The TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a bit of a guilty pleasure for our family. I’ve never been quite sure why we like it: the plot of the show is always the same. We’re introduced to a family which has undergone some terrible tragedy through no fault of their own: the father has been blinded by the gunshot of a thief while he was working overtime at a convenience store, or the daughter is undergoing treatment for chemotherapy, or the grandmother has adopted six troubled teenagers. Despite (and sometimes because of) their best efforts, the family’s home has fallen into extreme disrepair.
Then Ty Pennington and his team ride in in a gleaming motor home, send the family off on a fabulous vacation, and demolish the old home, replacing it with a new, beautiful, state-of-the art structure guaranteed never to mold, mildew, or rust, in just 6 days. The kids are all given college scholarships, there are plasma HDTVs in every room, and everyone lives happily ever after. The whole thing seems rather like overkill, but at least the family seems deserving.
If we can’t have such wonderful things, the show suggests, it’s because we’re not selfless enough, because we’ve caused our own problems through our lack of hard work or caring for others. But plenty of people are willing to work to help these “deserving” families. Pennington’s gang mobilizes the entire community to give a single family the most luxurious home any of them have ever seen. Hundreds of volunteers work nearly nonstop for the six days of the project, sparing no effort or expense so this one family may live in luxury. Why do they do it?
A clever study led by Mary Turner DePalma may shed some light on the Extreme Makeover phenomenon. The study is based on a concept originated by Melvin Lerner in 1971, “Just World Theory,” the idea that individuals need to believe that people “get what they deserve.” The degree to which people subscribe to this theory is called their Belief in a Just World (BJW), and in 1975 a test was developed to measure the level of this belief. People with high BJW are actually more likely to help others when they themselves are in a period of great personal need — apparently expecting that their good deeds will be rewarded.
DePalma’s team combined the BJW inventory with a simple test to see how willing individuals were to volunteer to help others. Ninety-eight college student volunteers were told they’d be participating in a “personality” study. When each student showed up in the experimenter’s “laboratory” housed in a college dormitory, the experimenter told them the study was running late, and asked them to wait for a few minutes in a room which was open to the hallway.
While they were waiting, a student — actually a member of the research team, entered the room and told the study participant that she was working to help a local woman who had fallen victim to “HED,” a mysterious debilitating disease. She gave the student a brochure which explained the condition and asked for help. The brochure included a form with 12 different options for helping, ranging from “I’m not willing to help” to “I would be willing to read to this patient for 1 hour a week” (a four-week commitment). Students could also donate $1 or $5 to the cause, which was collected on the spot. If the student offered to help, contact information was collected and specific times were scheduled.
Of course, the disease and the patient were entirely fictitious — the point was to assess the degree to which each study participant was willing to help someone else. There were actually three different versions of the brochure: in the first version, the disease was explained to be a genetic disorder. In the next version, it was said to be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse. The third version made no mention of the cause of the disease.
Next, the experimenter returned and asked the participant to enter the laboratory and fill out the BJW assessment. Finally, participants were questioned to determine if any of them were aware that HED was not a real disease or that the “volunteer” was really a member of the research team. None of the students had any idea that the disease and its victim were fabricated (the “donations” students had made were returned at this time).
A separate group of participants rated the different volunteering options on a scale of 0 to 11, where 0 was “no effort” and 11 was “a great deal of effort.” So how did Belief in a Just World correspond to the level of volunteering offered? Here are the results:
DePalma’s team plotted the participant’s offers to help against their responses to the Belief in a Just World test, based on standard deviations away from the mean response (the probability that a value lies within one standard deviation of the mean is about 67 percent, and within two standard deviations of the mean is approximately 95 percent). Even at the average level of BJW, participants were significantly more likely to help the victim they believed was not responsible for the disease (since the disease was genetic), compared to a victim who brought it on herself (since she caught it through unprotected sex). As BJW increased, participants offered significantly more help to the victim not responsible for the disease, but their level of help for victims responsible for the condition stayed the same.
DePalma et al. say their results may suggest that organizations looking for volunteers should emphasize that the people they are helping aren’t responsible for their plight and thus deserve help. Certainly these results would explain the popularity of Extreme Makeover, with its emphasis on how deserving the recipients of its makeovers are.
I’m interested to hear what Cognitive Daily Readers think of these results — is Belief in a Just World the best way to motivate people to serve others? Let us know what you think in the comments.
DePalma, M.T., Madey, S.F., Tillman, T.C., & Wheeler, J. (1999). Perceived patient responsibility and belief in a just world affect helping. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21(2), 137-137.