Willingness to Help a Stranger: The Effects of Social Context and Opinion Similarity1


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    These studies were supported by National Science Foundation Grant BNS-76-07697, “Experiments on the Social Psychology of ProSocial Behavior,” whose principal investigator is Harvey A. Hornstein.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Harvey A. Hornstein, Department of Psychology, Box 6, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027.


Two field experiments investigate how information about aspects of the social environment affects willingness to help others who are similar or dissimilar. Subjects were pedestrians who found a lost packet of materials containing information about the opinions of the packet's loser and a survey report which claimed that the quality of life in the neighborhood had either improved or deteriorated. In the fiist study, the opinions were varied in order to create different degrees of opinion similarity between the loser and subject. Results showed that relatively slight differences between the loser's and subject's opinions made subjects unwilling to help (return the lost packet) when information about the social environment suggested a negative state of affairs, e.g., quality of life deteriorating. However, when information about the social environment suggested a positive state of affairs, subjects were willing to help, even if there was little similarity of opinion. In the second study, subjects learned that the loser of the packet agreed with their views on one opinion but disagreed on another. In this study, one of the two opinions concerned the same social issue as the one described in the survey report. Results demonstrated that subjects helped when there was agreement on the social issue that was also highlighted in survey reports of a negative state of affairs in the social environment and withheld help when there was disagreement on this issue. There were trends for the same result with information about a positive state of affairs in the social world.