According to new research out of the Campbell Neurocognitive Aging Lab at Brock University, imagining helping others can promote helping others in real life, especially in relatable situations.
The findings of PhD graduand A. Dawn Ryan (MA ’19), now an Assistant Professor at Acadia University, Ronald Smitko (BA ’22) and Associate Professor Karen Campbell in the Department of Psychology were published in Scientific Reports earlier this summer.
In “Effect of situation similarity on younger and older adults’ episodic simulation of helping behaviours,” the researchers show how previous experience plays a role in how both younger and older adults imagine helping others in the future.
“We use bits and pieces of our memories for the past to imagine new scenarios,” says Campbell, Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging. “The same brain regions are activated when we remember the past and imagine the future — in fact, it has been proposed that we evolved to have such good memories for the past to allow us to learn from our experiences and plan for the future.”
To complete the study, the researchers took the novel approach of consulting with younger adults and older adults to develop problem scenarios that resonated with their experiences. This allowed the scenarios used in the study to be targeted to the populations taking part in the experiment.
Once the scenarios were developed, participants were divided into groups of younger and older adults and provided with a written description of a problem targeted to their age group, such as “this person needs help filing their taxes” or “this person needs help with their online dating profile.”
Participants were asked either to imagine the problem scenario or, in the control group, to assess the writing style. Then all participants answered questions about their willingness to help in the scenario provided, the vividness of the scene and their level of emotional concern.
What the team found was that simulating an episode that connected with previous experience increased participants’ willingness to help among both older and younger adults.
For older adults in particular, this finding shows the significance of situation similarity in episodic simulation, building on the team’s previous work around willingness to help in the COVID-19 pandemic, in which participants had very little experience to draw from when imagining helping others.
“In the COVID-19 study, the situations were novel to both older and younger adults, and people tended to produce fewer details from their own memories in imagining these scenarios and more informational or knowledge-based details,” says Campbell. “This suggested that if you have less personal experience with something, you may rely more on your knowledge, which is what older adults usually do in these tasks. So we wanted to see if we used problem scenarios that are more or less familiar to older adults, can we push this effect around?”
Campbell says that the new study’s findings could show promise for encouraging helping behaviours.
“Thinking about helping someone increases your desire to help that person, and when we’ve been in a similar situation ourselves before, it makes us even more willing to help,” she says. “This is important, as getting people to imagine helping others could increase prosocial behaviour in our society.”