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Sep 28, 2022

What Leads People to Help Others? The Power of Us (video)

A look at how people's social identities can lead to cooperation and helping — and how we can overcome the bystander effect.

By Dominic J. Packer, PhD & Jay J. Van Bavel, PhD

This installment of The Power of Us draws upon research as well as a vivid incident from Jay's life to explore how people's social identities can lead to cooperation and helping — and how we can overcome the bystander effect.

When Jay was a PhD student in Toronto, he was leaving the subway station one day when he witnessed a violent man grab a young woman, slam her into a wall, and yell in her face. The station was crowded with rush hour commuters who averted their eyes, perhaps trusting that someone else would intervene.

Dozens of people were walking by and although they could see the whole thing happening, they didn't even slow their pace. It was at this moment that Jay realized that the psychology of the bystander effect might be at play. In crises like this, when people observe that no one else is doing anything, it gives them license to disengage from intervening themselves — and so they just walk on by.

Jay knew he had to break the cycle of bystander apathy and step in. He told the tollbooth person to call security and tried to help the woman. Eventually, Jay and another rider who stepped up to help had to grab her attacker and physically restrain him until the police arrived.

Identities Influence Helping

Shared identities can have adverse effects like prejudice and discrimination, but they can also provide a foundation for helping others.

One team of researchers studied people who have some of the world's most loyal identities — soccer fans. Psychologist Mark Levine and colleagues examined how a sense of shared identity might lead bystanders to intervene. In one experiment, they reminded Manchester United fans about their love for their favorite team.

These fans later encountered a fallen person in pain, leaving them with a simple decision: to help, or not.

It all hinged on the victim's jersey.

If the victim wore Manchester United colors, 92% of fans gave a helping hand. In contrast, an abysmal 30% helped if the victim was sporting the jersey of ManU's arch-rivals, Liverpool. However, if instead of being reminded of their team identity, fans were first reminded of their love of soccer more generally, the results were dramatically different. In this case, they were just as likely to help the Liverpool fan as they were the Manchester United fan. They realized this was someone with whom they shared a passion for soccer and were willing to stop and offer assistance. Our social and moral circles are flexible and provide a foundation for both good and bad behavior. The research on Manchester United fans tells us that we're much more likely to help somebody if we share an identity, so it is critical that we think of ourselves and our moral circles much more broadly.

Collaborating Effectively

Another one of the fundamental things that a shared identity helps us do is work together collaboratively and achieve things we couldn't possibly achieve as individuals. In a project led by Diego Reinero, we brought people into the lab in groups of four. Half of them worked together as a team on a series of problem-solving tasks. The other half completed the same tasks, but as individuals. To make the people in teams really feel like they belonged together as a group, we had them choose a team name and told them that they would be rewarded collectively if they did well. We even had them listen to music together and tap along with it in unison.

On almost every task, the teams outperformed people doing the same tasks as individuals. We also found that teammates experienced neural synchrony — similar patterns of brain activity — as they worked together. Many organizations — including companies, schools, and even families — are structured like the individual condition in our study: with people set up to compete against one another for rewards. But this (and other) research shows that if people come together to work for common rewards, it provides a foundation for cooperation, coordination, and better collective problem-solving.

This research suggests three key lessons when it comes to encourage helping, increasing cooperation, and improving group performance:

  1. Shared identities provide the basis for a huge amount of good in the world, especially in moments of crisis.
  2. Who we want to help is often influenced by who we perceive ourselves as sharing identities with — and for that reason, we should try to cast our moral circles as broadly as possible.
  3. At work and in organizations of all kinds, we should be paying more attention to collective identities and collective rewards, in addition to individual ones.

With support from Templeton World Charity Foundation, psychologists Dominic Packer from Lehigh University and Jay Van Bavel from New York University have produced a multi-part video series, diving into key concepts from their book The Power of Us. The goal of the project and the book is to help people harness their shared identities to improve performance, increase cooperation, and promote social harmony.