The year 2017 has been one for the history books. This year has been full of hurricanes, horrific mass shootings and bombings, and historic earthquakes in California and Mexico. However, one thing has remained the same throughout the year. Whenever disaster strikes, people come to the rescue and offer their assistance to others. Why did people from across the nation come to help Houston residents after Hurricane Harvey? Why did people shield strangers from gunfire in Las Vegas? The answer is because we are all humans and know it could have easily happened to us.
Researchers have discovered that many of the helpers have suffered and survived the same or similar disasters themselves. There is a human desire to help those who are suffering and a psychological need to find meaning in a disastrous event. People are either glued to their televisions or springing into action to give back. People want to understand why an event happened and how they can help “fix it.” When a person volunteers or comforts people affected by a tragedy, they are psychologically being extrinsically and intrinsically motivated. In their book, Social Psychology, authors Elliot Aronson, Timothy Wilson, Robin Akert, and Samuel Sommers explain that altruistic motives – motives that are selfless and done out of the concern for others – are the reason why people help in their communities while fulfilling a social-psychological need every human being has. Basically, everyone has an internal desire to do good in the world.
In addition, different areas of a person’s brain are affected and trigger a feeling of compassion. Research shows that the amygdala, a structure located in the limbic system of the brain, is put into use when a catastrophe happens and a person’s body is trying to figure out how to deal with the emergency. For example, at the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas, once people heard gunshots, they began to run and duck. Their body goes into the fight or flight mode and reacts to the situation. The same happens when people see disasters on television. Their body is giving the victims sympathy and compassion and their mind is trying to understand what they are watching unfold. People will also ask themselves how they would survive that horrific event, and what they would they do if they were put in that situation. Lastly, psychologists have found that when a person sees others overcoming adversity, they become more confident in their ability to succeed. This action is known as vicarious reinforcement.
We also live vicariously through disaster victims and their pain by feeling sad and empathetic towards them. When a person sees another human being harmed, their brain will react in a similar way as if it was them being harmed. The theory of mind comes into play and a brain’s cortex will start analyzing others’ behavior. We remember the times when we were affected by pain and how we felt during that time. Then, our brain takes that memory and lets us reflect on how the victims might be feeling at that moment.
The next time a tragedy strikes and your body goes through all of the psychological effects, think about how you can make a difference. It is important to find a productive and valuable way for you to assist others. Think about your abilities and the best way you can be helpful. Some ways to give back are through donating money or supplies to volunteer agencies, such as the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and FEMA. Other options include giving blood, hosting a blood drive, or fundraiser for the victims. If you are interested in going to the disaster area, always make sure you are working with a relief organization and follow their agency’s or disaster area’s guidelines for volunteering. Sometimes only first responders are allowed in the location before volunteers are able to come.
Unfortunately, no one can predict when the next tragedy will strike. But we can predict that there will be people stepping in to assist others. As Mister Rogers once said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”