We Have a Bias Toward Helping Others

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Most apocalypse stories we love are set in a world where it's everyone for themselves. Society has crumbled, the rules have broken down, and no one has any reason to waste a minute on a stranger. Both research and the coronavirus pandemic have disproven the notion that we're all just a few bad weeks away from Mad Max or The Walking Dead. If you've been worrying about fending for yourself, take a deep breath, drink some water, and read on.

Sociologists at Ohio State University have been working on a theory of kindness, trying to figure out what really motivates us to help each other and when. It turns out there are four general drivers of prosocial behavior, the things we do at a cost to ourselves but a benefit to society at large. (One prime example is wearing facial coverings during the COVID-19 outbreak.)

  1. The recipient of a kindness is inclined to do something nice for the giver in return.
  2. A person is motivated to do something nice to someone that she saw be generous to a third person.
  3. A person is likely to do good in the presence of people in their network who might reward their generosity.
  4. A person is likely to "pay it forward" to someone else if someone has done something nice for her.

Research shows that these motivations don't just happen on their own; they interact and positively reinforce each other. But even in isolation, people are still moved to step up and do right by each other. The apocalypse is always a story about what we think we'd do in the most extreme circumstances. It turns out in real life, it's basically what we'd do anyway: lend a hand.