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Researchers used a fake bicycling accident to test how empathy affects altruistic behavior

For the experiment, a researcher sat on the ground next to a fallen bicycle near a public footpath.

If you walked by an injured-looking man sitting on the ground next to a fallen bicycle, would you stop to offer your help? Or would you keep on walking?

The answer greatly depends on how empathetic you are in general, according to a small but intriguing new British study by neuropsychologists at the University of Cambridge.

And, yes, this may seem like a “duh!” finding. But as background information in the study points out, psychologists have long debated what motivates people to help others.

There are two basic schools of thought, explain the Cambridge researchers. One theory is that we help others because of our belief in social rules (like the “golden rule”), which tell us when, where or who to help. We may have come to accept these rules through our own logic (“when I help people I’m helping to create a better society”) or, more likely, through our participation in various cultural, civic and religious institutions.

The other theory asserts that the degree to which we are willing to help others is determined by our individual level of empathy.

To test the empathy theory, the Cambridge researchers decided to conduct an “in the wild” (real-world) social psychology experiment. Specifically, they wanted to see if the number of empathic traits an individual has is a good predictor of altruistic behavior.

Most studies on empathy, the researchers point out, have been conducted in laboratory settings.

Setting the scene

For the experiment, a researcher sat on the ground next to a fallen bicycle near a public footpath. He grimaced and rubbed his ankle, pretending to be injured. Another researcher, located nearby, surreptitiously counted the number of passersby who stopped to help him.

Meanwhile, a third researcher was stationed at a concealed location some distance away. She stopped every person who had walked past the “accident,” whether they had helped the cyclist or not, and told them (as a cover story) that she was conducting a “memory” experiment. She then asked them to describe what they had seen along their walk during the past few minutes. She also asked them for their e-mail address, so she could send them two additional questionnaires to complete on their own time.

The questionnaires tested empathy levels and autistic-like traits. The autistic questionnaire was included because some research has suggested that people with autism are less likely to make altruistic choices, not necessarily because they are less motivated to help, but because their autistic traits may interfere with their self-confidence in such situations.

Study findings

A total of 1,067 eligible people walked by the fake crash scene. (To be considered eligible, people had to be walking alone and have no visible physical impairments that might affect their ability to help.) Of those eligible passersby, 55 were successfully recruited to take part in the study, and 37 (19 men, 18 women) completed both follow-up questionnaires. Their ages ranged from 18 to 77 years.

Only 5.6 percent of the passersby (60 of 1,067) stopped to help the cyclist — a rather discouraging finding. But, interestingly, 29 percent of the people who filled out the questionnaires (10 of 37 people) helped.

This finding suggests that people who are willing to help a stranger on the street are also more likely to take in an online survey when asked to do so by a stranger, say the Cambridge researchers.

“It is likely that the reason people did not take part in the questionnaires overlaps with their reason for not helping,” the researchers add. “The main reason for both seemed to be that people were simply in a rush to get somewhere, which has been shown [in other studies] to reduce helping behavior.”

But that factor — being in a hurry — does not explain the key finding of the new study: the strong relationship between people’s empathic traits and their helping behavior.

The passersby who stopped to help the cyclist scored much higher on the empathy questionnaire (average score: 56/80) than the non-helpers (average score: 20/80).

No correlation was found, however, between the number of autistic traits a person recorded and whether they stopped to help. This result supports the idea that empathy is a more important factor than autistic traits in altruistic behavior.

(Interestingly, only one person in the study scored in a range that is consistent with a formal diagnosis of autism — a diagnosis that was later confirmed with the participant — and he was one of the few individuals who stopped to help the cyclist.)

A small sample

The number of people involved in this study was small, so the findings should be viewed only as a “first step towards understanding why some people may or may not stop to help a person in distress,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, the study’s senior author and director of the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, in a statement released with the study

Still, the results support the idea that empathy is at least one route to altruistic behavior, he and his co-authors conclude in their paper.

“The implication of the present study,” they write, “is that within any institution (even perhaps extreme inhumane institutions such as those under the Nazi regime), there will be individual differences in how people within the institution respond, and that some of this variation in helping behavior is accounted for by where on the empathy dimension the individual is situated.”

For more information: The study was published online in the journal Social Neuroscience, where it can be read in full.

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