Helping and Dependency

Many people are used to thinking about helping others as being a “nice” and even moral thing to do, and helping may be well-intended. But at times, the reality of helping, especially when considered in a broader context and occurring over time, can be different. The readings for these topics illustrate that helping is more complex than just “nice.”

At this point, it should not take a great deal of thought to recognize several ways in which helping relates to power. First, it is often the case that more powerful parties are more able to help less powerful parties. Having more of any type of resource, and being less needy, could mean one has more to give. Therefore, helping can be seen as signifying a power relationship, and it is therefore worth asking whether this signification helps to reinforce unequal power between parties or not. If power is in fact being used in a transformative way (Pratto, 2015), then helping should help to empower the lower power party. Transformative power helping might (but might not) reduce the power inequality between helper and help recipient.  But help that perpetuates dependency is not empowering.

If being helped connotes that one is weak, incompetent, non-autonomous, and/or needy, then these apparent qualities may signal that one is ripe for exploitation and domination. Nadler and Chernyak-Hai (2013) experimentally test some ways that this might happen. Their reasoning explains why help might not be welcomed even by people who are lower in power, and perhaps especially by them when their would-be helpers are higher in power.

A second way that power and helping can be related stems from interdependence theory (French, 1956). If the easiest source from which to obtain something one needs is Party X, then to the extent the one comes to depend on Party X for needs-satisfaction, the more one becomes dependent on Party X.  Fast forward this process a little. Suppose one stops even looking for other sources of needs-satisfaction outside of Party X and the lack of interest from you or others makes those alternatives fade away. For example, if people begin buying most of their books on, then independent booksellers go out of business. If one wants to see a book in person or buy one today, but past shopping habits have put all the local bookstores out of business, one might have no place else to shop. could even raise its prices substantially, but if there are no other places to buy books, people will either go without or pay the price.

Remember that IT and power are fundamentally about what choices one has.

Being highly needy, especially when one has few other choices of actions might make a bad offer of help more attractive, even if it comes with dependence and other risks. For example, it is lower income people who often pay the highest interest rates for borrowing money. Some people also analyze China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a kind of coercive help for country’s too poor to get investment from other sources.

This analysis also explains a fundamental finding in social perception. The field theory approach of Lewin (1951) suggests that people in any situation are trying to gauge the possible futures by weighing aspects of what qualities effectively nearby others have and how they are likely to act. For a needy party, then, judging the reliability of a potential source of aid and whether it has nefarious intentions are paramount. For a potential aid-giver who seeks loyal allies, the reliability and trustworthiness of a potential aid recipient are important considerations. This situation helps to illustrate why power and trustworthiness arise as fundamental dimensions of social judgment over and over again in both interpersonal and intergroup relations (Bartholemew & Horowitz, 1991; Leach, Ellemers, & Barreto, 2007).


Bartholemew, K. & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A four category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244., J. R. P. (1956). A formal theory of power. Psychological Review, 63, 181-194.

Leach, C. W., Ellemers, N. & Barreto, M. (2007). The importance of morality (versus competence and sociability) in the positive evaluation of groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 234-249.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. NY: Harper and Brothers.

Nadler, A., & Chernyak-Hai, L. (2013, August 26). Helping Them Stay Where They Are: Status Effects on Dependency/Autonomy-Oriented Helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Pratto, F. (Dec. 22, 2015 on line). On power and empowerment. British Journal of Social Psychology. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What motivations might make people feel that they want to help others? Think of at least three.
  2. What motivations might make people feel they do not want to receive help? Think of at least three.
  3. How could you assure yourself that a party offering aid to another actually has the other’s best interests at heart?
  4. How can helping be mutually beneficial to giver and receiver?
  5. Is there a way that a party who asks for help is being powerful?
  6. Is refusing to provide help a means of enacting power? Is providing help?

    Additional Material

    Why aren’t we more compassionate? | TED Talk

    The Case for Aid | Democracy Lab

    International Dependency Theory


    Helping and Aid Bibliography