The Psychology of Helping

In contrast to the aberrant and destructive behavior that catches media attention, the Internet also seems to support and encourage philanthropy.

The Internet has long been a cooperative environment, with participants contributing their time to program systems, author or transcribe information, maintain Web sites, moderate discussion forums, tutor and counsel newbies, etc.


A general psychological principle is that the motivation to offer assistance to a stranger is highly influenced by the number of people around. Generally, the greater the number of people present in a situation, the lesser the probability that any one person will feel compelled to render assistance to someone in need.

Generally, this is believed to be an effect of mass psychology: a person alone acts on his own initiative, but as additional people join a group, they become more inclined to act collectively - to look to one another for cues - and since the inclination is not to act until action is needed, this results in a collective inertia.

Experiments have shown this to be as true in cases where action would be beneficial to the self (leaving a room when it fills with smoke) rather than just helping others. The fact that no-one else is reacting leads individuals to ignore the objective signs that action is necessary.

While the internet is a large space with millions of users, it is not a visual environment. We do not perceive the thousands of other individuals who may be lurking in discussion forums, and are not inhibited by their nonverbal cues from taking action.


People are more willing to help others whom they think are like themselves in terms of race, age, culture, class, and other characteristics. On the internet, where such characteristics are obscured, the decision is generally made based on the convergence of attitudes and interests.

Especially because Internet forums attract people of similar interest, the general perception of the people someone meets is that they are "like me" until proven otherwise.


It is also noted that the social barriers to requesting help - chiefly, embarrassment at being in an awkward or vulnerable situation - are reduced in the online medium. It is much easier to admit ignorance and admit helplessness when you don't have to look someone in the face.

A few studies are cited (Mullins 1997 and Fleming 1990) in which patients were more inclined to volunteer information about embarrassing personal situations to computer surveys rather than a live doctor or psychiatrist.


Even in the early days of usenet, the internet was used as a medium for individuals who sought the support and counsel of others. Forums where conversations are held among cancer patients, parents of autistic children, even individuals merely trying to lose weight, abound.

It is especially helpful for individuals who belong to stigmatized groups to find one another: people with hidden drug addictions, unusual sexual preferences, or non-mainstream political and religious beliefs can more easily find one another online that in real life and, given the anonymity of the medium, feel more inclined to open discourse. Quite often, such individuals are tight-lipped in meatspace, and make every effort to conceal their secrets than to be open about them.


While it is clear that the barriers to asking for help, as well as some of the phenomena that inhibit individuals from rendering aid, are eliminated by the anonymous nature of the online medium, psychologists have not yet identified the incentives for philanthropy online.

Several causes are debated. Various possible motives have been identified, but statistical or clinical evidence has not yet drawn a clear connection between the action and its motivation.