When a Helping Culture is Your Goooal

Study of the Month by Roi Ben Yehuda

One of my favorite things about LifeLabs is that we are here for one another. Someone is in need and a long line of volunteers emerge ready to lend a hand.  Yet as we grow larger, we need to be more deliberate about maintaining what psychologist call ‘prosocial behavior.’ 

In this edition of Study of the Month, I want to share with you a fun and creative experiment that can help any organization improve their empathic ethos. 

British psychologist Mark Levine wanted to test the association between identities and helping behavior in emergency situations. So he recruited a number of British Football fans to participate in his study.

Levine and his team didn’t select just any fans, they secretly picked Manchester United (MU) fans. Each participant was given a questionnaire on how much and in what ways they liked their favorite team. They were also required, in each question, to write down the name of their favorite team. 

After filling out the questions and having their identity as MU fans made salient, the subjects were asked to go to another building on campus to complete the 2nd part of the study.

On the way there, a person would run by and pretend to fall and hurt his ankle. Three research assistants were hiding in the bushes and observing.

soccer fail GIF

And here is the catch! The runner was wearing either a Manchester United (in-group member), plain white (no visible social category) or Liverpool T-shirt (rival out-group member) jersey.

What were the helping rates?

  • Manchester U T-Shirt: 92%
  • Plain T-Shirt: 33%
  • Liverpool T-Shirt: 30%

Incredibly, after the subjects’ identity as MU fans was primed, they was far more likely to help out a person within their own in-group than others. 

This is a depressing finding. It does not take much of an imagination to apply it to the divided state of our society. Okay, so before we fall into a pit of despair, keep reading! 

womens soccer synchronized dab GIF by Equipe de France de Football

Next, Levine conducted a second study with the same methods, but this time subjects were primed to activate their identity as football fans, not specifically MU fans. What were the helping rates?

  • Manchester U T-shirt: 80%
  • Plain T-Shirt: 22%
  • Liverpool T-shirt: 70%

The findings suggest that helping behavior is more likely when we perceive that the recipient belongs to our in-group. This is all the more so when a certain identity is activated and made salient. 

Fortunately, as the second study shows, most people have enough layers of complexity to their own identities that their in-group can be enlarged to include a greater number of people. For identity, like much of life, is fluid and dynamic.

happy liga mx GIF by Club America

How can we use this study to increase the levels of helping behaviors within our teams and organization? Here are a few ideas 

  • Emphasize wins: Celebrate success at all levels of the organization and connect the wins to mission and values. Research shows that winning unifies and helps create a shared identity leading to higher usage of “we” pronouns.
  • Create superordinate goals: Regularly articulate how the org as a whole is interdependent and will sink-or-swim together. It’s imperative that people understand how everyone’s role contributes to the success of the operation.
  • Generate a common enemy: Go beyond the obvious market competition and include some more abstract challengers (e.g. Apple is against “ugly” designs, LifeLabs Learning is against stodgy, old school manager training).                  
  • Mix up teams: Form and dissolve temporary teams and task forces so identities stay fluid. When possible, create opportunities for cross-cutting ties so people from different teams interact. 
  • Create inter-company challenges: Seek opportunities for people to join together in non-work related goals (from corporate olympics to fundraising events).    
  • Share swag: Ask your team what kind of swag they’d like. Wearing company swag goes a long way in communicating a shared identity (think military and sports teams, only voluntary). Plus, as Levine’s research has taught us, you never know when you might fall and need a helping hand.