Culture & Society

Frank Flynn: Does Status Affect How You Help Others?

Researchers find that the perceived status of those in need can be an important factor in determining how we help.

August 04, 2014

You’ve heard the famous proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” According to the proverb, a fishing rod can be more helpful than a fish, so those who wish to be helpful should take heed. A newly published set of studies, however, shows that people don’t always heed this sage advice when offering help. Instead, it seems that people tend to give fish to others whom they view as weak, while they give fishing rods to those whom they view as competent. In short, the researchers find that the perceived status of those in need can be an important factor in determining how we help.

Across a series of experiments, the researchers found that low-status help seekers are viewed as chronically dependent and their needs as due to a lack of ability. This belief that low-status individuals cannot help themselves leads potential helpers to give dependency-oriented help (that is, the full solution to the problem). In contrast, high-status help seekers are viewed as competent, and their request as representing a high degree of motivation to overcome a temporary difficulty. This results in people offering them autonomy-oriented help (that is, tools to solve the problem). Thus, the high-status get nice fishing rods while the low-status get a fish and an invitation to return for more.

In the first experiment, Israeli men and women participated in problem-solving exercises online. They were told they had been randomly assigned to work with another person who was online at the same time, and that the person had performed either well or badly on a previous similar task. Half the participants were exposed to a request for assistance from their fellow participant, whereas the other half were not.

Participants tended to give autonomy-oriented assistance to individuals they expected to perform well on the task (that is, guidance on ways to arrive at the answers), and dependency-oriented help to those they expected to perform poorly (that is, the solutions themselves). Further, the request for help increased positive evaluations and liking of the “high-performing” individuals who had sought help and decreased positive evaluations of the “low-performing” individuals who had sought help.

In two following experiments, participants were given added information about the socioeconomic status of the person they were helping. When the request for help came from a high-status person, participants took it as evidence of strength and motivation. They also viewed the individual as more able, motivated, and likely to be independent in the future. If the same request came from a low-status individual, participants took it as evidence of the person’s relative weakness and lack of motivation. The individual was viewed as characteristically less motivated and less likely to be independent in the future.

The research suggests that help-seekers may be able to counter this problem by asking directly for more autonomy-oriented assistance (i.e., fishing rods). Indeed, in a fourth study, participants watched a short video depicting a high-status (wealthy) or low-status (poor) female student asking for help in solving an academic problem. In one condition, the student asked for instruction on mathematical principles to solve the problem (autonomy-oriented help seeking); in another, she asked the interviewer to solve many similar questions and show her the correct answers (dependency-oriented help seeking). Participants then were assessed on their perceptions of the student and the reasons for her need for help, as well as their expectations of her future performance.

The request for autonomy-oriented assistance had positive effects on the way observers perceived and evaluated the help seeker. When the low-status student requested autonomy-oriented assistance, she was viewed more favorably and perceived as more efficacious than the high-status person who had sought such assistance. Moreover, her request was attributed to her motivation to succeed more than that of the high-status student who had sought autonomy-oriented assistance, as well as the high- or low-status person who had sought dependency-oriented assistance.

The social dynamics revealed in this research are fascinating and disturbing. According to the findings, not all help is helpful, and it seems that we are predisposed to give less helpful forms of assistance to those who actually need it more, thereby perpetuating an achievement gap. For those of us who wish to be equal-opportunity altruists, we should examine our helping tendencies and try to be consistent from one individual help-seeker to the next. For those of us who could use a little assistance, we should recognize the value of making a direct request — particularly one that asks for practical guidance rather than a quick fix. 

The study, “Helping Them Stay Where They Are: Status Effects on Dependency/Autonomy-Oriented Helping,” by Arie Nadler and Lily Chernyak-Hai, appears in Volume 106, Number 1 (2014) of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

More groundbreaking research about prosocial behavior will come in the Fall 2014 quarter.

Research selected by Professor Frank Flynn, Professor of Organizational Behavior and The Hank McKinnell-Pfizer Inc. Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford GSB.

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