What does our behaviour tell us?

American psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out many studies overtime in which findings reveal the true nature of individuals within society. So, what are we really like?

Lets begin with experiments which reveal how honest and helpful members of society can be. In 1965 Milgram et al carried out a study which consisted of placing stamped, addressed letters around in a street in order to see who would be kind enough to post them. There were two categories of letters; some addressed to ‘Associates of Medical Research’ and others addressed to ‘Friends of the Communist/Nazi Party’. In total only 95% of the letters were passed on- 70% for the medical associates and 25% for the political party. Not only does this measure the helpfulness of society, but also it measures their opinions. Due to 95% of the letters being sent by random members of the public, this indicates that individuals can be very helpful yet, with only 25% of those letters being passed of to the Natzi party, this would suggest that certain individuals hold a strong negative opinion of that particular party.

Furthermore, in order to understand how helpful members of society can be, Milgram introduced the lost child experiment. Would we ever fail to help a lost child? With the aid of some 6-10 year old children, Milgram conducted his next study. The children were sent off onto the streets in America accompanied by an observer should their safety be at risk, and were asked to stop the first person to walk by for help, explaining that they were lost and needed to call home. Within cities, individuals were surprisingly very unhelpful, a total of 46% offered to help the child. Other members of society ignored the child or swerved around in order to avoid them. Even more shockingly, one individual explained to the child that their mother was waiting for them in some random restaurant nearby, just so that they did not have to deal with the lost child. On the other hand, within towns, individuals were much more helpful and showed sympathy to the lost child- a total of 72% of the public offered their help.

These results suggest that the behaviour of those living in cities is very negative and unhelpful, this shows as they could not take time out of their busy lives to help a lost child. If anything, I would have believed that members of the public would be more helpful to a lost child within a city due to the fact that busy cities would be very scary and intimidating to a small child and they would have less of a chance of finding their parents on their own compared to a smaller town.

What do you think about it? Do you think these studies represent the true nature of individuals within society?


About Nathalie Lauren Joyce

19. First year @ Bangor University. Psychology Blogger.

4 responses to “What does our behaviour tell us?

  1. Helpfulness is a very difficult thing to measure due to the number of variables which could play a part, as the previous comments have said the number of people about and the particular circumstances would play a part, for example in the case of the letter addressed to the party, we do not know the political and religious sensibilities of these people and this may well have played a part as much as the as the helpfulness of the person who found the letter.

    All of the studies mentioned so far were conducted in westernized countries and alongside individual differences it is likely that cultural and societal values played a part in the ways in which people reacted, Knafo, Schwartz, & Levine, (2009) found that helpfulness varied in differing countries and this they suggest could be due to the ways in which the society is arranged, cultures that believe family and village are the most important were less likely to help, than those who placed emphasis on the individuals responsibilities.

    One such study conducted in turkey also found that location was a big part in how helpful people were, but contrary to some of the studies this found that cities were less helpful than towns or urban squatters. Interestingly they found that men were more helpful, but suggested this may simply be due to a lack of women who participated in the study than a gender bias.

    One aspect that none of the studies seemed to cover is the notion of a universal returned favour, did they help because they had been helped by a stranger in the past or because they believed that helping someone else would eventually be rewarded, a notion which is common to many religions.

    Korte, C. & Ayvalioglu, N. (1981) Helpfulness in Turkey: Cities, Towns, and Urban Villages Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 12 (2 ) 123-141 DOI: 10.1177/0022022181122001 Retrieved form: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/12/2/123.full.pdf+html
    Knafo, A. Schwartz, S.H. & Levine, R.V. (2009) Helping Strangers Is Lower in Embedded Cultures Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 40: 875 DOI: 10.1177/0022022109339211 Retrieved from: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/40/5/875.full.pdf+html

  2. I would agree that these studies are an accurate representation of society’s attitude towards helping. In the letter sending study for example, it is not suprising that 95% of letters were passed on because:
    1) we are naturally prone to helping if we can
    2) we weigh up the benefit of feeling good about doing good with the effort it takes to do it (and sending a letter is relatively easy)
    3) passing on a misplaced letter requires no human interaction so there are unlikely to be any unwanted consequences (this is conrast to the child helping study where people tend to be more reserved because it could turn back to bite them with accusations etc.)
    4) we may be helpful but we are also selfish and judgemental, i.e. if we criticise a certain group like nazi’s then we won’t help them or we feel ‘too busy’ we will usually put our own needs first and likely forget .

    Latane and Darley (1970) suggest a ‘decision model’ to explain bystander behaviour. They say that people have to go through five stages before they agree to help. First, is something wrong? second, is assistance actually needed? third, should the bystander accept personal responsibility? fourth, what kind of help is appropriate? fifth, should the appropriate help be actually given?if the bystander is unsure or answers no to any of those stages they won’t help.

    Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? Englewood Cliffs, N. J: Prentice-Hall

  3. The lost child study reminds me of when Jamie Bulger was kidnapped in 1993. Although quite a few people stopped Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to see if the distraught and injured child that they were with was ok, no one actually saw it fit to call the police for assistance or to walk the children to the police station. This could be due to them not wanting to get involved as they were unsure of how the parents of the three children would act (when told that it was their little brother), or that they believed Thompson and Venables when they said that they were going to take Jamie to the police station. Most of the time people fail to help others because they are afraid of what will happen not only to the victim but themselves, and sometimes feel that it will be safer to turn a blind eye and forget about it. It is only when they find out about the consequences of what happened to the victim due to no one intervening that they start to feel guilt and remorse and wish that they had done something.

  4. PsychThoughts

    I have not heard of these studies before so it is interesting to have learned something new about public helpfulness. I think that the study does give an image of the dynamics of people living in cities and towns and also the views people may have which will influence their actions. Although I believe both studies were influential and gave us an insight on people’s willingness to help, there are some issues with its reliability. Both studies were naturalistic experiments suggesting that not all variables can be manipulated. Confounding variables could have influenced the passers by to react the way they did. For example, the time of year has been found to influence human kindness and helpfulness. During the summer, people are more likely to help than the winter periods. Another confounding variable to explain the differences in the city and the towns could be the diffusion of responsibility; the term created from the Kitty Genovese murder. Darley &Latane (1968) found that large numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step in and help a victim. In a city, people may leave the responsibility to someone else however in a town, people know that there are not a lot of people to pass the responsibility on to. Also, in cities people tend to adopt an individualistic type of living whereby people are expected to ‘fend for themselves’ whereas in smaller communities, the sense of collectivism is present, where people are more likely to help each other.

    Darley, J.M. & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander Intervention in Emergences: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383. doi:10.1037/h0025589

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