Unlike lower-order animals, emotion helps people to act like a human. Serial killers are emotionless. People with emotionless may probably feel nothing when they are hurting or harming others which are highly unacceptable in society. Since people tend to engage more when they are happy but withdraw from daily activities when they are upset, we can see that our behaviors are always determined by our emotions. Yet, people tend to perform more helping behaviors when they feel guilty or sympathetic. How do these negative emotions push people to help their neighbors?
Guilt is an emotion that occurs when people believe that they have violated a moral standard while sympathy is the feeling of being sorry for somebody showing that people understand and care about somebody’s problem. They are both negative rather than positive emotions. People do not feel good when they are guilty or sympathetic towards somebody. Is that true people involve more in altruistic behaviors when they are guilty or sympathetic? There is an experiment conducted by Jean Decety (2009) who is a neuroscientist studying the relationship between guilt, sympathy and helping.
He is a professor of Psychology at the University of Chigago and is specialized in affective neuroscience. In the study, student subjects are required to observe their coworkers receiving shock. Some of them are made to think they are responsible for the coworker’s suffering (guilt condition), while others merely observe the suffering (observer condition. There is also a group working with coworkers receiving no shock. Later the three groups are given opportunities to help a third party who is not in the original experiment.
The result shows that subjects in the guilt and observer condition are more likely than the control group to give their helping hand to the third party. The finding suggests that the feeling of guilt and sympathy and the willingness in engaging in an altruistic act is highly correlated. Subjects are more willing to help others when they feel sorry for a third person even they do not responsible for their unfortunate. At the same time, altruism may aroused merely by witnessing one’s suffering. There are three reasons for people who feel guilty and sympathetic to engage in helping behaviors.
Altruism is a form of disguised self-interest and helps in mood management while restoring one’s self-image. People help others for their own benefits. It is always unpleasant to watch another organism suffer. When one empathizes because of their misfortune, strong negative emotion is arisen. People are actually seeking to alleviate the unpleasant feelings that their distress arouse in them. It is a kind of internal self-reward. This can reduce the negative feeling by saying they have at least done their part in helping the unfortunate. Therefore, altruism is the attempt to reduce the empathetic feeling that arises in people.
Besides, people help others when they are guilty and sympathetic for mood management. Both guilt and sympathy are negative emotions which are unpleasant. Therefore, they can be reduced by performing a helpful act or any other positive means. In a study (Decety, 2009), subjects who had inflicted or witnessed an unfortunate situation received an unexpected monetary reward. The result shows that subjects who received rewards are less likely than those who do not receive any and remain in bad mood in engaging helping behaviors. This indicates that helping is just one of the positive means which can uplift one’s emotion.
People are motivated to engage in altruistic act in order to alleviate the negative emotion associated with guilt and sympathy. Apart from that, when people feel guilty, they have probably done something wrong and regret for their actions. For instance, students have cheated in an examination. Their self-images are broken due to the negative behaviors performed. They understand that their behaviors are unacceptable and they do not want to be perceived as bad. In order to restore the self-image in others’ eye, people will perform more pro-social behaviors.
This is to prove that they are still the good guy. It seems to be upsetting that if humanity performs a helping behavior just for reforming their own self-image rather than from a genuine feeling of guilt in helping others. Fortunately, it is not the case. Research suggests that unwitnessed transgression causes the same amount of donation as witnessed transgression. Therefore, it is acceptable to conclude that people perform altruistic act are at least partly caused by the feeling of guilt but not a need to repair their own self-image in others’ eye. Undoubtedly, there is a use for these findings.
Since many charitable organizations know very well the psychology of human, many of the fund-raising activities we can see in daily lives make use of people’s empathy. It is common to see volunteers showing photos of the needy in the less-developed countries persuading pedestrians to donate money to them. Guilty may arises as people may recall they have wasted a lot of resources and sympathy may arises as living conditions in those less-developed countries are really poor. With the arousal of these negative emotions, people may therefore engage in altruism.
It is true that one’s personality largely determines the likeliness in performing helping behaviors. Yet, our willingness in performing these behaviors also depends on the emotional states at that moment. The experiment done by professor, Jean Decety, proves that the feeling of guilt and sympathy can definitely facilitate altruistic behaviors. As a result, organizations may make use of this psychology as we know that even the meanest person may have the experience in helping others provided that they are at the right emotional state.