Family first: Good Samaritans viewed unfavorably if they help strangers over loved ones

BOSTON — Ever buy coffee for the next person in line or allow others to go ahead of you? Being nice to strangers makes us feel warm and fuzzy, and usually makes others think well of us, too. Can being a good Samaritan ever be viewed as bad? According to one recent study, the answer is a surprising yes.

A team of psychology researchers with Boston College and Harvard University set up experiments to test the virtues of helping strangers versus one’s family. Their findings confirm that, for most people, doing good deeds for others is a virtue — as long the charitable act doesn’t come before a family member’s need.

Putting good Samaritans to test

Researchers set up five online experiments and asked more than 1,300 participants to consider some “good Samaritan” scenarios.

In each situation, either the beneficiary of the kind act was either a stranger or a distant relative. The good deed was something that did not require financial assistance or a great deal of labor, like helping with a move.

In the first series of tests, only the relative or stranger could be helped. Participants judged the person who helped the stranger as having higher moral character than the person who helped the family member.

“All things being equal, people who helped a stranger were judged to be more moral and more trustworthy than people who helped a family member,” says lead study author Ryan McManus, a second-year PhD student at Boston College, in a statement.

In the second series of tests, the helper had to make a choice: either help the stranger or help the family member. One or the other, but not both.

This time, the results flipped. Participants now found the helper who chose a stranger over family to be less trustworthy and of lower moral fiber. “What struck us was how clearly participants’ judgments changed when they viewed these acts of kindness through the lens of choice between kin and strangers,” notes McManus.

Love thy neighbor — after your family

The research team believes the common thread within the results is familial obligation.

In a third series of tests, the helper chose to offer no help at all, playing video games instead of helping a neighbor move. This time, participants were not as hard on the helpers who ignored a stranger’s needs as they were on those who refused to help a relative.

“The take-home message from this work is that, from a third-party perspective, the way that we think about others’ moral character depends on who their helpful, or unhelpful, behavior is directed at,” concludes McManus.

The research team next wants to compare the role of family obligations in the case of near or distant family members.

Findings are published in Psychological Science.

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