Nur­ture that need to help oth­ers

The Daily Telegraph - - Health & Features - Linda Blair

Dur­ing a re­cent memo­rial ser­vice to re­mem­ber Jo Cox’s life, the MP was called a 21st-cen­tury Good Sa­mar­i­tan. But when some­one needs help, why do some of us reach out straight away, while oth­ers look the other way? As with so many psy­cho­log­i­cal qual­i­ties, gen­eros­ity is a com­plex mix­ture of in­born ten­den­cies, learnt be­hav­iour and the unique bio­chem­i­cal make-up of each in­di­vid­ual.

The urge to help one an­other is in­nate. Hu­man be­ings spend rel­a­tively more time than any other crea­ture in need of care and pro­tec­tion, and be­cause of this, the de­sire to help oth­ers is present in all of us. How­ever, the de­gree to which we ex­hibit this ten­dency and to whom we reach out de­pends on our own bio­chem­i­cal make-up and what we’ve learnt. A crit­i­cally im­por­tant in­flu­ence is the be­hav­iour of our main car­ers when we’re grow­ing up.

The ex­tent to which we ex­hibit gen­eros­ity may also de­pend on en­vi­ron­men­tal cir­cum­stances.

To test this hy­poth­e­sis, Lubomir Lamy and his col­leagues in Paris con­ducted three ex­per­i­ments to ex­am­ine the help­ing be­hav­iour of strangers. They re­peated each ex­per­i­ment in sev­eral dif­fer­ent streets in cen­tral Paris, in­clud­ing “lux­ury” streets such as the Champs- Elysées and the Place Vendôme, as well as streets in the same area with ei­ther more or­di­nary shops or no shops at all.

The re­searchers re­cruited two stu­dents and set up two false sit­u­a­tions. In the first, one of the stu­dents walked down the street wear­ing a leg brace and us­ing a crutch. When­ever a stranger ap­proached, the stu­dent would “ac­ci­den­tally” drop their be­long­ings. In the sec­ond sit­u­a­tion, one stu­dent pushed an­other in a wheel­chair, and when a stranger ap­proached, the helper would ex­plain that they’d lost their phone. They would then ask if the stranger would stay with the stu­dent in the wheel­chair while they looked for it.

The re­sults? If they were on an “or­di­nary” street, over 75 per cent of passers-by of­fered to help. If, how­ever, they were on “lux­ury” streets, only 35 per cent of passers-by of­fered as­sis­tance.

Of course, we can’t know from this study alone what ac­counted for this dif­fer­ence – that is, whether in­di­vid­u­als who shop on up­mar­ket streets are less help­ful peo­ple than those who shop else­where, or whether be­ing ex­posed to wealth tem­po­rar­ily changes our be­hav­iour. The most likely con­clu­sion is that the pres­ence of lux­ury tempts us to set aside the needs of oth­ers and fo­cus on our own de­sires.

Per­haps that’s why Jo Cox is such an in­spi­ra­tion. A woman with her in­tel­li­gence and prom­ise could have cho­sen to pri­ori­tise ma­te­rial riches for her­self. In­stead, she re­mained stead­fastly ded­i­cated to help­ing those less for­tu­nate than her­self. When her friends speak of her ir­re­press­ible joy and en­thu­si­asm for life, it’s clear that Jo’s val­ues bring re­wards greater than any ma­te­rial gain.

Linda Blair is a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist. To or­der her book, The Key to Calm (Hod­der & Stoughton), for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph.co.uk

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