Reputation as the psychological currency to motivate helping?


Panchanathan, Frankenhuis, & Silk (2013) are calling the bystander effect (1) and diffusion of responsibility (2) a ‘social dilemma’ that I think would, in fact, be worth further prioritizing in social psychology. Let’s imagine the conditions for personal and social responsibility could be positively controlled for real life impact on increased help and solidarity among humanity.

Various influences are underlying behavior like the bystander effect (Thomas, De Freitas, DeScioli, & Pinker, 2016). Greitemeyer & Mügge (2015) list three mental mechanisms at work when bystanders are aware of other bystanders’ activities. These are “audience inhibition, social influence, and diffusion of responsibility,” whereas diffusion of responsibility is the only one also contributing in the absence of knowledge of others (Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2015, p. 118). According to Thomas et al. (2016), the bystander phenomenon was most accentuated when the bystanders knew most about each other, what led them to conclude that bystanders are rationally strategizing according to their knowledge.

In Panchanathan et al. (2013) experiment the ‘one person to help’ study setting was modified toward an N-person dictator game hat involved one or several donors who were asked to help by giving money to a donee. The results showed how complex the different strategies could be. A sole donor generally donated more than donors among several donors, and when there was more than one donor, the game turned into a volunteer’s dilemma (help is given only when other’s did not), into a so-called assurance game (mimicking the help of the others), or in most cases into a prisoner’s dilemma (providing basically no help at all) (Panchanathan et al., 2013).

Mechanisms like the assurance game could be especially important to positively influence the helping behavior of individuals in groups of potential helpers. Plötner, Carpenter, Tomasello, & Over (2015) report from research that showed the importance of accountability triggers to augment helping. Similarly, Thomas et al. (2016) point out how important reputational considerations (reputation as a “currency of psychological valuation” (Thomas et al., 2016, p. 628) might be to influence helping. I think that is an excellent opportunity for social psychology to further contribute to developing successful tactics and strategies in communicating and guiding human behavior to tackle contemporary social challenges.

(1, 2) bystander effect / diffusion of responsibility: the more potential helpers there are, the less likely any single person will help (Thomas, De Freitas, DeScioli, & Pinker, 2016)



Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, D. (2015). When bystanders increase rather than decrease intentions to help. Social Psychology, 46(2), 116-119. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000215

Panchanathan, K. )., Frankenhuis, W. )., & Silk, J. ). (2013). The bystander effect in an N-person dictator game. Organizational Behavior And Human Decision Processes, 120(2), 285-297. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.06.008

Plötner, M. )., Carpenter, M. )., Tomasello, M. )., & Over, H. ). (2015). Young Children Show the Bystander Effect in Helping Situations. Psychological Science, 26(4), 499-506. doi:10.1177/0956797615569579

Thomas, K. A., De Freitas, J., DeScioli, P., & Pinker, S. (2016). Recursive mentalizing and common knowledge in the bystander effect. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(5), 621-629. doi:10.1037/xge0000153

  • This makes me think of Skinner and his operant conditioning theory.
    I feel we should be very cautious, when it comes down to control, influence, behavior…
    Humans seem to be like sheep… If one person gives a literally ugly person, standing in a crowd, a hug…more people will do so…I feel ashamed if I watch an experiment like that and it takes very long, before that first person gives a hug. (Yes, at the same time proud at that person too). Unfortunately, that seems also the case with violent behavior..
    Somehow I feel more ashamed, knowing that we humans seem to need assurance that it is ok to do right, to stand up for your believes ( in a non-violent way)…that ‘we’ made each other so afraid and most of us became sheep…
    Just writing down my brain-threads during reading this post…

    • Absolutely, Patty. But we humans have the unique consciousness to see us behaving like sheep. And that is the chance to step out of the scheme. Possibly that’s what is behind mindfulness! Oh, and you’re right (and noble)! We should help others to escape the “sheep trap” too!:-)

      • True…I have on my page about me (Mimosa Pudica) this written down:
        “We humans are the only species on earth, who know that it knows (phrase Mr. Leen Mees) and we should, in my opinion, take care of this fact more thoughtfully.”
        So I think we are ‘on the same page’ Mathias when it comes down to taking responsibility..