Helping Others Can Be Too Much Effort

Researchers have developed an equation to explain how motivated people are to help others.


Lots of our social interactions require us to put in an effort. For example, helping a friend out with his/her work. But in the case of strangers, we don’t know how much effort people will put in when helping others.

To better understand why some people are less motivated to help others, scientists at the Oxford University conducted a study. In the study, they analyzed a trait characteristic of apathetic or psychopathic individuals.

First author, Dr. Patricia Lockwood of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology said, “We can measure people’s willingness to do this using our new task and see how it relates to how apathetic or psychopathic people are.”

During the study, scientists asked people to make lots of decisions between ‘working’ and ‘resting’. If they decide to rest, they would only earn a small amount of money and if they decide to work, they could earn more money. While doing this, they would have to put in more effort by squeezing a handheld device to different levels of difficulty.

Scientists found that sometimes participants made the decisions to earn money for themselves. At other times, they did it with the aim of helping others.

Scientists then measured how often people were willing to work, for themselves or for others. They also observed how much energy they put in. If little effort required, people were almost as willing to choose to work to benefit themselves and others.

When the action required a lot of effort, the participants were less likely to choose to do it. Most strikingly, even if they did chose to help the other person, they were rather superficial. They put in less energy to help someone else than themselves.

Senior author, Dr. Matthew Apps from the Department of Experimental Psychology said, “We often like to think of ourselves as sociable and willing to help other people out, but previous research has been very mixed on this issue.”

“People are very prosocial when it comes to avoiding physical harm to others, but less so when it comes to giving up money. What we show is that when it comes to putting to help other people, unfortunately, many of us are rather apathetic. More optimistically, our approach provides new ways of looking at disorders of motivation in clinical conditions, which will help us understand more about the roots of antisocial behaviors.”


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