In a pandemic, why do people seek to help others?

Gloved fistbump, photo by Branimir Balogović/UnsplashHeartwarming examples of people across the country stepping up to help others in the face of a deadly disease raise the question of why people share resources and risk their own health and safety to help strangers. Craig Parks, professor of social psychology and WSU vice provost, provided insights about such “prosocial” behavior in a recent article by Galadriel Watson in The Washington Post.

“‘Prosocial’ means that when you have a choice between acting in your personal best interests or acting in the best interest of the collective, that you opt for the latter,” Parks said.

People must sometimes look out for themselves but have evolved to be concerned with others as well, he said. “Humans are naturally prosocial. They had to be in order to survive.”

Craig Parks.
Craig Parks

For prehistoric people, hunting in groups mitigated some of the risks involved in hunting alone, Parks said. “[Y]ou’re not going to get nearly as much meat as if you hunted by yourself, but you’ve got a much greater chance of success and a much greater chance of living to see another day.”

Human society also mandates some prosocial behaviors, he said. “In most cultures, there is a norm that if you see somebody who is truly struggling, clearly worse off than you, then you should try to help if you’re at all able.”

Three kinds of people give
In regard to giving, people generally land in one of three categories, Parks said.

  • Those who are already actively prosocial; they are likely to remain so during this crisis.
  • Those who focus more on themselves, caring little about others; they are likely to act in a prosocial way, slowing the spread of the virus by protecting themselves.
  • Those who are competitive; they care about how they measure up to others and will strive to come out on top.

However, in some situations, Parks said, “even a really competitive person will set aside their competitive urge because they know if they behave competitively, they will really be opening themselves up for a lot of social scorn.”

He noted professional sports teams that have canceled their seasons. “This not the time to be emphasizing winners and losers. This is the time for all of us to pull together.”

Survival is just one of the reasons people give, Parks said. Being prosocial can help alleviate anxiety, tension, and fear or boost feelings of pride in oneself or one’s community. “It might lead you to see yourself as a somewhat better person than perhaps you did.”

Read the full article in The Washington Post (subscription may be required).