Have to Help or Want to Help?
Everyone acts helpful at times. Indeed, most of us act in kind ways several times a day—giving directions to a stranger, explaining the new work process to a colleague, or making the partner’s favorite dinner and maybe even doing their chores as well. But the reasons people give when reflecting on why they help others differ. Some report helping because they like it or enjoy it, because they value the experience and appreciate that their help is useful—they want to help. Others report helping because they feel they should, because they’d feel like a bad person or others would get angry if they did not help—they feel like they have to help.
Imagine this situation. Your friend asks you to help her move. Your friend reminds you how she helped you in the past, tells you how there’s no one else to help and she really can’t do it by herself; she’d likely injure herself trying to move without you. Chances are you’d feel obliged to help because you want to avoid feeling guilty or bad about letting her down. This is the feeling of helping because you have to. Now imagine that you also feel quite excited about spending time with your friend during the moving day. You are glad she is getting a new place and you want to see her happy. You think you’ll enjoy helping her move and contributing to this happiness. This is the feeling of helping because you want to.
Everyone likely encounters situations in which they feel they have to help or in which they feel they want to help. But beyond specific situations, people also generally vary in how much they agree with the idea that helping is enjoyable for its own sake and vary in how much they agree with the idea that helping is an obligation or a duty. Some people might endorse both these reasons, and some might endorse neither.
How Do Want-To and Have-To Reasons Predict Helping?
At Carleton University, Professor Milyavskaya and I asked 619 adults to reflect on their general reasons for helping and found that reasons to help were linked with how often people reported they typically help others and with how much they invest in helping others in a typical day. Feeling the motivation to want to help for its own sake was linked to doing more favors for others and spending more time and effort on helping. Feeling the pressure to have to help was linked with typically spending more money on helping and reporting more effort.
Thinking back to the example of helping a friend move, this finding might be illustrated by considering different ways of helping. If you endorse helping for its own sake, you might spend more time carrying boxes for your friend, whereas if you help primarily out of obligation you might pay for the gas of the moving truck but bow out early on moving day.
When we followed 442 adults over the course of one week, the same pattern emerged. Participants who endorsed the motivation to want to help for its own sake at the beginning of the week, reported more acts of help on a daily basis and reported spending more time and effort on helping on any given day of the week. For example, people who initially stated that want-to-help reasons were “very true” of their personal motivation, would have helped for an estimated 20 minutes more on a given day than people who answered ‘somewhat true.’ Participants who agreed with the sentiment that they feel they have to help at the beginning of the week, reported more acts of help on a daily basis and reported spending more money and more effort on helping at the end of any given day of the week. For example, people who initially stated that have-to-help reasons were “very true” of their personal motivation, would give an estimated $3.00 more on a given day than people who answered ‘somewhat true.’
In sum, both types of reasons to help were independent elements in helping others. Both want-to and have-to reasons to help led to more acts of kindness and to more effort invested in helping others. The more someone endorsed helping for its own sake the more time they spent helping and the more someone endorsed helping out of obligation the more money they spent on helping, but in the end, both were linked to more resources being devoted on other people.
Thus, the people who help the most and in a range of ways in their daily lives (such as giving both their time and their money) are likely those who help for multiple reasons. There is no bad reason to be kind!
For Further Reading
Peetz, J., & Milyavskaya, M. (2021). A self-determination theory approach to predicting daily prosocial behavior. Motivation and Emotion, 45(5), 617-630. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-021-09902-5
Johanna Peetz is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her research includes a range of topics connected to decision making across domains of personal spending, time perception, and interpersonal relationships.