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Not so selfish after all: depletion, vitality, and helping behaviour

posted on 14.02.2017, 00:44 by Logan, Shelley Maree
Helping strangers may diverge from the natural inclinations of individuals. Therefore, if individuals cannot mobilise the effort that is needed to override their natural inclinations they are disinclined to assist a stranger. According to the strength model of self-regulation, the resources that foster this effort are finite and become temporarily depleted after exerting self-control—a state called ego-depletion. Recently, research has indicated that helping strangers may depend on the availability of these self-regulatory resources. However, the mechanisms by which ego-depletion impedes helping have not been thoroughly investigated. Instead, researchers merely assume that self-regulation is necessary to overcome a motivational conflict between inherent selfish tendencies and prosocial motives. The current thesis extended this research by investigating which underlying cognitive processes are implicated when ego-depletion impedes helping behaviour. In the process of this investigation, two key assumptions, that a motivational conflict is at the basis of helping decisions and that helping strangers is depleting, were scrutinized and ultimately challenged. Three studies were conducted. Study 1 tested a moderation model derived from the amalgamation of the strength model of self-regulation and the reflective-impulsive model of human behaviour. Participants completed an instrument that assessed their explicit attitudes to helping and the extent to which they feel that helping conforms to the norm of their social community. Confirming hypotheses, explicit attitudes predicted helping when self-regulatory resources were plentiful but not scarce, whereas subjective norms predicted helping when self-regulatory resources were scarce but not plentiful. Furthermore, helping behaviour reduced when self-regulatory resources were scarce amongst only participants who espoused favourable explicit attitudes but less favourable subjective norms to helping. Therefore, the detrimental effect of ego-depletion on helping emerged only after individual differences in attitudes and perceptions were considered. Study 2 investigated whether helping cognitions—empathic concern, spontaneous perspective taking, and humanness attributions—mediated the relationship between ego-depletion and helping. Study 2 also extended the first study by utilising multiple quantitative and qualitative measures of actual helping behaviour. However, regardless of the helping measure utilised, no significant relationships between ego-depletion and helping emerged. Therefore, the mediation model was not tested. Furthermore, contrary to predictions, ego-depletion did not hinder either empathic concern or perspective taking or affect attributions of humanness characteristics towards the person in need. Study 3 measured the self-regulatory consequences of helping to discount the possibility that the null findings of the previous two studies could be explained by ego-depleted participants mobilising their dwindling resources to help. That is, motivated helping may have counteracted typical depletion effects. Accordingly, this effort would have incurred a self-regulatory resource cost. However, helping under ego-depleted conditions did not further deplete self-regulatory resources. Furthermore, the helpfulness of participants was determined by their selection between two tasks: one task that benefitted the self and another task that benefitted a stranger. Besides mimicking the motivational conflict between selfish tendencies and prosocial inclinations assumed to be dictating past ego-depletion effects on helping, this design also controlled an alternative explanation of passivity. That is, ego-depleted participants may refrain from helping because helping usually involves the active mobilisation of resources and so, motivated to conserve resources, ego-depleted participants will not help. However, even when this motivational conflict was engineered and passivity controlled, helpfulness did not depend on self-regulatory resources. Therefore, a preference towards an easier option and not an inability to resolve a motivational conflict may explain why ego-depleted participants in previous studies were less helpful. Across all three studies, a state of ego-depletion did not curb helping. Furthermore, the two assumptions substantiating why helping would depend on self-regulatory resources were questioned. The level of motivational conflict within participants was variable and manipulating a motivational conflict failed to demonstrate reduced helpfulness when self-regulatory resources were scarce. The assumption that helping is a depleting behaviour was also challenged. Helpful participants expressed an increased vitality as well as demonstrated poor self-regulatory performance. Helping may be a unique self-regulatory behaviour, which can both mobilise and deplete resources. Therefore, the strength model of self-regulation, in isolation, may be insufficient to predict all self-regulatory demands and outcomes when helping strangers. A model that incorporates possible self-regulatory resource benefits of helping should be utilised in future research.


Principal supervisor

Simon Moss

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre


Campus location



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences