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Helpful Behavior

Eliot Aronson observed that "The American mind...has been trained to equate success with victory, to equate doing well with beating someone." Yet, as Kohn (1986) pointed out, "study after study shows that nothing succeeds like cooperation."

People do better at a task when they cooperate with others instead of compet­ing against them. Stanne, Johnson, & Johnson (1999) did a meta-analysis of 64 studies comparing the impact of competition and cooperation. They found that cooperation resulted in higher levels of performance as well as better feelings of social support and self-esteem.

What does Axelrod say about cooperation in a "world of self-interested individuals"?

Robert Axelrod noted in The Evolution of Cooperation (1984) that the old "dog eat dog" picture of evolutionary compet­ition is a fallacy. "Cooperation can flour­ish in a world of self-interested individ­uals" because cooperation creates win-win situations in which everybody benefits.

Axelrod compared human coop­eration to distributed processing in computers, where many computer chips divide up the work to get things done faster. "Models of cooperation need not be based on self-interest and 'reciprocity of reward and punishment,'" he points out, "but rather on integration and mutual dependence" (Axelrod, 1992).

In other words, cooperation is not just a matter of "I stroke your back, you stroke mine." Cooperation allows projects bigger and better than would otherwise be possible.

Modeling Helpful Behavior

Like aggression, cooperative or helpful behavior can be stimulated by modeling and imitation. Classic research was done by Bryan and Test (1967). They arranged to have a female confederate of the experimenter stand next to a 1964 Ford Mustang with a flat left-rear tire, on a busy Los Angeles freeway.

In the "no modeling" condition, the lady simply stood by the car and looked at the flat tire. In the "modeling" condition, a 1965 Oldsmobile was planted a quarter mile before the Mustang. A man pretended to change the tire on the Oldsmobile while a woman watched him.

The point of the research was to see if the sight of the man helping the woman with the Oldsmobile would influence people. Would they be more likely to stop and help the woman with the Mustang that had a flat tire?

That is exactly what happened. With the model car absent, 35 vehicles stopped. When the model was present, 58 stopped.

How did Bryan and Test show the effect of modeling on helpful behavior?

Next Bryan and Test studied contributions to a Salvation Army kettle. Typically the kettle is positioned in front of a store with a volunteer who rings a bell to attract attention.

In this experiment, two female confederates of the experimenter–one black, one white–took turns ringing the bell by the kettle for 25 minutes at a time. They did not ask people for contributions; they merely rang the bell and thanked people who placed money into the kettle.

The experimental manipulation was the presence or absence of a confederate who approached the kettle once a minute and tossed a coin into it. Because people were walking by quickly, they would see the man only once.

However, there was a big effect from this modeling behavior. When people saw the man make a contribution to the kettle, they were more likely to make a donation themselves. An average of 60 donations came in from other people in a 25-minute period when the man was present.

When the man was absent, there was an average of 43 donations. The race of the bell-ringer proved not to make a difference in this experiment.

How did Bryan and Test explore their idea using a Salvation Army kettle?

The Bryan and Test research suggested that observational learning and modeling, the same processing of social learning that frightened people about TV and violence, might stimulate helpful behavior. Random acts of kindness might rub off on other people. Kindly behavior is imitated. If this occurs on a large scale, everybody can benefit.


In the world of social media, crowdsourcing is a relatively new phenomenon with a potential to do a lot of good. Crowdsourcing occurs when a worthy project is described on an internet site (Kickstarter was one of the earliest successful examples) and people can invest in a project if they think it sounds worthy.

What is crowdsourcing and what does it enable?

This requires trust and goodwill, but apparently those traits exist in abundance on the internet (along with less desirable traits). People in dire need can be flooded with money after donations and solicited online. This has, of course, led to stories of fraud (fake cancer claims, for example) along with heartwarming stories of sudden help for people in need.

Another ramification of crowd-sourcing is that it gives a way for entrepreneurs to get started, even if their projects are too small or strange to attract attention from large-scale venture capitalists. Kickstarter allows projects such as research surveys to be funded by an army of sympathetic strangers.

One of my colleagues went this route. He wanted to study a controversial topic (ordination of women in the Mormon church).

This might be too risky or controversial for normal grant funding. However, enough people were curious about the topic, and wanted objective survey data about it, that a Kickstart campaign quickly resulted in enough funds to do the project.

Crowdsourcing has also been used for microloans, allowing people to start small businesses with loans that are repayed at modest interest rates. Without social media, this would not be possible. The future ramifications are great, as this frees individuals from con­straints imposed by financial institutions.

In a sense, every social impact of the internet is a "media effect," and it is now more pervasive and important than ever. EBay, Craigslist, Amazon, AirBnB, Uber and Lyft, online reviews of products and restaurants and hotels and contractors... Each new service delivered by the internet is imitated as newcomers try to outdo or undersell the established, successful companies.

These effects will not be studied only by psychologists. They are too pervasive and important. They will be studied by everybody interested in forces influencing politics, economics, and cultural change.


Axelrod, R. (1984) The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Axelrod, R. (1992) The problem of cooperation. In T. Cowen (Ed.) Public Goods and Market Failures: A Critical Examination. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Bryan. J. H. & Test, M. A. (1967) Models and helping: Naturalistic studies in aiding behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 400-407.

Kohn, A. (1986, September). How to Succeed Without Even Vying. Psychology Today, 20. Pp. 22-28.

Levine, M., & Crowther, S. (2008). The responsive bystander: How social group membership and group size can encourage as well as inhibit bystander intervention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1429-1439.

Stanne, M. B., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999) Does competition enhance or inhibit motor performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 133-154.

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