helping others study altruism photographs

Prosocial behavior stands for everything we do for others without expecting anything in return, like helping our neighbors with groceries or someone cross the street. As with practically anything, though, people have different opinions on why we act this way.

Here’s what the sociobiologists are saying

  • All children are born with empathetic “powers” that allow them to bond emotionally with others¹.
  • This is a genetic response we use to support our genes.
  • Wilson et al have documented prosocial behavior in animals too², so that’s cool.

It would make sense to think we take these actions because of empathy, our core values, and a sense of responsibility towards others we share the planet with (hi guys).

However, sometimes, engaging in prosocial behavior can be financially costly, time-consuming, emotionally draining, you get the point.

According to social exchange theory, people help only when rewards (recognition, fame, etc.) surpass costs, so there’s no such thing as true altruism. Boo.

I asked 80 people to find out if that’s true

Do we only help if something we want isn’t at stake? Are you hooked by now? I know I was at the time, so I asked 80 people, ages from 20 to 40, both genders*were equally represented, what they would do in the following situation. The verbs in bold are the interchanging factors.

Today is a very important day for you. you’re interviewing for your dream job. You just hopped in your car, when a close friend comes and asks for your help. You need to take them to the ER, now! If you take them, you can/can’t get to the interview on time. You ask them if they can return the favor in the future, they say they can/can’t. From 1 to 7, to what extent would you help your friend?

Frequently Asked Questions

  • No, you can’t call to reschedule.
  • Yes, you lose the job if you don’t show up.
  • No, you can’t call them a cab, will you stop it with the hypothetical questions already?

Participants had to pick a number from 1 to 7, 1 meaning “I wouldn’t help them at all.” and 7 meaning “I would so help them.” They were encouraged to include a reason for their choice.

For the record, I know we don’t go around interrogating people who just asked us to drive them to the hospital whether they would return the favor. Anything for science and an objectively better study, am I right?!


high reward, low cost

If we can get to the interview, help our friend and get the hypothetical reward from our friend, everyone said they would help the most.

low cost, no reward

Second case scenario, 20 people said they’d greatly help, averaging a 6.4 out of 7. Some said they’d help regardless of rewards, others bluntly said they wouldn’t help because of the lack of it.

Some said they’d help because friendship is more important than a job, others because a loyal friend can get you a good job. Not very selfless now, are we?

high cost, high reward

What about when our friend promises to return the favor, but we can’t make it to the interview? 5.6 out of 7.

Someone said they’d only help if their friend was seriously sick, if not, they wouldn’t risk their dream job.

Others said they believe everything happens for a reason, so if they miss the interview, something better is in store for them.

I agreed with that statement and the following one someone else said.

If their friend was in poor health, they were able to help and the company wouldn’t give a shit about that, that’s a company they wouldn’t want to work at.

Another take was that they would take their friend to the ER and miss the interview “no doubt,” but they’d call the company to let them know why so they’d make a good impression. Hey, whatever floats your boat.

high cost, low reward

The part we’ve all been waiting for!

How willing would we be to help if we didn’t make it to the interview, lost our dream job, and our friend was like: “I really can’t return the favor, sorry bro”?

6.5 out of 7!

We’d rather help another person than get that reward or job, dream job to be exact.

Now, that’s good news. People are good, after all. Isn’t that realization exciting?

Go out there and make someone’s day, not for any other reason other than YOU CAN.

Thanks for reading.


Two people could give the same explanation, yet choose different numbers on the scale. Everyone likes to think of themself as a good person, so they answer as such, despite their reasoning indicating otherwise. I’m not saying those who wouldn’t help are bad. No way, I was just stating the facts. Plus, I dislike labeling people as good or bad. Actions on the other hand…

*At the time, no one identified as gender fluid/agender/genderqueer where the study was conducted, even though they’d be answering anonymously. I probably should’ve included it as an option anyway. In other news, did you know asking students to confirm their gender before a test leads to lower scores for girls?

¹ Sagi & Hoffman, 1994
² Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: Variation and correlations at a city-wide scale. Evolution and human behavior, 30(3), 190-200.

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