When you see a stranger in some kind of hardship, how do you react? What goes through your mind when you consider whether to help this person? Researchers, led by psychologist Richard Bethlehem of the University of Cambridge, carried out a rare study in a real-life setting, and found that your level of empathy is related to your altruism and whether you'd get involved in a stranger's problem.

The scientists staged a hidden-camera style situation where passersby were given an opportunity to help a cyclist who supposedly had an accident. Regardless of the choice they made, researchers would approach these people afterwards, asking them to take a "memory test". It was important for them to conceal the true aims of the study to get a more honest reaction.

Those who agreed to participate were then given a series of questions and sent questionnaires to gauge their empathy levels as well as possible autistic traits.

1067 walked by the researchers, with about 7% actually helping the cyclist. Of the 55 people who then agreed to be in the study, 29% were those who helped the cyclist.

bicycle accident study

Credit: R. Bethlehem

Analyzing participant data, researchers concluded that empathy scores were related to altruistic behavior – those with higher empathy were also those who helped the cyclist. Their average empathy score was 56/80 while the non-helpers got 20/80.

The reason researchers also looked at autism spectrum scores is because earlier research indicated that people who had more autistic traits were less likely to be altruistic. But the new scores did not show such a correlation. In fact, a person who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was one of those who helped the cyclist. 

One other obvious (and rather sad) conclusion from the study is that most people don't stop to help a stranger in distress. But those with more empathy are more likely to do so.

“The implication of the present study is that within any institution (even perhaps extreme inhumane institutions such as those under the Nazi regime), there will be individual differences in how people within the institution respond, and that some of this variation in helping behavior is accounted for by where on the empathy dimension the individual is situated,” wrote the researchers.

Check out the new open access study here in Social Neuroscience.

bill-nye-on-the-evolutionary-value-of-empathy