Why do people help strangers when disaster strikes?

Marc Fucarile, a 34-year old native of Stoneham MA, lost his right leg, nearly lost his left, was peppered with shrapnel, and suffered severe burns when the second bomb exploded at the 2013 Boston Marathon.  Shortly thereafter, from his hospital bed, Marc described his situation saying, “There’s more good in the world than there is bad” (LaPierre, 2013).  Given his circumstances, this is an extraordinary observation, one that inspires awe and admiration. 

His perspective tells us about his character, resilience, and strength, but also about the community that embraced him in the aftermath of such senseless violence.  “Random people,” Marc said, “strangers. Just offering things, sending me things, giving me things, helping, praying for you, lighting candles” (LaPierre, 2013).  Helping, in its many forms, emerged as a powerful response to the Boston Marathon attack.

 Indeed, the people of Boston reacted to the bombing with pride and purpose.  Strangers tied tourniquets on the sidewalk while nurses, doctors, and medical personnel began countless hours of supporting the injured.  From individuals organizing fundraisers and donating to The One Fund Boston, to companies in the Boston Survivors Accessibility Alliance performing free home modifications (e.g., constructing ramps or reconfiguring bathrooms); people are helping.  It seems a pro-social orientation has swelled in the hearts and minds of Bostonians.  Research in social psychology may offer insight into both the magnitude of helping that has occurred and the sense of community that has intensified in response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Pro-social behavior refers to behaviors that benefit people (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroder, 2005).  Typically, pro-social behaviors are an outgrowth of positive experiences and emotions.  For example, positive social norms like reciprocity and social responsibility beget helping behaviors (Berkowitz & Daniels, 1964; Wilke & Lanzetta, 1970), as do positive emotional states, the kind that might be induced through receiving free cookies or finding money (Isen & Levin, 1972).  Feelings of empathy, compassion, and sympathy are also associated with helping, particularly when individuals recognize a moral obligation to care for others (Wilhelm & Bekkers, 2010). 

Pro-social behavior can emerge, however, from traumatic and painful experiences.  One such experience is collective violence, when a group is threatened or harmed by members of a different group (World Health Organization, 2002). Collective violence can lead to “altruism born of suffering” a term coined by Ervin Staub (2003).  Because it describes a motivation to help that originates from crisis, altruism born of suffering offers one explanation for people’s pro-social reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing.  People may have helped in order to cope with the attack, as helping can relieve distress, boost feelings of usefulness, and offer ways of creating new meaning from a collective tragedy (Vollhardt, 2009).  Even for people who were not physically present at the marathon, terrorism can elicit trauma-related symptoms of stress (Schuster et al., 2001).  These symptoms might include difficulty sleeping, repeated disturbing thoughts or memories of the incident, negative emotions, or trouble concentrating. People often cope with these symptoms through pro-social acts, such as making donations (Schuster et al., 2001). The model of altruism born of suffering also suggests that collective violence can induce helping through the creation of new helping norms or by encouraging empathy, perspective taking, and a feeling of “we’re all in it together” (Vollhardt, 2009). 

An alternative perspective, Terror Management Theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991), provides additional insight into the surge of pro-social behavior following the Boston Marathon attack.  According to TMT, awareness of one’s own inevitable death is utterly terrifying and people are fundamentally motivated to eliminate or reduce the profound fear brought about by mortality salience.  This theory suggests that people have a built-in defense system geared towards self-preservation, and this defense system creates ways to counteract the powerlessness and vulnerability linked to thoughts of death.  For example, people are driven to boost their own self-esteem or reinforce their own world views to relieve their death-related anxiety (Greenberg et al., 1990; Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997). Sudden awareness of one’s own mortality tends to produce an immediate reaction followed by a longer-term response aimed at restoring a sense of security (Pyszczynski et al., 1999). 

Consistent with the explanation offered by TMT, after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, people were initially overcome with shock and disbelief.  They then became highly motivated to engage in behaviors that reportedly eased their existential anxiety, with altruistic and pro-social behaviors as the most frequently cited behaviors (Young-Ok & Schenck-Hamlin, 2005).  Likewise, the explosions at the Boston Marathon shattered feelings of safety and exposed life’s fragility.  Such mortality salience may have activated individuals’ terror-management mechanisms.  In the same way that people responded to 9/11 by engaging in pro-social behaviors such as volunteering for crisis-related organizations, donating blood, raising money, or comforting others (Penner, Brannick, Webb, & Connell, 2005; Young-Ok & Schenk-Hamlin, 2005), people may have offset their distress from the Boston Marathon attack by helping.  Indeed, laboratory and field work support the idea that thinking about death increases pro-social attitudes and behaviors, but primarily towards in-group members, the “us,” as opposed to the “them” (Jonas, Schimel, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2002).

The Boston Marathon attack not only inspired helping, it aroused a powerful sense of community among people associated with Boston.  The type of palpable pride that emerged is not an uncommon response to collective tragedy; indeed, experiencing positive emotions, such as pride, is associated with resilience after trauma (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003).  Along with pride, terrorism can evoke intense feelings of, and more frequent displays of, patriotism (Skitka, 2005; Young-Ok & Schenck-Hamlin, 2005).  This gives new meaning to the widespread wearing of “Boston Strong” t-shirts that followed April’s attack.  Not only did people show their patriotism by visibly aligning themselves with Boston, the victims, and the survivors, but their responses of in-group positivity and in-group identification may have helped reduce death-related anxiety (Castano, Yzerbyt, Paladino, & Sacchi, 2002; Greenberg et al., 1990). 

Finally, research post-9/11 suggests that people draw closer to friends and family after experiencing collective violence (Ai, Cascio, Santangelo, & Evans-Campbell, 2005).  The powerful need to connect with loved ones and the feelings of kinship that emerged after Boston Marathon attacks show the depth of Boston Strong.  Resilience and the ability to withstand trauma may characterize individuals, but it also captures the vibrant spirit of an enduring, supportive, and truly “strong” community. 


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