Research suggests that humans have a deeply rooted propensity to be kind and generous, but some obstacles can prevent us from acting on those altruistic impulses. One of the greatest barriers to altruism is that of group difference: We feel much less motivated to help someone if they don’t seem to belong to our group or tribe—that is, if they’re not a member of our “in-group”—and we may even feel hostile toward members of an “out-group.”
But studies have consistently found that who we see as part of our “in-group” can be malleable. That’s why a key to promoting altruism, which involves acting to promote someone else’s welfare even at a risk or cost to oneself, is recognizing commonalities with someone else, even if those similarities aren’t immediately apparent. This exercise is designed to help expand one's sense of shared identity with others.
Take 15 minutes to go through the steps below. Try to repeat these steps with a different person at least once per week.
Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicher, S. (2005). Identity and emergency intervention: How social group membership and inclusiveness of group boundaries shape helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 443-453.
Participants were more likely to help a fallen jogger when the jogger was a fellow fan of the same soccer team than when the jogger was a fan of a rival team (as indicated by their shirt). But when participants were reminded of a shared identity with the fallen rival (being a soccer fan), they were more likely to help than they were to help a non-fan.
Leary, M. R., Tipsord, J. M., & Tate, E. B. (2008). Allo-inclusive identity: Incorporating the social and natural worlds into one's sense of self. In H. A. Wayment & J. J. Bauer (Eds.), Transcending self-interest: Psychological explorations of the quiet ego (pp. 137-147). Washington: APA.
Participants who reported feeling a greater sense of connection to other people, regardless of group distinctions, and to the natural world at large also reported less egocentricity, more concern for others, and less interest in having power over others.
Although people generally want and try to be altruistic, they may also feel competitive toward people outside of their “in-group,” and the boundaries of their in-group might shrink at times when resources seem scarce or they are fearful for their safety. Reminding people to see the basic humanity that they share with those who might seem different from them can help overcome fear and distrust and promote cooperation. Even small similarities, like recognizing a shared love of sports, can foster a greater sense of kinship across group boundaries. Importantly, recognizing commonalities doesn’t mean negating differences, but may in fact help people value differences rather than feeling threatened by them.