Have you ever really thought about why you open the door for your colleague if his hands are packed with paper work?
Probably not. And even psychologists had a pretty hard time asking simple questions about the emotions their participants experienced when e.g. reading a story about a fellow student seriously in trouble with boyfriend, flat and exams. Good science usually sticks to the maxim of parsimony: boiling the problem down to its essence, trying to find the few basic variables that can explain the largest number of phenomena.
So, what is the basic of emotion? There are different opinions on that and part of my research also involves critically examining this question. However, no matter which of the suggested building blocks truly underlie our rich emotional experiences, if seeing someone else in need of help can touch on these essentials, it has to be a powerful social cue.
Hence, we asked participants that did not know that our study was about help-related content, how they felt when seeing pictures. Some of them showed a child needing help, some showed the same child being just fine in a very similar situation. All of these pictures were really harmless comic-drawings, so no need to be sad or aroused…
Yet, people DID feel sadder when the child needed help compared to pictures showing the same children not needing help.
On average, need of help content shifted participants ratings more than one check box apart – no matter what kind of basic emotional component we looked at. Moreover, we found that this emotional response to other’s need was highly similar in adults and children (aged 4 to 13 years):
Of course, you may now say: It’s just so obvious and common-sense that we react that way – who needs a scientific proof? Well, I personally think that we may not always trust common sense. And I do believe that an objective proof is needed for each and every single argument we make in psychology. Especially because there are so many phenomena that are simply “common sense”.