"Mateship is what people choose to do, it's not what they are forced to do": On the importance of autonomy and social identity in group-based helping.

Researcher Alice Goddard

Supervisors Dr Emma Thomas

Date: Completed November 2011

Project Number: 2011/138



The recent influx of natural disasters within Australia and abroad has lead to Government efforts to generate aid for recovery (for example, the Queensland flood levy). However, social psychological literature on helping is yet to consider the psychological implications of mandatory participation in governmental aid programs. To investigate this point, this study drew upon self-determination theory which posits that the provision of help must be experienced as autonomous if it is to be associated with wellbeing amongst helpers (Weinstien & Ryan, 2010). Since such processes frequently occur on a group-level basis, we also took a social identity approach in considering the role of helping as a strategy in which people can restore a positive evaluation of their social group when the value of the group is threatened (Hopkins et al., 2007). It was predicted that helping which is seen as autonomously motivated (that is, freely chosen rather than mandated) would be more effective in restoring a positive evaluation of a social group when its value is threatened.


These processes were examined in a 2 (threat: present or absent) x 2 (type of helping: institutional or generosity) experiment involving 118 participants. The Australian identity was threatened by presenting some (not all) participants with a mock media article which detailed Australia’s international reputation as racist and intolerant. Participants in the ‘no threat condition’ were presented with an article affirming the Australian identity. The helping manipulation also took the form of two mock media article’s which reported on Australia’s tax-generated (institutional helping) or donation-based (generosity-based helping) response to aid in Japan following the 2011 Tsunami. An online survey took measures of the dependant variables which included; social identification, choice, autonomous and controlled motivation, personal benefit, group-based pride and efficacy.


Results suggested that generosity-based helping is associated with autonomous motivation, whilst institutionally imposed helping is not. Furthermore, autonomous motivation played a mediating role in the extent to which group-based helping fostered social identity. We did not find strong support for the restorative effects of helping when social identity was directly measured. This study therefore found mixed support for the notion that group-based helping can be strategic in terms of impression management in the face of threat.


This study highlighted the significance of autonomy in determining whether helping will be associated with psychological benefits such as satisfaction with social identity. This study has demonstrated how this principle extends into the realm of collective identity. Specifically, autonomy is a means by which group members are able to maintain self-expression within the greater group context. This has particular applications in terms of helping, as individuals need to feel that the act of helping is an expression of the self if they are to derive psychological benefits in relation to their provision of assistance. This notion can be drawn upon in a practical sense to inform social policy and minimise the public backlash that is sometimes associated with institutional helping.