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Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 and is perhaps the starting point for the paradoxical issue of altruism and one of its more specific sub-components bystander intervention. According to the biological rules of our evolution, only the fittest of any species survive. The act of helping others contradicts this rule because the stronger are enabling the weaker to survive, thus interrupting the process of natural selection. In a more advanced stage of Darwinism grew the industrialised nations.
Capitalist societies are themselves characterised by their philosophy of individualism which is in direct conflict with the theory of altruism. Regardless of this, ‘real life’ acts of heroism do take place and in their vocation of understanding and predicting human behaviour, psychologists are obliged to account for these acts. Laboratory studies on bystander intervention, the less extreme form of heroism, provide a vital insight into the processes that are involved in these decisions although the extent to which these results can be generalised is still under debate.
Laboratory research has generated theories and these can then be applied to real life situations. The use of the word ‘heroism’ implies an extreme, although if altruism is to be judged on a scale, then it could be argued that heroism is only quantitatively different from, for example, helping an elderly person across the road. Therefore, in examining the extent to which research can explain ‘real life’ heroism, the same premises should apply. However, it may be interesting to note that heroism tends to be accompanied by publicity and this may bring its own source of motivation.
Bystander intervention involves an unrelated individual coming to the aid of another. Darley and Batson (1973) devised the classic study on bystander intervention. They organised three groups of unsuspecting subjects and arranged for all three groups to be expected at the building next door. One group was told that they were early, one group was told that they were just on time, and the third were told that they were late.
Half of all the subjects were informed that they were to film a video on careers whereas the other half were told to make a film on the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the way to the appointment, all the subjects had to pass an ‘injured’ man and their responses to this victim were recorded. Darley and Batson (1973) found that the amount of time available to the subjects was the main factor influencing their decision to stop and help the ‘injured’ man. However, the results of this experiment do not help to explain the realism that acts of heroism do take place, regardless of any time constraints.
More recently, more attention has been focused on the motivations behind bystander intervention and by implication acts of heroism. The theories explaining the motives behind helping others tend to fall into three main categories and these do shed some light on possible explanations for heroism. The first involves pure self-interest and would appeal to those advocating the Darwinist view of behaviour. Individuals raised in a capitalist society will inevitably assess situations according to their potential for profit (Lord; 1997, p. 467). Thus, the extent to which a victim is helped will be dependent on the potential gain of the helper.
Some researchers (e.g. Shotland and Straw; 1976) have seen this self-interest as being divided into possible losses and gains, another capitalist allusion. Darwin would predict that it is perhaps inevitable that individuals’ tendency to aid others is directly related to the perceived personal risk of doing so. A study by Shotland and Straw (1976) showed that students were less likely to help a woman in the process of being attacked if they believed her attacker to be her husband rather than a stranger.
This was attributed to the husband being perceived as a greater threat than a stranger who would be more likely to retreat. Lord (1997) points out that this perceived risk of possible harm may stem from the breaking of implicit codes of conduct. Thus, if the individual misjudges the situation then they may be vulnerable to ridicule or disapproval. Lord cites a study by Straub (1971) where it was found that children were less likely to go to the assistance of another child if they risked a rebuke from an adult in doing so.
Neither of these examples would seem to account for ‘real life’ incidents of heroism. However, if an individual were to receive praise for the action of helping another then this may provide the motivation for doing so. Deutsch and Lamberti (1986) found this to be the case. Their study showed that female students given praise for their co-operation were more likely to help a fellow student than those who perceived themselves to be unappreciated by the experimenter. Acts of heroism tend to bring attention from the media and consequently the general public and this could be conceived of as a type of praise.