How to Help

Economies are built out of helping: one person does something, not because they have independent reason to want it, but because someone else wants it. Often these are exchanges, ie. two people reciprocally helping each other, but not always. So it’s worth asking: what goes on in someone’s mind when they help someone else with something?

Here are two possible stories:


The helper is motivated by a goal which they had before the encountered the helpee, and continued to have afterwards. This goal might be called (tautologously) ‘utility’, or ‘happiness’, or whatever, but we can assume that often money is the primary means to it.

When the helper encounters the helpee and is told what the helpee wants, they become aware of a new means for the acheivement of this goal – this person will give them money (or whatever), but only if they perform this action that the other person wants. They satisfy someone else’s desires as a means towards satisfying their own.


The alternative story is that when the helper meets the helpee, they acquire a new goal, by ‘mirroring’ or ‘taking on’ the goal of this other person. They then pursue it just because that’s what you do with goals.

It might look like this second story hardly gets off the ground, because it seems to imply that people should be indiscriminately helpful, without thought of reward, which they clearly aren’t. But I think it can accomodate this objection, while remaining distinctive, by saying that the payment the helper receives is primarily an enabling condition, not as the ultimate goal.


That’s because postulating that people take up a sort of ‘shared perspective’, in which another person’s goals are added to their own as goals, is consistent with this ‘taking up’ being something that requires lots of things to be arranged properly.

For a start, people will be averse to taking on another’s goal if they are already very busy, or very tired – because in those circumstances they’re averse to taking on any new goal. Similarly, people will resist taking on a task which they feel is too difficult, or unpleasant, including when it’s someone else’s.

But there are also specifically relational such factors. Since the satisfaction of someone else’s desire will usually provide no intrinsic benefit to you (otherwise you’d do anyway), it’s important for some mechanism by which their satisfaction can be extended to you – which could include both by ‘material’ rewards or by expressions of gratitude or esteem.

Notably, it’s likely that the relative importance of these two sorts of reward will depend on how much of each you need – if you have no money, and have just spent 6 hours helping someone else and still have no money, you’ll be pissed. The dissatisfactions of having no money impose themselves on consciousness, and make the last 6 hours appear pointless. But if I’m fine in monetary terms, I may not feel any need for monetary reward – gratitude or status may be more valued.

This may also reflect a need for reciprocity, or more fundamentally for recognition: by putting yourself in someone’s perspective in helping them, you allow their perspective to matter to you. If it seems that, in their perspective, you’re unimportant or unworthy of respect, it’s a psychological catastrophe.


So both stories can, at a first approximation, account for the obvious facts. How should we decide between the two stories? One way would be to ask which sounds more like what we experience – and my intuition here is that the latter is usually more accurate, but not 100%. But we might worry that introspection on such ideologically-charged subjects is unreliable.

An alternative would be to look to the data of psychology, cognitive science, or even philosophy of mind. In particular, observe that in both stories the helper understands that another person wants something. How does the mind accomplish this – how does it formulate and apply the concept of ‘wanting’?

One theoretical perspective is that this is accomplished primarily by ‘simulation’ – by replicating, recreating, or ‘mirroring’, the mental state being attributed. To believe that X wants Y involves the idea of whoever X is, a ‘sample’ of wanting Y, and a mechanism to attribute the latter to the former.

If this is correct – and from what little I can tell, it has a good amount of suppotring evidence – then it’s more plausible that people organise their helping behaviour bytemporarily ‘taking on’ another person’s goals as their own, because this would actually be a much simpler, much more efficient with psychological resources, than creating a simulation and then making no direct use of it.

Moreover, if this simulationg approach is correct, it predicts that, contrary to the first story, doing nothing is not a neutral choice – when someone asks you to do something, it takes positive effort to ignore them, because you have to inhibit the mental constructs formed to understand them. That is, the effort of helping someone may often be less than the effort of ignoring them.

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