.

Indeed, three distinct classes of threats have been distinguished (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002). First, some event might reduce the perceived disparity between the group to which individuals belong and other distinct collectives (Tamier & Nadler, 2007;; Turner, 1999). Individuals might, for example, assume their organization offers some unique intervention, only to discover their main rival had previously introduced a similar program. Second, individuals might discover the values of their group are not as moral as they had originally assumed (e.g., Wolh & Branscombe, 2005). They might, perhaps, discover their leader has behaved improperly. Finally, they might learn their group is not as competent or competitive as competitors. That is, their group might not have acquired the status or competitive advantages they had presumed to secure sufficient resources (Ellemers, Kortekaas, & Ouwerkerk, 1999).

In response to these threats, individuals who are not especially committed to their group might develop an alternative social identity, joining another club or organization, for example (Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2009). In contrast, individuals who are committed to their group will instead attempt to reinforce this identity. If, for example, they discover their group is not as competent as assumed, they might attempt to derogate rivals, ultimately to underscore the superiority of their own collective (Branscombe & Wann, 1994).

To reinforce this status, individuals will often help members of other groups or collectives. That is, such offers of help imply their resources and status must be superior. Such assistance, thus, circumvents the threat to social identity, and thus enhances their emotional state. Indeed, several studies indicate that individuals sometimes offer help to gain status (e.g., Hardy & Van Vugt, 2006;; for a related motive, see costly signaling theory).

Hallmarks of defensive help

The inclination of individuals to help another group, merely as a means to reinforce their social identity, is called defensive helping. Defensive helping, if governed by these motivations, should manifest three key features (Nadler & Halabi, 2006;; Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2009). First, defensive helping will usually be directed towards the group that threatens the social identity of individuals. That is, such assistance should temper any ambiguities about the relative standing of these groups. In contrast, helping a group that does not threaten the social identity of individuals will not fulfill this goal. Usually, the relative standing of this other group is unequivocal and thus does not need to be reinforced.

Second, defensive helping will not always be contingent upon the needs or concerns of the recipient. That is, individuals merely offer help to improve their own status rather than to buttress the welfare of anyone else. Thus, whether this assistance is indeed helpful or sought is, virtually, irrelevant.

Third, defensive helping will often foster dependency rather than facilitate autonomy. That is, individuals want to maintain their status and position as a source of assistance. They do not want this recipient to become more autonomous, obviating the need to receive further help. As a consequence, they might not, for example, impart skills that enhance the proficiency and independence of this group.

Empirical evidence

To substantiate the intergroup helping as status relations model, Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, and Ben-David (2009) conducted a seminal set of studies. In the first study, participants were divided into two distinct groups, called the global perceivers and specific perceivers, ostensibly as a consequence of a questionnaire they completed previously. Second, they were then informed whether or not they were typical or atypical members of this group, merely as a means to manipulation level of identification.

Third, some of the participants were exposed to a threat to their social identity. In particular, all participants completed a task that, putatively, assesses a form of integrative thinking. To threaten their social identity, some participants were informed the other group had outperformed their own group. Other participants, in contrast, were told their group had outperformed the other group.

Finally, they completed another task, in which they were granted the opportunity to help a member of the other group. Four individuals, located remotely from one another, two from each group, completed a task over computer. The task involved locating specific patterns, embedded with a morass of other lines and shapes. Participants were informed that members of the other group could not complete a specific set of questions. They were then invited to offer help, by shifting the cursor to the location in which the target pattern was located.

Generally, participants assisted members of the other group only if, previously, their social identity had previously been threatened. That is, if they had previously been informed the other group had outperformed their own group, they offered this assistance. This association between social threat and defensive help, however, was observed only in participants who were conceptualized as typical members of their group.

Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, and Ben-David (2009) then conducted some additional studies to demonstrate this assistance does indeed reflect defensive helping rather than some other motivation, such as deference or respect towards the other group. For example, in another study, students received information about the achievements of three schools. They were informed their school was outperformed by one of the two other schools. Later, participants tended only to help students of the school that had outperformed their own school. This finding aligns with the proposition that defensive helping will usually be directed towards the group that threatens the social identity of individuals.

This defensive helping, however, was observed only if individuals identified strongly with their school, as measured by collective self esteem. This finding does imply that defensive helping is predicated on a sense of attachment or identification to the group that has been threatened.

In their final study, Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, and Ben-David (2009) showed that participants offered help on both simple and difficult questions--but only if their social identity had previously been threatened. This pattern of results is compatible with the assumption that defensive helping may not always be contingent upon the needs or concerns of the recipient.

Furthermore, in this study, participants were granted an opportunity to offer two distinct forms of helping. Individuals completed a series of analogies, like "Grass is to green as sky is to what?" Participants could either impart the entire solution to a problem or they could offer hints, enabling individuals in the other groups to complete the question themselves. When social identity had been threatened, participants were more inclined to impart the entire solution rather than merely offer hints. This finding aligns with the premise that defensive helping is intended to promote dependence rather than foster autonomy.

Related concepts

Helping and envy

When people feel they might be envied, they often are more likely to behave cooperatively. They are, for example, more likely to offer helpful advice to someone who they feel might be envious of their wealth or privileges, primarily to appease these feelings.

In one study, conducted by van de Ven, Zeelenberg, and Pieters (2010), participants ostensibly worked on a series of problems with another person over computer. Some of the participants were informed they will receive $5, whereas the other person would receive no money, supposedly to assess the impact of incentives. Hence, these participants felt they might be envied. Other participants were informed both they and the other person will receive $5.

Next, participants answered a series of problems to solve. The other person, who received the same problems, was permitted to seek advice from these participants. The participants could send their answer or decline this request. Finally, participants specified the extent to which they felt the other person might feel maliciously envious or not.

If participants had receieved more money than did the other person--and thus assumed this individual might be envious--they were more willing to send their answers when asked. That is, they were more helpful. However, participants were helpful only if they assumed this person would be maliciously envious. Their assistance, therefore, seemed to represent an attempt to appease the individual.

Subsequent studies confirmed this explanation. For example, in one study, some participants were told they performed marginally better than did the other person on a test and would thus receive more money. Hence, in this condition, participants assumed they might still be envied, but not as maliciously, because their reward was deserved. In this condition, envy was indeed less likely to promote helpful behavior. In addition, in one study, if participants assumed they would be envied maliciously, they were more inclined to enact another helpful behavior: That is, they helped the person pick up pens that had been inadvertently dropped.

Interestingly, participants helped only the person who they assumed would feel envious. They were not more inclined to help anyone else. For example, they did not help a person who was unaware they had been granted more money.

As a practical implication, to inspire cooperative behavior in supervisors, these individuals should be reminded that employees might be envious of their position.


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Last Update: 7/5/2016