Would People Living in Places Where Their Physical Safety Is Threatened Be More Altruistic?

Unfortunately, my answer to this question is: “Very likely, no.” Yes, there is evidence that individuals can handle some degree of physical or psychological misfortune with resilience), and can not only come out of those traumatic experiences personally stronger, but also more other-focused. Even my own research has shown that contemplating mortality in a specific and individuated manner (i.e., “my death” versus “death as a concept”) can generate increased intentions to be prosocial.

That said, if individuals find themselves in a situation where they are regularly under threat (as the question seems to imply), and especially if those threats are to some extent abstract (i.e., could occur at any time, in any place, in many different ways), I would expect the motivations of those individuals to be driven largely by generalized anxiety, defensiveness, and negative-arousal states matched with increased vigilance for threats. This becomes even more likely if the danger becomes more perception than fact (e.g., watching constant coverage of crime on TV news might alter a person’s impression of safety outside his or her living room). All of this, unfortunately, would likely lead to less prosocial behavior and less trust among strangers in that environment, not more.

From my perspective, a key issue is whether these threats are sustained. We have a great capacity to face individual negative experiences with strength, which can lead to psychological growth. Persistent threats (and persistent fears of those threats) are a whole other matter, given their capacity to turn our focus inward, toward our own needs and away from the needs of others.

Philip Cozzolino is an experimental social psychologist at the University of Essex.

Category: Q&A


One Response

  1. and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?

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