What motivates a person to stop and help a stranger who’s been in a car accident? Or cook a meal for a grieving friend? Although motivations for prosocial behaviors are extremely complex, a new multi-university study shows that helpful behaviors are often motivated first by empathy, followed by an agreeable, or easygoing personality, rather than a neurotic one.
Overall, the findings show that people who show empathic concern tend to fall into two major personality groups: those with high levels of agreeableness and those with high levels of neuroticism.
But researchers found that agreeableness was most closely associated with reaching out to help those in need. On the other hand, empathic people with high levels of neurosis tend to freeze up or escape in times of need.
“It is common for persons to experience distress on seeing a victim in need of help. That distress can lead some people to escape, and to run away from the victim,” said social psychologist and lead author Meara Habashi at the University of Iowa.
“But distress does not need to block helping because it may be one first-appearing aspect of empathy. Distress can actually contribute to helping, but the way it contributes depends on personality.”
The findings are published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
By working with the “Big Five” model of personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness — the researchers wanted to develop a model to better understand the links between personality types and prosocial, or helpful, behaviors and ultimately understand what shapes the “Prosocial Personality.”
“Past research on the Prosocial Personality looked at a variety of smaller personality traits, one at a time,” sais Habashi. “We believe our research is the first to examine the Prosocial Personality by focusing on general personality dimensions, systematically.”
In the first experiment, college students listened to a radio story about another college student who recently lost her parents and was now taking care of her siblings. They were then asked if they would like to assist with time or a small donation.
In another experiment, researchers asked participants to imagine the scenario of running late to a friend’s speech, but on the way they encounter someone slumped on the ground and not moving.
In both scenarios, participants were asked to rate their prosocial emotions, including empathic concern and distress. They were also asked to report how they would or would not help the individuals presented in the scenarios.
To analyze the results, the research team developed models that used all of the Big Five dimensions of personality to examine prosocial emotions and behavior in a single model.
The researchers looked at how people responded when they took or ignored the perspective of the victim. Among the college students, the researchers found correlations with empathy in those with high agreeableness or neuroticism. However, only those high in agreeableness would volunteer their time for the victim.
Conducting the study online with 158 participants, an additional study focused on subjects’ willingness to donate money to the victim and found similar results.
Those high in neuroticism were more focused on themselves and less likely to intervene, whether through offering their time or donating a small sum of money, according to the researchers.
Based on the findings, people who are low in agreeableness are not necessarily less empathetic than others, they simply may need more reminders when it comes to reaching out to help.
“Personality matters,” Habashi said. “It matters in how we structure our request for help, and it matters in how we respond to that request.”
“Helping is a result of several different processes running in sequence,” she said. “Each process contributes something different. The way we ask for help — perspective taking — can influence our chances for getting it.”
Habashi conducted the study along with colleagues Drs. William Graziano from Purdue University and Ann Hoover from the University of South Carolina Upstate.