Helpful Behavior

Eliot Aronson observed that "The American mind...has been trained to equate success with victory, to equate doing well with beating someone." Yet, as Kohn (1986) pointed out, "study after study shows that nothing succeeds like cooperation." People do better at a task when they cooperate with others instead of competing against them. Stanne, Johnson, & Johnson (1999) did a meta-analysis of 64 studies comparing the impact of competition and cooperation. They found that cooperation resulted in higher levels of performance as well as better feelings of social support and self-esteem.

What does Axelrod say about cooperation in a "world of self-interested individuals"?

Robert Axelrod notes in The Evolution of Cooperation (1984) that the old "dog eat dog" picture of evolutionary competition is a fallacy. "Cooperation can flourish in a world of self-interested individuals" because it creates win-win situations in which everybody benefits.

Axelrod compares human cooperation to distributed processing in computers, in which a variety of computer chips divide up the work to get things done faster. "Models of cooperation need not be based on self-interest and 'reciprocity of reward and punishment,'" he points out, "but rather on integration and mutual dependence" (Axelrod, 1992). In other words, cooperation is not just a matter of "I stroke your back, you stroke mine." Cooperation allows projects bigger and better than would otherwise be possible.

How did Bryan and Test show the effect of modeling on helpful behavior?

Like aggression, cooperative or helpful behavior can be stimulated by modeling and imitation. Classic research was done by Bryan and Test (1967). They arranged to have a female confederate of the experimenter stand next to a 1964 Ford Mustang with a flat left-rear tire, on a busy Los Angeles freeway. In the "no modeling" condition, the lady simply stood by the car and looked at the flat tire. In the "modeling" condition, a 1965 Oldsmobile was planted a quarter mile before the Mustang. A man pretended to change the tire on the Oldsmobile while a woman watched him.

The point of the research was to see if the sight of the man helping the woman with the Oldsmobile would influence people. Would they be more likely to stop and help the woman with the Mustang that had a flat tire? That is exactly what happened. With the model car absent, 35 vehicles stopped. When the model was present, 58 stopped.

How did Bryan and Test explore their idea using a Salvation Army kettle?

Next Bryan and Test studied contributions to a Salvation Army kettle. Typically the kettle is positioned in front of a store with a volunteer who rings a bell to attract attention. In this experiment, two female confederates of the experimenter—one black, one white—took turns ringing the bell by the kettle for 25 minutes at a time. They did not ask people for contributions; they merely rang the bell and thanked people who placed money into the kettle.

The experimental manipulation was the presence or absence of a confederate who approached the kettle once a minute and tossed a coin into it. Because people were walking by quickly, they would see the man only once. However, there was a big effect from this modeling behavior. When people saw the man make a contribution to the kettle, they were more likely to make a donation themselves. An average of 60 donations came in from other people in a 25-minute period when the man was present. When the man was absent, there was an average of 43 donations. The race of the bell-ringer proved not to make a difference in this experiment.

What simple principle applies to both aggressive and helpful behavior?

The Bryan and Test research was simple but elegant. It suggested the same principle was operating with helpful behavior as with aggressive behavior. People notice the behavior of a model. If they see helpful behavior by another person, they are more likely to show helpful behavior themselves. Although the principle is simple, the implications are profound. Random acts of kindness might rub off on other people. Kindly behavior is imitated. If this occurs on a large scale, everybody can benefit.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey