People more likely to help others they think are ‘like them’

Feelings of empathy lead to actions of helping – but only between members of the same group – according to a recent study in the July issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, an official publication of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, published by SAGE Publications.

The research, led by Stefan Stürmer of the University of Kiel, is presented in the article “Empathy-Motivated Helping: The Moderating Role of Group Membership.” The article discusses two different studies, one using a real-world, intercultural scenario and the other using a mixture of people with no obvious differences besides gender. Researchers concluded that, while all the people felt empathy for someone in distress, they only tended to assist if the needy person was viewed as a member of their own “in-group.”

The first study, using a real-world intercultural scenario, split German and Muslim male participants into culturally-defined groups. When everyone learned that another participant was having difficulty finding housing, they all felt empathy for the other regardless of what group they were in. However, when asked about their intentions to help the participant, empathy had a stronger impact when the other was categorized as a member of their in-group.

To further substantiate the findings from the first study, the second study created “minimal” in-groups and out-groups using a mixture of male and female participants without obvious cultural differences. As in the first study, when participants learned that another participant needed financial help due to the loss of money and a credit card, they all felt empathy, but actual assistance was provided only when the distressed person was a member of their in-group.


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3 thoughts on “People more likely to help others they think are ‘like them’”

  1. I agree it is not surprising, but disagree about the shared genes/ family extension idea.

    Many many studies have been done about in-group and out-group identification – notably in Japan where socialisation is horizontal not vertical – i.e. your peers are more important than your elders. Primary teachers do not interfere/ interject / ‘save’ a distressed child – they are taught young that they must rely on themselves and their peers; the concept that someone will ‘rescue or save or solve’ your problems is not there. Western educators could take note of this fascinating reversal.

    As to using Muslims, that is just one example of an in-group. In any non-western city there will be a hotel or bar where “foreigners” hang out together. They could have used Jews but would have been branded anti-semitic, despite the same conclusions. Gays and lesbians will go to a restaurant that has a rainbow sticker over one that doesn’t – there is no genetic or geographic denominator there either.

    I also think that the conclusion that altruism or empathy is ONLY given to in-group participants is a short sighted and negative conclusion. Mother Theresa must be spinning in her grave.

  2. I think using Muslims in this experiment creates a huge amount of errors, as Muslims have historically put support of others Muslims high above any other ethnic/racial group. It would have made more sense to get a group of Germans from one city and a group of Germans from another city and to see if they would support each other based solely on the city they lived and not on any genetic/cultural relationship.

  3. Isn’t this just an extension of helping with your extended family due to some shared genes/memes and not only your own offspring?

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