Nurture that need to help others
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