What Makes Us Help Others? What Makes Us Selfish?

A baby rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) plays with a tiger cub at a zoo in Hefei, Anhui province, China, on August 2, 2012. Roland D Rotunda writes that lower forms of life are often altruistic. Bengal tigers nurse piglets. Seals rescue drowning dogs. Bonobo apes (pigmy chimpanzees), our closest ancestors, help wounded birds to fly. A rhesus monkey will forgo the opportunity for food if pulling the chain that delivers the food will also electrically shock a companion. reuters

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

Winston Moseley died in prison, on March 28, at the ripe old age of 81. His recent death briefly made the newspapers because of what he did in 1964, when he was a married man, a father with children.

He stabbed Kitty Genovese to death. Few people born after 1964 are familiar with the death of Genovese, but the opposite is true of everyone who was at least 15 years old at the time. There are some things we will always remember no matter how hard we try to forget. The death of Genovese is one of the things we are unable to wipe from our minds.

Kitty (Catherine) Genovese was a 28-year-old New York City woman stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York, in 1964. It took her about a half-hour to die, as she crawled on the streets shouting for help.

At the time, newspapers reported that over three dozen people saw or heard her crying for help after she was stabbed, but they did nothing. Instead of calling the police, they closed their windows. They did not want to get involved. No one called until the final assault, each of them perhaps thinking that someone else would do it. Eventually, someone did call, but it was too late.

Later reports cast doubt on the complete accuracy of the original New York Times story about the incident. That story was based on the initial police report. The number of witnesses who heard the screams may have been closer to a dozen, and the number who actually saw something may be a half-dozen. Still, a half-dozen did not respond, and the incident became a symbol of the alienation of the big city.

Sadly, news reports are filled with stories about ordinary humans acting inhumanely as apathetic bystanders. Search for “people ignore man dying on street” in Google, and you will get thousands of results.

A few years ago, in Detroit, a group of people were playing hockey in the frozen waters in the basement of an abandoned building. They found a dead, frozen body. They did not call the police but instead continued playing their hockey game. A reporter asked a homeless man living in the building if he had called the police. “No,” he said, “I figured someone else did.” Everyone assumed that someone else would do something.

In London, England, urbane passersby ignored the pleas for help of an 81-year-old widow, a mugging victim. She lay on the pavement pleading for help for 10 minutes. Two women, who initially crossed to the other side of the street to avoid her, heard her cries, came to her aid, and called for help, but it was too late. She died in the hospital.

In April of 2010, a homeless man in New York City saved a woman from a knife-wielding attacker. Because no good deed ever goes unpunished, the attacker then stabbed this homeless hero. For one hour and 20 minutes, the man lay dying in a pool of his own blood.

Video surveillance showed that sophisticated New Yorkers walked past without calling for help. One man stopped to use his cell phone to photograph the victim, and then kept walking on. Eventually, someone called 911, and firefighters came 15 minutes later. By then, he was dead.

Why do humans act so inhumanely? Our DNA does not compel us to turn our gaze and move on, only pausing to use our cell phone to photograph the incident. We did not evolve that way.

Indeed, lower forms of life are often altruistic. Bengal tigers nurse piglets. Seals rescue drowning dogs. Bonobo apes (pigmy chimpanzees), our closest ancestors, help wounded birds to fly. A rhesus monkey will forgo the opportunity for food if pulling the chain that delivers the food will also electrically shock a companion.

We think of ourselves as more highly advanced than monkeys. How would we act if pulling the chain would cause an electric shock to another human? Do we still want the food? We might not do it for a banana, but we will do it because we are just following orders?

Testing altruism

The Milgram Experiment, named after Dr. Stanley Milgram, suggests the answer is often yes. The experimenter told the “teacher” that he or she was supposed to teach a “student” to memorize a pair of words. The punishment for a wrong answer was a shock from the “shock machine.”

This machine had 30 levers, each clearly labeled with a voltage designation ranging from 14 volts (“slight shock”) to 450 volts (“danger: severe shock”). The last switch was labeled “XXX.” This is like the carrot and stick, but without the carrot.

Milgram found that about 65 percent of the participants followed orders to inflict what they thought were increasingly painful electric shocks on an innocent person because the experimenter ordered them to do so. They administered the “shocks” even though the “student” (a good actor) appeared to scream and begged them to stop. The machine did not really administer shocks, but the teacher did not know that.

With each “student’s” mistake, the experimenter told the “teacher” to administer a stronger shock. Eventually, the “student” fell silent, as if unconscious or dead.

Fortunately, other experiments indicate that we also have within us the capacity to be altruistic. When we are lonely in a crowd, we often seem to think that someone else will report the accident, or call for help: let the other guy do it. However, when people look us in the eye and we notice them, if they ask for help, we tend to be altruistic.

If someone singles us out and personally asks us for help, we are more likely to follow that request, perhaps because we are no longer anonymous. We are more likely to act altruistically—to follow the best traits of the lower forms of life on the evolutionary scale—if we think someone is looking.

Consider economics experiments based on a version of the “dictator’s game.” The experimenter gives one person a sum of money; let us say $10, to Player A, who is the “dictator.” The dictator is in charge and makes all the rules. Whatever the dictator decides is final. Player B can be the next person who walks by the table in the shopping mall where the experiment is conducted.

This dictator can, if she chooses, divide that $10 between herself and Player B. She can give away to Player B some of the cash, all the cash, or none of the cash. Whatever the dictator gives is a gift, and the gift can be zero. Then, the game is over.

When given this choice, a significant majority of the dictators are altruistic: although they can do whatever they want, they will give 20 percent or more of their money to Player B, if the dictator and Player B are anonymous with respect to each other but the dictator is not anonymous with respect to the experimenter.

That is, if Player A and Player B do not know each other, but Player A (the dictator) knows that the experimenter knows what Player A chooses, then the dictator will give 20 percent or more of her money to Player B.

However, those statistics are reversed if the dictator has complete anonymity from both Player B and the experimenter. If the dictator knows that even the experimenter is in the dark—in other words there is complete anonymity—then over 60 percent of the dictators keep everything for themselves and give no money to Player B.

If the dictator knows that the experimenter is watching (but Player B is in the dark), the dictator is much more likely to give money to Player B. If the dictator knows that no one is watching, the dictator becomes less altruistic.

When we think that someone is watching us in particular and looking at us—when we are not anonymous—we behave better and are more likely to be altruistic. Yet, even when there is complete anonymity, nearly 40 percent of the dictators give some money away to the complete stranger. The dictator also gives away even more money if the dictator thinks that Player B is an established charity instead of an anonymous passerby.

Milgram conducted another experiment that is not nearly as well known as his electric shock experiment. This subway experiment offers additional reasons for optimism.

His students boarded a crowded New York subway and asked someone already sitting down for his or her seat. About 68 percent of the people, if asked directly for a seat, got up and surrendered the seat. In New York City!

In one instance, for example, a male student asked an elderly female for her seat. The woman said that she would not give up her seat. Then, a man sitting next to the woman on the subway apparently felt bad by her rejection and so he offered the male student his seat.

In a variation of the experiment, the experimenter asked for the seat but gave a lame excuse: he or she would hold up a paperback book and said, “Excuse me. May I have your seat? I can’t read my book standing up.” With this version, the percentage who gave up the seat dropped to 38 percent, still a respectable percentage for hardened New Yorkers.

When the stranger singles us out, personally talks to us and asks us for our seat, we are not anonymous as to him. If someone takes charge and says, “May I have your seat on this subway,” then we are more likely to give up our seat. Someone is looking at us and we are not anonymous. We might assume the questioner may be sick because we do not think that people will just tell a lie out of the blue.

By the way, the students in this experiment did not like to ask for a seat; they thought that it was unethical because their question falsely suggested that they were sick. If the questioner does look sick but does not ask us for a seat, we less likely to be altruistic because no one singles us out to ask for help. Then, we are just one of many anonymous people in the subway, and anonymity tends to bring out the darker side of our nature.

Perhaps the evil Mr. Edward Hyde is inside of all of us, but we can also find the good Dr. Henry Jekyll. If there were no Dr. Jekyll, there would never be any anonymous gifts to charity, but there are.

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley chair and distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University, the Dale E. Fowler School of Law. He is co-author of the six-volume Treatise on Constitutional Law: Substance and Procedure and Legal Ethics: The Lawyer's Deskbook on Professional Responsibility.