Researchers from Cambridge University set up a fake cycling incident to determine how many people would stop to help.

The purpose of the study, Does empathy predict altruism in the wild?, published in Social Neuroscience, was to test the theory that an individual’s level of empathy influences their behaviour.

The experiment involved a male researcher pretending to be a cyclist who had injured himself, sat beside a road. Next to the ‘injured’ person was his upturned bicycle.

A fellow researcher monitored the number of passers-by who offered assistance.

Irrespective of whether passers-by stopped or not, once they had walked further up the road, they were intercepted by a third researcher who told them she was conducting a ‘memory’ experiment, inviting them to describe what they had seen along the road in the last few minutes. Various items had been left on the sidewalk (such as a scarf) to make this a plausible cover story.

Those who agreed to take part were also asked to visit a website in their own time, and complete the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaires, and were told they would receive a token payment of £6 for taking part. As the team predicted, EQ scores were higher in those who had stopped to help the injured cyclist, than in those who walked past him, presumably focused on their own agenda.

The study was led by Richard Bethlehem, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. 37 (19 males, 18 females) completed both the EQ and also the AQ. They ranged in age from 18 to 77 years old. Interestingly, how many autistic traits a person recorded was not related to whether they stopped to help or not, suggesting that empathy is the key factor, not autistic traits. Nor did age predict who stopped or not. Of those who stopped to help, 80 per cent were female.

Richard Bethlehem said: “Experimental studies are often confined to the lab, which means they lack ‘ecological validity’. In this novel study we tested if empathy scores predict if people will act altruistically in a real-world setting. Our results support the theory that people who do good are, at least partially, driven by empathy.”

Dr Carrie Allison, a member of the team, commented: “How much empathy one has is itself a complex outcome of both biological factors and early upbringing and is a skill that can improve with development, learning, and practice.”

The study was supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Pinsent Darwin Trust, and the Cambridge Trust, and was conducted in association with the NIHR CLAHRC for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.

Photo Credit: Richard Bethlehem