Why People are Afraid to help others

This is a very personal issue, and in addressing it, each individual must look into their own psyche to find an answer. I am not afraid to go forward and offer help to someone, anyone in need. I know many others who feel the same, who go the extra mile to help a fellow human in distress. Although it is part of the remit of our job roles,as customer service officers, the variety of people with a multitude of needs, takes us beyond just directing them to the right place or providing the correct information. At the risk of departing from the topic question, I must state that we have fed babies, provided warm drinks and sympathetic ears, played with distressed toddlers, comforted the bereaved and fought for the rights of customers over-charged on utility bills – to name but a few helpful actions. I would do as much outside of work, as would many of my colleagues, but I understand that some would not and neither judge nor condemn them. As stated earlier, this is a very personal matter. Before addressing the potential ‘whys’ of not helping, I would like to offer reasons as to why we cannot do other than help. This impulse is more than psychological, it is an integral part of human nature.

For me, and indeed for more educated experts, specialists in the fields of human behavior and development, biologists, sociologists etc., the issue of helping others comes down to an inbuilt altruistic tendency that some contend is genetic.. In an article in the Scientific American, ‘The Samaritan Paradox’, arguments for why we DO help others are put forward in easily understandable language, by Fehr and Renninger. This is worth reading, as it reaches the conclusion I have long held to be the truth; it is natural for human beings to have empathy and compassion for others, and often to act on these feelings. It is as though we are programmed to do so. If this is the case, then why do we not do it, what are we afraid of?

To answer this, I think we need to look at our life experiences. I grew up in a very economically deprived area, living in a minority ghetto. We had very little material wealth, but what we had in terms of time, friendship and community support, we gave and received. This became an imprinted ethical principle for me and those I grew up with. Helping and never harming others was a part of our moral development, something experts have found to be true. So how on earth did fear enter the equation?

I believe that sociological, economic and psychological changes have impacted on behavioral norms. To break these down into the reality of modern life, it is necessary to consider those impacts. For example, society has changed greatly over the past 50 or so years. No longer do we have the extended family model, where help and support to kin was the accepted way to live. This would extend itself to the wider community, so in essence, everybody looked out for everybody else. But the model has altered, as economic pressures have made it the norm for families to fragment, as educated off-spring move away to better opportunities, and while family relationships and love still pertain, the interest in those left behind diminishes. The newer generation seek their fortune, and “out of sight, out of mind”, rather than “distance lends enchantment” becomes a tenet, so helping goes down the ladder of priorities. Within this set of circumstances, comes one of the most fear-inducing aspects of helping others; being afraid of interfering.

To illustrate, consider elderly parents who may be struggling to cope with disability, but children living far away fear to hurt their elders pride by offering practical or economic support. Those elderly parents will no doubt be proud, and so perceive such offers as interference or possibly, suggestions of incompetence. Another example, if you think of how sometimes a child will say “Let me do it, I can do it” and this is no different with adult children. Many feel a failure if they need financial and emotional support, so parents may hold back, fearing to be thought patronizing or interfering. Thus help is denied.

In the wider world, the individual who would offer help outside the family group may fear injury, rejection, or even derision. If one person sees another, fallen in the gutter, the natural, altruistic impulse is to go to their aie – morally that would be the right response. If however, the fallen person is deranged, drunk or drugged, the potential for personal physical injury or ridicule exists and may act as a deterrent.

So the individual weighs up the cost to themselves and may do nothing. Despite altruistic impulse or unselfish genes, personal and judgmental values may become part of the equation, whereby a decision is taken on the grounds that the person in need probably brought it on themselves. As a young teenager, I once saw a woman slumped on the ground near the city bus station. She was deathly white, weak and unable to raise her head. It was the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon, a lot of people walked by. By her dress and make-up, it was obvious this woman was a prostitute, and this allowed older and more judgmental citizens to ignore her plight. My friend and I helped her into the bus station, got her a hot drink and a seat and made one of the staff call an ambulance. She was not drunk, she was sick.

Which brings me to the fear of going against the crowd, of stepping outside society’s mores and risking derision. It takes a great deal of moral strength to ignore what older, and presumably wiser, members of society dictate. Yet we depend on them for a lead on what is the right thing to do. If that is so, and they do nothing, we can feel ok to walk away, ignoring the impulse to help. Let’s face it, when pillars of society, in whatever garb, make that decision, then we can feel comforted that we too have made the right personal choice. When a government says it cannot intervene in a humanitarian disaster in some far off place, they give sound reasons, so we may follow their lead. That many do not is obvious from the huge numbers of volunteers, the hard working aid agencies and the donations that pour in, despite the line taken by respective governments or leaders.

Those who do this can be perceived as the ‘somebody else’ who does the good turn and helps on our behalf. As we stand back and work out how much it might cost us to help others, be it in terms of time, money, personal risk, we can abdicate from the responsibility to act; somebody else has done so. Whew! Elements of risk make us afraid, whether personal, physical, psychological or economic. Without a doubt, these fears are based on our personal reality. Background, beliefs, upbringing, socio-economic status, education, are but a few of the factors that help to make us afraid.

It is difficult to separate the concept of helping others from ethical and moral principles. It is easy to understand why some may ignore their basic human empathy that drives them toward helping. When I read Bronowski’s essay, ‘A Moral for an Age of Plenty’, where one man sacrificed himself to save his colleagues, pulling apart plutonium with his bare hands and so exposing himself to fatal radiation poisoning, I saw bravery and the highest form of altruism in action.

Being afraid is normal, but so too is the desire to help. I contend that when we face the fears and give into them, then we deny our integrity, morality and genetic predispositions. In fact, the Association of American Colleges and Universities seeks to promote these ideals of “personal and social responsibility”. These concepts are put forward to young people starting their academic career and to me they are saying “Be brave, do the right thing by others, in the name of common humanity, and make the world a better place.” Yes the fears are real and personal, they are understandable, but I hope by understanding the ‘why’ of it we are able to overcome these and give in to our inbuilt desire to help. Not easy all the time, but we can do this thing.

Bronowski, J. (1978) ‘A Moral for an Age of Plenty’ in A Sense of the Future: Essays in Natural Philosophy” Cambridge MIT Press

Fehr, E. and Renninger, S-V. (2004) ‘The Samaritan Paradox’ in Scientific American. Available
from http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=000F1C-1711-1196-90698341

Hersh, R. and Geary Schneider, C. (2005) ‘Fostering Personal and Social Responsibility on College and University Campuses. From Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Available from http://www.aacu.org/liveraleducation/le-sufa05/le-sufa05feature1.cfm