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The idea that humans react to disasters by losing control and acting selfishly is all too prevalent, especially in movies and television. But recent studies on altruism may provide evidence that this isn’t always the case, and this information could help us to better respond to such disasters.

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If you’ve ever watched an apocalyptic movie, you might think disasters cause mass hysteria.  Suddenly, everyone does what they have to do to survive, no matter who it hurts. But in real life, people are more likely to spring into action, take care of each other, and help rebuild.  That’s because we’re a really cooperative species.

And disasters can pique our empathy, which motivates us to help others. It should go without saying that everyone deals with tragedy differently, and disasters can certainly stir up a lot of negative feelings.  Studies find that up to 40% of disaster survivors experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post traumatic stress.  And because of all the awfulness people experience, you might also think that, by and large, people would switch to survival mode.  So, you might expect big disasters to be followed by an outbreak of selfish behavior.  In fact, leaders often try to control the flow of upsetting information, because they’re worried people will panic, and that panic will result in chaos in the streets. But, studies have found that’s not actually what happens.   Though people report being afraid, that kind of “me-first” mentality doesn’t dominate.

Instead, people tend to help one another.  Like, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, residents of nearby Baton Rouge invited displaced people to stay in their homes.  And when political unrest caused thousands to flee the Ivory Coast in 2010 and 2011, over 80% of people in nearby Liberian villages hosted refugees.  It’s kind of tough to study why this happens, since getting good data on actions and attitudes before and after a disaster generally requires a bit of luck. After all, no one knows ahead of time when and where a disaster is going to hit. But sometimes, researchers start an unrelated study on altruistic behavior in an area that just so happens to be struck by a disaster, allowing them to run the tests again and see how things changed.  And that’s exactly what happened for a study published in Psychological Science in 2019.  The researchers conducted a study on altruism in Vanuatu by having 242 participants play a series of games where they had to divide some money between themselves and an anonymous partner.  Then, a cyclone hit.

So, the researchers invited the participants back to play the game again. And 164 of them did.  On average, there wasn’t much change.  In fact, if the anonymous partner was said to belong to a different religious group, then the group wound up giving them a little less overall.  Except, participants who were exposed to others in distress because of the cyclone wound up giving more to their anonymous partner, as long as they weren’t severely financially impacted themselves. That could suggest that post-disaster increases in altruism stem from experiencing others’ trauma.

This might be because seeing others in pain leads us to realize that it could have been us. So, we do what we’d want someone else to do if we were in need. And there’s more-direct evidence for this idea.  In a series of studies published in 2018, researchers had participants read about hypothetical disasters, answer a few questions about their thoughts, and gauge how much they’d donate to help.  And the researchers found people tended to reflect more on what could have been if the disaster was closer—like, in the next town, instead of on another continent.

Psychologists call this kind of thinking counterfactual thoughts.  And in those studies, not only did closer disasters lead to more of these thoughts: the more of them people had, the more money they donated to relief causes.  Other research suggests additional factors may be at play—like feeling really connected to the people affected by the disaster. In a 2019 study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, researchers compared how Chilean citizens responded to a survey before and after an earthquake struck the country. The survey measured things like how motivated they felt to volunteer in their communities or donate to charitable causes, and, importantly, how much they reported actually helping out.  And, much like other studies, they found that after the earthquake, the participants reported more motivation to help out and upped their donations to earthquake-related causes.  But they also scored higher on the measures of “national identity”, which gauges how important a person’s nationality is to how they define themselves, and how much they see themself as similar to others in their nation.

And the scores of people who lived in cities closest to the epicenter increased the most. They were also most likely to lend a hand.   The researchers figured that being more in the thick of things meant they shared a common experience with those in need. That experience reminded them of other things they have in common, like their national identity.

And that feeling of connection may have then intensified their desire to help.  Of course, not everyone switches into helper mode.  For instance, people who have experienced some kind of trauma before are more likely to show helping behavior when a disaster strikes. Like, that study on refugee hosting in Liberia found that people who had previously experienced violence during a civil war were more likely to host refugees. And that was true whether or not those refugees were from a different religious or ethnic group.

That might be because helping others helps reduce the stress they feel from the situation, or because, after their experiences, they have more empathy for what others need. It’s also fairly common for some people to need some convincing that a disaster has struck at all.  This is called “normalcy bias”. Basically, when presented with the possibility that everything is fine or everything is not, people will presume the more normal, less dangerous situation is accurate.  Still, by and large, when something really bad happens, a whole bunch of people step up.  And knowing that can help leaders respond to disasters in the best way.  If there’s one thing all this research shows, it’s that we can handle bad news.  And in fact, we need to hear it, because it helps us decide what to do after something awful happens.  While leaders might be concerned about panic unraveling the fabric of society, it’s actually much more likely that, when people are informed, they’ll step up and be awesome.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! Before I go, I want to say thanks to all our patrons on Patreon. It’s thanks to your enduring support that we’ve been able to weather everything that’s happened this year.

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