Imagine you are on an airplane. Ahead of you is a person who is struggling to put their luggage in the overhead bin. As a kind and helpful person, you want to offer help. But you hesitate because you worry that the person may think you are being nosy or intrusive. Would you offer help and risk criticism if the person might not appreciate the help?

Offering help when it is not explicitly requested can be difficult because people are taught to "mind their own business." However, people don't always ask for help even if they want or need it. They may feel bad about imposing on others or they may not realize they need help. But what if the person really needed help? No one enjoys criticism and embarrassment, but they may be a risk worth taking if there was even a slight possibility the help was needed. What motivates people to offer help in such situations?  

Wanting to Appear Kind vs. Wanting to Support Others

People may be motivated to help others because they want to appear kind (that is, they have self-image goals) or because they genuinely care about others' well-being (that is, they have compassionate goals). In three studies conducted in the U.S. and Japan, we examined which of these two motivations was more strongly associated with the willingness to help in situations where help was clearly vs. not so clearly needed.

We asked 598 Americans and 1590 Japanese how likely they were to offer their seat in a crowded train to a woman who "appeared pregnant" or how likely they were to speak to a person squatting at the side of the road who "appeared sick." Both Americans and Japanese higher in compassionate goals indicated they were more likely to intervene than those lower in compassionate goals.

This pattern held even when the likelihood of the person being pregnant or sick was just 10%. It held in other situations as well (like in the airplane situation described above or at a workplace with a colleague).

What about people who want to make a positive impression? They offered help sporadically in some specific situations but were generally no more likely to offer help than a person who did not have such goals.

In sum, even if people are not sure whether a person really needs help or would appreciate help, if their goal is to support others' well-being rather than just appear kind and likable, they are more likely to offer help.

Helping is Good for Both of Us!

Do people with compassionate goals risk criticism or embarrassment because they are selflessly concerned about others' welfare? In another study, we asked participants how much they would expect good outcomes for themselves and others if they offered help. We were not at all surprised to find that those higher in compassionate goals—either Americans or Japanese—were more likely to believe that helping would be good for others, which partly explained why they were more willing to offer help.

More interestingly, those higher in compassionate goals were also more likely to believe that helping would be good for themselves, which also partly explained their willingness to help.

Our third study further showed that people who pursued compassionate goals believed that what is good for others can be good for the self (a nonzero-sum belief), which explained their tendency to spend more time helping a colleague at work.  

Does being compassionate mean people have to sacrifice themselves for others? Does benefitting from helping others undermine the value of the help given? Helping for the sake of others sounds more genuine, pure, and even sacred whereas helping that brings self-benefits sounds... selfish and immoral. But our research suggests that the belief that "helping is good for you and for me" may facilitate helping when the need for help is uncertain.


People don't always ask for help and may not appreciate the help they receive. A suicidal person may ask to be left alone. A victim of domestic violence may not want any intervention. Compassionate goals motivate people to offer help when the need is unclear in everyday situations.  We don't yet know whether they motivate helping in these more drastic situations, but this is an important question.

If you find yourself holding back from offering help because your help may be unwanted, even if it is needed, you might think about whether your goal to support others is more important than your self-image goals in that situation.  Clarifying your compassionate goals and saying "so what?" to your self-image goals could make a huge difference in the life of another person!

For Further Reading

Niiya, Y., Yakin, S. (2024). Compassionate goals are associated with a greater willingness to help through a nonzero-sum mindset. Current Psychology.

Yu Niiya is a Full Professor of Social and Cultural Psychology at the Department of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University, Japan. Her interests lie in the exploration of whether a compassionate mindset can encourage people to overcome their hesitation to take risks.

Syamil Yakin is a graduate of The Ohio State University. He currently works at Nationwide Children's Hospital and collaborates on research with Yu Niiya on topics of compassionate goals and time perception.