We often urge people to help others. Help the friend who needs a last minute babysitter. Help the family member who needs financial support. Help the tourist who doesn’t know how to get around your city. Help the refugee struggling to make a home in a new country.
Sometimes helping someone can be a simple, momentary task. And sometimes, it can be a lifelong struggle. As a culture, we talk more about whether to help, and less about how to help. Sometimes we help others by quickly, and often temporarily, solving their problems. And sometimes we help people by teaching them new skills (“empowering them”), which allows them to better take care of themselves down the road. The former – a quick fix to someone’s problem – is sometimes called “dependency-oriented helping.” The latter – helping someone gain skills that will help them in the future – is sometimes called “autonomy-oriented helping.” These terms map onto the classic adage “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
In some situations, dependency helping may just make the most sense. A person who is literally starving in front of you needs food immediately. A refugee escaping violence needs a safe home. A disaster survivor needs medical assistance. But, sometimes there is an opportunity to provide a more autonomy-oriented response to someone’s plight. People experiencing homelessness need support finding housing, a stable income, and, if need be, ways to cope with the conditions that contributed to their homelessness in the first place. Refugees need help learning the ways of their new land, but also a welcoming environment that allows them to still be true to their values and culture. In some of those situations, there may be an opportunity to provide help that is more autonomy-oriented or dependency-oriented.
Along with my colleague Drs. Joe Vitriol, Patrick Dwyer, John Kim, and Mark Snyder, I recently published a paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology (accepted version here) where we explored how people vary in their preferences to provide dependency- or autonomy-oriented help to others in need. We developed a new measure of people’s helping preferences (which you can take here) to help us understand what characterizes people who prefer to provide either dependency- or autonomy-oriented help to others.
By surveying 1,700 adults across three studies, a number of interesting trends emerged. First, it is worth mentioning that although we developed our helping measure to assess people’s willingness to provide dependency or autonomy helping, a third helping characterization emerged, distinct from dependency and autonomy orientations. In our measure, some items refer to reasons why people prefer not to help others at all, and it turns that these eight items concerning negative beliefs about helping clearly suggested a third type of individual, those “opposed to helping.” So, this allowed us to locate individuals on three types of helping characterizations: willingness to provide dependency help, willingness to provide autonomy help, or a lack of willingness to help others at all.
One way to think about helping interactions is to focus on the type of people who want to help others. But, helping often takes place between members of different groups (e.g., between individuals of different cultures, races, genders, or religious beliefs). People who preferred giving autonomy-oriented help believed that group status is malleable (e.g., people perceived as “other” can over time be viewed as a fellow group member), disliked hierarchical structuring of society that allows certain groups to dominate other groups (low on “social dominance orientation”), and felt positive about marginalized members of society (e.g., Muslims, members of the LGBT community, immigrants). People who preferred giving dependency-oriented help were ambivalent about the hierarchical structure of society and group malleability, but had weakly positive feelings toward members of marginalized groups. However, people who preferred not to help others strongly believed that society should be structured hierarchically so that certain groups are disadvantaged (high in “social dominance orientation”), believed social groups were set in stone and not malleable, and tended to hold strongly negative feelings toward marginalized members of society.
So, this gives us a clearer picture of the types of people who prefer to give dependency-oriented help, autonomy-oriented help, or prefer to not help others. Do people follow through on these orientations? In one study, we found that people who preferred not to help others reported being unlikely to have volunteered in the past. We also found that people who preferred giving dependency-oriented help were more satisfied with volunteering when they were providing dependency-oriented help, and people who preferred giving autonomy-oriented help were more satisfied with volunteering when they were providing autonomy-oriented help.
Finally, in an experimental study we found that autonomy-oriented individuals who read about nonprofit organizations that had a stated goal of empowering helpees (“autonomy-oriented nonprofits”) were interested in volunteering to help that organization and believed it to be an effective organization at addressing social ills. Meanwhile, dependency-oriented individuals who read about nonprofits that had a stated goal of addressing immediate needs of helpees (“dependency-oriented nonprofits”) were interested in volunteering with that organization and believed that organization to be effective. People high in opposition to helping didn’t think any of the volunteering options were effective and didn’t have any interest in helping these organizations. So, how we frame a volunteering effort may influence our ability to mobilize different types of individuals.
Now, all of the measures we used in this study were self-reports – we were unable to directly observe individuals so it’s possible people who were autonomy-oriented, for example, over-reported their interest in autonomy-oriented helping opportunities. Future work needs to replicate our findings with actual behavior. Additionally, can we inspire people to provide people autonomy-oriented help when possible, particularly individuals already inclined to help others through dependency-oriented helping? Perhaps by trying to induce empathy, or making the autonomy-oriented helping strategy more apparent, we could improve the quality of helping interactions. Finally, how can we empower helpees to demand autonomy-oriented help, and not just dependency-oriented help, which may sometimes reinforce opportunity and status differences between helpers and helpees? These questions, and others, are worthy of future exploration.
What do you think?