Some Questions About Helping Others?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Its important for the reader to understand that the situation I am about to describe took place extremely quickly, perhaps two to three minutes at most. Also, this is not hypothetical situation. This really happened.

The incident:


Recently, I found myself in a situation where I was both able to observe human behavior while participating. I was about to enter the supermarket I usually shop at. As in most of these types of places, the doors are electronically regulated. There is one entrance with large doors that open as you approach. There is one exit, several feet away where people leave as the electronic doors open and shut.

As I approached the entrance to the store, I noticed a woman, sitting in a wheel chair, who was using her feet in a walking type of motion, to move her chair into the entrance. She also pushed on the wheels of the chair with her hands and arms. However, her feet were heavily bandaged, probably as a result of surgery, and she did not have the strength or mobility to propel herself and the chair into the entrance. It was a painful scene to watch because she was barely able to move at all. I thought to myself that she must be terribly frustrated. I also noticed that she had the appearance of being a very poor, perhaps homeless person. I would estimate her age to have been about 40 to 45 years old.

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There were several people standing behind her who were eager to enter the market but found themselves unable to because the wheel chair blocked the entrance. There were three women and one man who was clearly was an employee of the store.

What was striking was that no one moved to help. Everyone just stood there, neither moving nor saying anything. Quickly, I asked the lady if she needed help, more because I did not want to surprise her. Her back was to everyone as she struggled. Of course, she said yes and I pushed her in. She wanted to go to the service desk. I wheeled her there and she thanked me. Curiously, I thought, the others said nothing, either to me or the lady.

Afterwards, I left her I pondered what was going on to prevent the others from doing what seemed like such an easy thing to do. For myself, I had no thoughts or feelings related to having done a “good deed.” I had no thoughts of “what a good person I am.” I did not feel, in anyway, that I was a “hero.” There was nothing heroic about what I did. I had no thoughts or feelings of anger about the people who did not help. Clearly, they were middle class, educated people who appeared to me as though they would be very nice individuals if I knew them.

“So, I thought to myself, “what happened?”

Back in November of last year, 2009, I posted an article about the “bystander effect.” It can be found at this URL:

Unfortunately, that article deals with a different type of circumstance. The “bystander effect” is when a person or crowd who are watching someone being assaulted or beaten while doing nothing. Many reader responses to that article were that they, too, would do nothing for fear of themselves being victimized.

However, this lady posed not threat. There was no crime going on. There was no danger of violence. There was no threat of getting involved in anything personal. In all, providing help to this lady posed was benign. So, why did those few people do nothing?

As I did my shopping, I asked myself, “did the others fear catching some disease” from this lady? Were they frightened by her appearance? Did they find her repulsive?

An old issue of Psychology Today Magazine had an article about altruism and why people do or do not help. Among the other items discussed, was an experiment done with 8 year old children and helping others. Afterwards, one 8 year old boy named, Adam, was asked why he helped? Here is his response to the question: 

“What you do is, you forget everything else that’s in your head, and then you make your mind into their mind. Then you know how they’re feeling, so you know how to help them.” Psychology Today, Oct, 1988 by Alfie Kohn

Despite all the articles I have readd about altruism and selfishness, I found no clear explanation for the piece of behavior I observed at the supermarket.

I am asking readers to submit their thoughts and ideas about what happened. In addition, what would you do in a similar situation?

Your comments are very strongly encouraged.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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