We’ve long known that people feel a closer affiliation with people like themselves — usually when differentiated by groupings that are large and obvious. For instance, folks of the same gender or race feel an affinity to members of their same sex or race.

New research shows, however, that these affiliations — and our willingness to help others — can be more subtle and minimal than previously believed.

A study in the July 2006 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that willingness to take action, to help another person out, could be based on a simple differentiation of whether that person was a part of another person’s “in-group” or not. If they were, they were more willing to help the other person out. If not, they were less likely to offer the other person assistance.

The research, led by Stefan Stürmer of the University of Kiel, is presented in the article “Empathy-Motivated Helping: The Moderating Role of Group Membership.” The article discusses two different studies, one using a real-world, intercultural scenario and the other using a mixture of people with no obvious differences besides gender. Researchers concluded that, while all the people felt empathy for someone in distress, they only tended to assist if the needy person was viewed as a member of their own “in-group.”

The first study, using a real-world intercultural scenario, split German and Muslim male participants into culturally-defined groups. When everyone learned that another participant was having difficulty finding housing, they all felt empathy for the other regardless of what group they were in. However, when asked about their intentions to help the participant, empathy had a stronger impact when the other was categorized as a member of their in-group.

To further substantiate the findings from the first study, the second study created “minimal” in-groups and out-groups using a mixture of male and female participants without obvious cultural differences. As in the first study, when participants learned that another participant needed financial help due to the loss of money and a credit card, they all felt empathy, but actual assistance was provided only when the distressed person was a member of their in-group.

What does this mean in the real world? It suggests that a simple affiliation with a group of like-minded people can lead to people being more helpful than they would otherwise. For instance, imagine a dinner or party conversation with a stranger. Once you discover you share something in common — you both belong to the same country club, you both went to the same school, etc. — you feel a closer affinity to the person. This research suggests that if the person is in need as well, you’re more likely to help them out once that common link has been established.

Source: Eurekalert