Volunteer Motivations: How Do We Choose Who to Help?


These days, seemingly everyone has joined a movement. They’re loud, organized, and passionate about their cause.

Why are they committed to helping — even if it requires personal sacrifices like donating money or using their limited free time?

A British study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that bystanders are more likely to help strangers in distress when they recognize those individuals as belonging to a common group. 

The study looked at a group of football fans who were told they were spending the day learning about football highlights and a group that was learning about team-specific highlights. The first group, the study showed, was more likely to help someone in need — regardless of team affiliation than those who were in team-specific groups.

According to the article, “Even in a country in which bitter intergroup rivalry exists between fans of one football team and another, when people expand their notion of the ‘in-group’ they are more likely to reach out to those in 'the other' camp.”

That said, the benefits of assisting others are the same whether someone knows who they’re helping or not. When giving to others, one experiences a surge in the “feel good” hormone dopamine, which is the same hormone that is associated with the pleasure of sex or good food. Cortisol, a stress hormone, also drops which improves health.

Now that you know how scientists say people determine who they help, does that align with how you've chosen to volunteer in the past? Which causes are the most important to you?