Researchers from Cambridge University have staged a fake cycling accident to investigate the extent to which empathy traits predict whether people will act altruistically.
The study ‘Does empathy predict altruism in the wild?’ was published in Social Neuroscience. It saw a male researcher positioned on the grass by the side of Trumpington Road in Cambridge, pretending to have injured himself while cycling.
A colleague then counted the number of passers-by who stopped to help. Altruism was defined by the person’s response – whether they stopped to help or not.
A total of 55 participants took part in the study, of whom 37 completed two follow-up questionnaires. The questionnaires identified the degree of autistic traits in the individual and assessed empathic traits.
The vast majority of people (93 per cent) didn’t stop to help. The researchers wrote that the main reason seemed to be that, “people were simply in a rush to get somewhere, which has been shown to reduce helping behaviour.” 80 per cent of those who did stop to help were female.
A person’s Empathy Quotient (EQ) was found to be a significant positive predictor of altruistic helping, while the researchers found no evidence to support the notion that more autistic traits negatively predict altruistic helping.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, who worked on the study, said:
“This research is a first step towards understanding why some people may or may not stop to help a person in distress.
“Studies conducted ‘in the wild’ are notoriously difficult to undertake, and even this small sample was derived from over 1,000 passers-by. We will need to await a larger-scale replication.
“These results suggest that one factor that predicts which individuals will not stand idly by, is how many degrees of empathy they have.”