By Kevin R. Betts
The United States has played a supportive role in at least two major world events recently. In response to a natural disaster in Japan, U.S. officials sent monetary and human resources to aid in recovery efforts. In response to government-backed violence in Libya, U.S. officials helped initiate a no-fly zone to protect civilians. One thing that is interesting about these prosocial acts is that they both involve the U.S. helping an out-group. Taking away from limited resources that might be devoted to local problems, the U.S. has voluntarily sought to help members of the international community. Why might the U.S. see value in helping these international out-groups at the expense of problems at home? Are the intentions of the U.S. government purely humanitarian, or might officials see a more strategic advantage to helping these international out-groups?
Research by van Leeuwen and Täuber (2008) suggests that helping an out-group also garnishes some benefits for the in-group. For one, the act of helping in and of itself is associated with power differentials which may reduce the recipient’s degree of autonomy. When the U.S. offered assistance to disaster-ravaged Japan and war-torn Libya, they placed these countries in a position of dependency on the U.S. Even if assistance is welcomed, it carries with it the implied notion that the U.S. is qualified and able to provide help where these countries cannot help themselves. Helping out-groups also renders the in-group a sense of meaningfulness and purpose to the degree that being able to help implies that the in-group is valued and needed. Providing assistance to Japan and Libya confirms the beliefs of many American citizens that their country holds a valuable position in the world such that other countries rely on their help. Third, out-group helping promotes a favorable image of the in-group in the eyes of beneficiary out-groups and other outside observers. Providing help to Japan and Libya alerts the international community that the U.S. promotes humanitarian values and goals.
Whether or not U.S. officials recognize all of these advantages to helping international out-groups is unclear. Nonetheless, the recent prosocial actions of the U.S. can be expected to sway the power differential in the favor of the U.S., promote a sense of meaningfulness and purpose among American citizens, and enhance the image of the U.S. abroad.
van Leeuwen, E., & Täuber, S. (2008). The strategic side of out-group helping. In S. Stürmer, & M. Snyder (Eds.), The psychology of prosocial behavior (pp. 81-99). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.