The case of the helpful motorist:
Hers is an interesting piece of research I came across recently, which shows that kindness and observing others engaged in helping learns helpfulness. Those of you with children will be aware that small children who might help carry groceries from the car might also want to help in putting them away. This piece of research shows that setting an example has a strong effect on people’s helpfulness. This is called the modelling effect – that is the effect of watching someone else modelling what should be done. The surprising thing is that is as applicable to adults as it is to children.
A researcher called Bryan, from Ontario, investigated whether motorists were more likely to help a woman change a car tyre if they had earlier seen someone else doing a similar act. He set up two situations where he would test motorists without them being aware that they were being tested:
In one situation motorists first passed a woman whose car had a flat tyre; another car was pulled to the side of the road and the male driver was pretending to help her change the tyre. This situation provided a helping example for those motorists who, two miles later, came upon another car with a flat tyre. This time the woman was alone and needed assistance.
In the second situation, only the second car and driver were present; there was no illustration or pretend model.
The results were clear. The motorists who were exposed to the situation of the man helping the woman were twice as likely to help when compared with the other motorists.
What this illustrates is simple, no matter what age you are you are still stimulated to help others by seeing other people being helpful. Or to put it another way, by you being helpful to others you automatically make it easier for others to be helpful. This is a simple but quite profound fact.
In studies of the effects of viewing what is termed pro-social behaviour (rather than antisocial behaviour) on television, the conclusion from research is that children’s attitudes toward positive behaviour are improved. Learning pro-social behaviours has a positive effect all-round on a child: Research shows that when children are exposed to pro-social behaviour they are more likely to delay their own gratification – e.g. in sharing their sweets, in waiting for a slow child, in re-starting a game for someone who misunderstood the rules, etc. Furthermore research also shows that that children who exhibit such behaviour are more popular with their peers.
Other research on happiness has shown that one’s happiness in life increases as a consequence of engaging in pro-social behaviour. For example, if each week, you made a point of meeting with someone who is important to you in your life and used that meeting to convey your genuine gratitude to them for what they have meant to you, your general contentment and happiness would improve.
The meaning of this for us as parents to be sure that, no-matter what they are like, we should engage children positively in helping behaviours toward family, friends, neighbours. This is more than just telling them to be nice or mannerly. It would be more beneficial to get your child to help you in a positive way with a particular helpful behaviour: to help an elderly neighbour mow her lawn, to write and deliver a letter to a person in need, to conduct one random act of kindness a week for anyone. Again, the research is simple in its conclusions: either witnessing or participating in helpful and kindly behaviour generates more of the same in the heart of the helper, and in those affected. So if you are feeling down today, for whatever reason, consider that you might find relief by helping someone else rather than yourself.
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Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.