Consider this: A friend calls you and asks for notes just a day before final exams. You hang out with this particular friend regularly and you’re together in college as well. You both get similar grades and both of you have some sort of a competitiveness when it comes to grades. On the other hand, a classmate calls you, asking you for notes as well. You both are not that close and don’t hang out that often.
Considering the two situations, who are you more likely to help? Your friend, or a stranger?
Research suggests something very surprising in this case- that you’re more likely to help a stranger than a friend! The basic idea is that it hurts more to see a friend get more grades than you, with the help of your own notes than seeing a stranger do so.
But why does that happen?
Well, we all like to feel good about ourselves. A psychological dimension to this feel-good factor would include a constant comparison that we make between ourselves and other people. Of course, we are more likely to compare ourselves to people who are lose to us than those who are not. Therefore, a friend would turn out to be a larger threat to our self-esteem than a stranger would. This forms the basis of the Self-evaluation Maintenance Theory, according to which we would be much more helpful to a stranger than to a friend; because helping a friend would mean they might just get better than you and this would affect your own self-evaluation. Whereas, you would hardly care if a stranger did better than you, because you wouldn’t care to even compare yourself with them!
On a parallel basis, this theory explains why it hurts more to see a friend in a relationship with your ex, or why in-group competition leads to conflict in the absence of a superior threat.
On knowing this, would it be possible for us to ignore these factors and still help a friend, even though it might mean that he/she might just do better than us? I don’t really think so. Because this is where our priorities take a complete U-turn. Its clearly more important for us to maintain a good self-esteem so that we can function well on a daily basis. If helping a friend means that our self-esteem goes for a toss, we wouldn’t want to do that no matter what happens!
On the other hand, we would have seen people who genuinely want to help other people and would not mind giving everything they have, so that he/she does well in the task, even better. I think here (and correct me if I’m wrong), the collective self esteem plays its part. In this case, the individual does not measure their self-esteem on the basis of comparison with another; rather, its in association with another. Their measure of self-evaluation and self-esteem depends on, and is connected to, another person’s well being. Even though you are helping another person directly, indirectly, at some level, you are helping yourself as well.
So at the end of the day, we all want to feel good about ourselves, especially when a close one threatens our self-esteem. Even though we are naturally inclined to help others, helping oneself becomes a priority in such situations.