Helping others can be too much effort | University of Oxford

Helping others can be too much effort

1 July 2017

Researchers have developed an equation to explain how motivated people are to help others. Their findings, published in Nature Human Behaviour, could help us to better understand why some people are less motivated to help others – a trait characteristic of apathetic or psychopathic individuals.

First author, Dr. Patricia Lockwood of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, explains: ‘lots of our social interactions require us to put in effort. From holding open a door, to helping a colleague out with their work.’

‘However, what we didn’t know was just how much effort people will put in when helping someone else, who is a complete stranger. What is striking is that 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.’

The scientists asked people to make lots of decisions between ‘working’ and ‘resting’. If they rested they would only earn a small amount of money, and if they worked they could earn more money, but they would have to put in more effort by squeezing a handheld device to different levels of difficulty. Sometimes they had to make these decisions to earn money for themselves. At other times, they did it to earn money for a stranger.

The researchers measured how often people were willing to work – for themselves or for others –and how much energy they put in. They found that if little effort was required, people were almost as willing to choose to work to benefit themselves and others. However, when the action required a lot of effort people were much 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, adds: ‘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 in effort 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 behaviours.’

For further information, please contact Chris McIntyre in the University of Oxford press office at christopher.mcintyre@admin.ox.ac.uk or on+44 (0)1865 270 046.

Notes to editors:

The full paper, ‘Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required,’ can be read in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.