Is every act of kindness actually a selfish act? Advocates of prosocial behavior and altruism would definitely oppose this notion of selfishness; to them, people are willing to do good for no personal benefit, even at a cost to their own well being. For instance, a rich person who gives away a huge portion of his money to an orphanage would certainly lack the norm of reciprocity. Wouldn’t that then, be purely altruistic? After all, he must have empathized with the poor and fulfilled the empathy-altruism hypothesis, where a person who empathizes with others tries to help them for unselfish reasons. Further supporting his cause is his ability to help members of an out-group, the orphans, to whom he cannot identify with. Not only that, but he would also defy the urban overload hypothesis, since he did not give in to the overwhelming stimuli around him. What if, however, these assumptions were incorrect? What if he gave away money in order to raise his self-esteem, or to reduce his cognitive dissonance through self-affirmation? Would that make him a bad person?
Let us consider another situation. A group of people watched a rape take place but did nothing to stop it. Wouldn’t those people definitely be bad? No. The bystander effect is perhaps more powerful than their best motives, for the greater the number of bystanders, the more that pluralistic ignorance takes place. In other words, everyone depends on the others to help, so no one actually helps. A huge diffusion of responsibility takes place, where each person’s sense of responsibility decreases. Consequently, the assumption that those bystanders are innately bad would be a fundamental attribution error. But what about the rapist committing the crime? Such an aggressive act that is aimed to cause physical and psychological pain must truly make a person bad! Rape, in this case, is far from instrumental aggression, but an act that is solely hostile. Perhaps this can be explained by the frustration-aggression theory, where an aggressive response was elicited due to the inability to attain a goal. Regardless of social scripts, emotional catharsis was far more critical. So the question is, was this rapist put in a bad situation, or is he innately bad? Are people born “blank slates” and develop their personalities along the way, or are they born either good or bad?
I guess we can take a final example. A little child watches his mother use a knife to cut bread, while another one watches his father use it for murder. Couldn’t that single scene permanently alter a child’s understanding of what knives are for? The Social Learning Theory suggests that people learn negative and aggressive social behavior through imitation. Not only that, but phenomena such as operant conditioning and classical conditioning also play a huge role in a child’s behaviors, attitudes and construals. I think it is safe to say then, that we are born not knowing what is good and what is bad, but we learn along the way. Accordingly, it is possible for acts of kindness to be selfless acts, for ignorance to be situational, and for negative acts to stem from personal traits. However, it is ultimately up to each person to decide whether they will overcome the bystander effect, perform philanthropic deeds, or act in ways that are purely selfish.
Below is a video which displays people who chose to stop and help, others who were urbanely overloaded, and those who simply decided to walk away.