ARVID ERLANDSSON

affiliated with the university, Post-doctor

(Former)

Research

Hello, I am Arvid Erlandsson, and I am currently postdoctoral researcher at Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning (IBL) at Linköping University but I also teach and supervise the Department of Psychology at Lund Univeristy. My research areas are moral psychology, the social aspects of prosocial behavior, and judgment and decision making in helping situations. My thesis was about the underlying psychological mechanisms of different helping effects (see summary below).   

Students who want to be involved in any of our projects (as assistants or as part of your thesis project) are strongly encouraged to contact me.

Hello, I am Arvid Erlandsson, and I am currently postdoctoral researcher at Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning (IBL) at Linköping University but I also teach and supervise the Department of Psychology at Lund Univeristy. My research areas are moral psychology, the social aspects of prosocial behavior, and judgment and decision making in helping situations. My thesis was about the underlying psychological mechanisms of different helping effects (see summary below).   

Students who want to be involved in any of our projects (as assistants or as part of your thesis project) are strongly encouraged to contact me.

My doctoral thesis

My thesis is about the when and why of charitable giving. To understand why it is interesting and important to do research about charitable giving, the story about baby Jessica is often used as an example.

Jessica McClure was only 18 months old when she fell down a well in her parents’ garden in Midland, Texas October 1987. After three days of intense and non-stop trying and huge media coverage, Jessica was finally saved. During the few days that Jessica was trapped in the well, the American people donated $800,000 to show their support for Jessica and the volunteers in the rescue project. This is often interpreted as a sign of the pure goodness of human beings and a universal tendency to help even totally unknown victims.

However, it is possible to read the whole story from a different perspective. If the million dollars that was donated to Jessica instead would have been donated and earmarked for battling Malaria in developing nations, a much greater number of children would have been saved… How come we help some victims so much, and at the same time we forget other victims totally?

The when-question of helping

One way to approach this question is to focus on the situational differences. These helping effects are about how concrete, objective factors in the helping-situation or in the request for help can increase or decrease helping motivation. In my research, I have specifically focused on three situational differences:

  1. The Identified victim effect:
    We are more motivated to help when there is a single determined identified victim than when there are many statistical victims. Baby Jessica was a single identified victim whereas the victims in the developing nations were undetermined and statistical.
  2. The Proportion dominance effect:
    We are more motivated to help when we can help a large proportion of the victims. For example, a vaccine project informing that it can save 450 of the 500 children who annually die is likely to get more money than an identical project informing that it can save 450 of 100,000 children.  Baby Jessica was 1 out of 1 victim at risk, meaning that helping her would solve the problem completely. Helping children in developing nations would always be a drop in the bucket.
  3. The In-group effect
    We are more motivated to help victims that are part of our in-group than victims that are part of our out-group. Typical natural in-groups are kin (we are more willing to help a victim who we are genetically related to, even if we do not them personally) and nationality. Baby Jessica was an American girl (in-group victim for American donors) whereas the children in the developing nations were probably seen as the out-group) 

The why-question of helping

Another way to approach the question of helping decisions is to focus on the psychological mechanisms that can increase or decrease helping. These are not about situational differences but rather about what goes on within our heads and what kinds of feelings, thoughts and beliefs that could make us more or less motivated to help. In the classification that I propose, helping can be motivated by the heart, by the head and by the book.

a) Helping with the heart

Helping with the heart means that you help because you feel strong emotions as a result of learning about a certain situation or about the victims. These emotions can be either self-focused personal distress (I feel bad personally so I help to feel better) or other-focused sympathy (I feel bad for her so I help to make her feel better). The idea that emotional reactions can motivate us to help is much acknowledged.

b) Helping with the head

Helping with the head means that you help because you experience that you can do a lot of good for a relatively low personal cost. This type of psychological mechanism is not so much about the emotional reactions but more about cost-benefit calculations and perceived efficacy of helping. A heightened perceived efficacy has been shown to increase helping motivation.

c) Helping by the book

Helping by the book means that you help because you believe that you have a personal responsibility or a duty to help.  In some situations where you believe you have a responsibility to help  (for example if you have caused the need situation), you will be very motivated to help, even when you don’t feel any intense sympathy towards the victim or believe that you can help effectively. A heightened perceived responsibility have been shown to increase helping motivation.

Combining the when and why-questions

The aim of my thesis was to test which psychological mechanisms that underlies different helping effects.  Interestingly, the results showed that different helping effects are primarily driven by different mechanisms.

I. The Identifiable victim effect is primarily driven by the heart

The main reason we help identified victims more than statistical victims, is that we feel more emotions when we learn about identified victims, and that these emotional reactions increase our helping motivation. 

II. The Proportion dominance effect is primarily driven by the head

The main reason we help projects with a high rescue proportion (e.g. 450 of 500) more than projects with a low rescue proportion (e.g. 450 of 100,000), is that we perceive a higher efficacy when helping a high rescue proportion project, and this heightened perceived efficacy increase helping motivation 

III. The In-group effect is primarily driven by the book

The main reason we help in-group victims more than out-group victims is that we believe that we have a higher responsibility to help in-group victims, and this heightened perceived responsibility increase helping motivation.

Recent research outputs

Västfjäll, D., Arvid Erlandsson, Slovic, P. & Tinghög, G. 2017 Apr 18 In : Frontiers in Psychology. 8, APR, 542

Research output: Contribution to journalDebate/Note/Editorial

Slovic, P., Västfjäll, D., Arvid Erlandsson & Gregory, R. 2017 Jan 24 In : Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 114, 4, p. 640-644 5 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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