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Helping Friends and Foes: Why We Help Sometimes and Not Others

If you were walking to lunch one day, and you saw someone trip, spill his groceries onto the sidewalk, and cry out in pain, would you rush to help him? In the comfort of this thought experiment, you might think, “of course I would!” That’s great, but when it comes to real, everyday situations, your decision to help accounts for a lot of tiny details that you may not even realize mattered.

In my online course about the Psychology of Attraction, I talk about how we like people who are similar to us. In contrast to the old adage, “Opposites attract,” similarity seems to be a stronger force. It’s not just that we like people who are similar to us; we go out of our way to help people who are similar to us.

In one study, for example, people were more likely to give change to another person who needed to pay a parking meter when they were dressed similarly to the person asking for change. If approached by someone who was dressed in a different kind of wardrobe, people were less likely to pony up the money.

Everyone we meet, though, has some things in common with us and some things that aren’t in common. So which similarities make us more likely to help? It depends on your frame of mind at the moment.

Sports Allegiance and a Helping Psychology Experiment

Let’s go back to the scenario from before: you’re skipping along on your way to lunch and some poor guy spills his groceries after tripping on a crack in the pavement. We’ll add a few more details to this scene: (1) you’re a Chicago Bears fan and (2) the guy who tripped in wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey. Do you still think you’d help?

On the one hand, the two of you are involved in a fierce symbolic rivalry. I’ve seen t-shirts that say “Friends don’t let friends be Bears fans,” and I’ve seen t-shirts that say “Friends don’t let friends be Packers fans.” So it’s clear that there’s a strong perceived dissimilarity, so maybe you don’t rush to help out.

On the other hand, you both share a common passion for football. A fellow football fanatic in need? You need to help!soccer-449381

Which is it?

Mark Levine and his colleagues wanted to test this question, so they enlisted fans of Manchester United to participate in a helping psychology experiment on soccer[1]The question of whether to use “soccer” or “football” in a context like this will forever plague me. Levine et al. say “football” because their study took place in the UK. I grew up calling it “soccer,” and I already used an American football reference, so let’s just agree that I can call the game “soccer.” fandom. In the first part of the study, each person simply completed a set of questionnaires about his team allegiance and feelings of identification with the team.

Importantly, though, these questionnaires reinforced the participants’ allegiance to Manchester United. It’s as if they get them to proclaim “I am defined by my commitment to this particular soccer club!

The experimenters tell each participant that the second half of the study involves watching a short film on soccer, which will be screened in an adjacent building. They give them directions and send them on their way.

slipping-98713As they make their walk, however, an actor working with the experimenters jogged along nearby, and as misfortune would have it, he slipped and fell, grabbing his ankle and shouting in pain.

Do the Manchester United fans do anything to help this poor guy?

It depends. The experimenters added one extra layer to the situation because sometimes the person in need was wearing a Manchester United shirt, sometimes he was wearing the shirt of a rival soccer club, Liverpool, and sometimes he was wearing a plain, unbranded shirt.

Remember that everyone just completed some surveys talking about what big Manchester United fans they were, so when they see a fellow Manchester United fan in need, 92% do something to help him. Only around 30% do anything to help when it’s a Liverpool fan or when it’s someone in an unbranded shirt.

Can the Liverpool Fan Get Any Respect?

As unfortunate as it is that something as simple as a t-shirt can so dramatically influence helping behavior, it makes some sense. We’ll help someone with whom we share a common bond.

But if we accept that people help similar others, how could we get these Manchester United fans to help out a Liverpool fan? We focus them on the similarity they have to that guy: their passion for soccer.

In a second study, Levine and his colleagues recreated the conditions of the other study, but with one important twist. This time, instead of giving people questionnaires that emphasized their specific team allegiance, they gave them questionnaires emphasizing their overall love of the game. Other than that, everything was the same.

Like in the other study, people were pretty helpful when the person in need was a Manchester United fan (80% did something to help), but they were also pretty helpful when the person in need was a Liverpool fan (70% did something to help). And it’s not that people were just more helpful overall this time around; only 22% did anything to help when the person in need didn’t appear to be a soccer fan.

Similarity is a State of Mind

These results nicely echo what some other research has shown: our notion of a common bond is flexible. With a slight change in perception, someone that once seemed like an outsider becomes a member of your own group. This simple switch in our perception can mean the difference between embracing and neglecting another person.

Feature Image: “Helper – B4” by Hartwig HKD is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The question of whether to use “soccer” or “football” in a context like this will forever plague me. Levine et al. say “football” because their study took place in the UK. I grew up calling it “soccer,” and I already used an American football reference, so let’s just agree that I can call the game “soccer.”

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