A Grounded Theory on Helping Behavior and Its Shaping Factors

Bro. Hans Steven Moran, FSC


In social psychology, the attribution model of helping
behavior suggests that beliefs of the helping target’s
responsibility for the need for help evoke affective
motivators such as feelings of pity, sympathy, or anger.
The affective motivation leads to helping or not helping the
target. The current emergent theory is an enhancement of
this theory by incorporating other personal and situational

Through the use of classic grounded theory, I
interviewed 80 participants from different De La Salle
Schools in the Philippines. This yielded over 1300 individual
incidents that were compared and contrasted to form
codes, categories and subcategories. A theory on the
decision making process of helping emerged that
incorporates the helper’s personal conviction, and rational
deliberations of the situation. The desire to help is based
on the helper’s rationalemotive beliefs (philosophical
ideals and values that nurture helping and the knowledge
of the nature of risk/problem) and relational-emotive
ties (with the one who needs help and with a social group that
nurtures helping). The desire to help undergoes a process
of rationalpragmatic-deliberations on the appropriateness
of the recipients need of help, the cost of helping, the
helper’s capability of helping, and the logistics of helping
before the actual helping occurs. The theory has
implications for current social psychological theories of
helping, and the use of classic grounded theory research.


The Brothers of the Christian School is a congregation
of religious men founded in the 1700’s in France by Jean
Baptiste De La Salle. The integral purpose of the
congregation is education of youth, particularly the
marginalized. The group grew to become of one of the
pillars of Catholic evangelization through school education
in at least 80 countries around the world. De La Salle
Brothers, as they are popularly known in the Philippines,
reached Philippine soil in 1910 and presently has 12
schools offering basic and higher education. In the 1980s
there was a strong impetus to rekindle the foundational
philosophy of reaching more needy young people. The
rallying cry popularized by the head of Brothers was
“risking your lives to youth at risk”. The past 10 years
ushered movements towards translating this adage into
specific programs and activities of the schools. However,
the idea of “youth at risk” is at its best a conjuncture of
notions with sociological and theological underpinnings.
Most members of the Lasallian community are in a
quandary on this and how it translates operationally into
the leadership and management of schools.

This led to the present study of unraveling the various
meanings attached to the concept of youth at risk by
different members of De La Salle Schools in the Philippines
(abbreviated Lasallian community in this study). I
employed a qualitative epistemology, and started out with
the simple inquiry on what youth at risk means to members
of the Lasallian community.



The 80 participants were religious members (La Salle
Brothers), administrators, teachers and students of seven
De La Salle Schools in the Philippines, representing the
three major archipelagic clusters of Luzon, Visayas and
Mindanao. These islands are likewise distinguished by
socio-political and economic variances.

Data-Gathering Procedure

I used conversations with consent of respondents as
opposed to formal interviews to harvest the raw and
spontaneous sentiments of the respondents. The
interaction climate of conversations are less formal or
structured, allowing the nuances of deviating from other
topics, which later was found useful. I felt that
conversations were more authentic and truer to the
precepts of grounded theory than formal interviews.

I began my conversations with the religious sector, the
La Salle Brothers. They are the main proponents of the
idea of youth at risk and exert much influence among the
schools, being essentially their owners. The conversations
with the Brothers became a springboard to interviewing
other Lasallian community members like administrators,
teachers, staff and students. Each conversation pointed me
to other potential respondents. After analyzing each
conversation I got ideas on conducting conversations with
other randomly selected teachers, students, and
administrators representing other milieus within the
Lasallian community. Eventually, I ended up with 80
conversations in all.

Data Analysis Procedure

Each incident from a conversation was immediately
coded. Incidents are phrases or ideas within the
conversations which directly allude to the substantive area.
Each incident was assigned a reference code according to
the sector and school of the participant. The codes were
compared and contrasted and memos were generated from
this constant comparative method. Memos are insights that
are both logical and intuitive to the researcher, and emerge
during the constant comparison method, which is another
name for grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1965). The
memos aided in the conceptual description of the incidents,
a conceptual categorization of the data, and an evolving
emerging theory. When the conversations were no longer
adding to the conceptual descriptions or to the emerging
theory I declared saturation.

Sorting the memos by clustering, re-ordering and
prioritizing the insights as part of the theoretical sensitizing
process eventually led to the final emergent theory. Finally,
the emergent theory was subjected to the litmus test of
comparing it to the original incidents, to establish its
“goodness-of-it” as a way of validating its grounding from
the data.

Core Category

The main concern of members of the Lasallian
community seems to be to help and serve those who need
help, and especially those in at risk groups. Helping was
perceived as a means to respond to these groups so as to
free them from debilitating circumstances, to improve their
coping skills in handling debilitating situations, and to
improve the quality of life of the one who needs help. The
emergent core category of the research is the helping
process by which the Lasallian members decide to help an
at risk youth or not.

The helping process begins with a member’s rationalemotive
beliefs and relational-emotive ties creating a
desire, and a personal conviction to help. When a member
of the Lasallian community encounters a person who needs
help this sparks a desire to help. This desire to help
undergoes a series of rationalpragmatic deliberations, the
appropriateness of the person who needs help (=target),
the cost of helping, the capability to help, and the logistical
planning of helping before the helping takes place.

Rational-Emotive Beliefs

A member has two main rational-emotive beliefs that
influence the desire and conviction to help a target. These
are the philosophical ideals and values that nurture helping
and serving, and knowledge of the nature of the problem or
risk the target is in. A member’s personalizing of
philosophical ideals and values that nurture helping serves
as a rational logical reason for helping and serving. These
ideals and values include religious persuasions, political
leanings, and moral considerations. They also have an
emotional-motivational component that energizes, focuses,
and directs the helping behavior. Some members
mentioned “I personally act with justice and integrity”, “I
ask myself what Christ would do”, and “I try to be firm but

A member’s knowledge of the nature and the risks of
the problem of the target is the other rationalemotive
belief. It is rational in understanding the nature of the
target’s problem (poverty, academic, addiction,
psychological, emotional, family, and sex related problems
etc.), and the potential dangers of the target’s problem
(inability to sustain a decent living conditions, to function
and contribute to society, to have happiness or joy in life,
and being personally debilitated by circumstances). This
knowledge of the nature of the problem is emotional-
motivational since the member becomes sensitive to
targets who display symptoms of the problem: “I see how
they live”, “I am able to detect those with problems”. Also,
emotional motivational feelings towards targets that have
these problems are evoked: “I am moved with pity and
sympathy for them”, “I cry when I think of their situation”,
“I am frustrated that the school does not differentiate a
drug user from a drug abuser and they just expel them”. A
member’s knowledge of the nature of the problem
energizes, gives focus and sustains a desire to help the

Relational-Emotive Ties

The relational-emotive ties seem to stem from a
member’s relationship with the target, and the members
social group that nurtures helping ideals and values.
Relational-emotive ties with the target affect the member’s
desire to help. It seems that the closer the relationship
with the target, the greater awareness of the target’s
problem and the greater the desire to help: “I am only
aware of the students under my care”, “I can only tell you
about the youth whom I am in contact with”, and “I feel
obliged to help when someone asks me for help”. This
closeness that increases awareness and a subsequent
increased personal conviction to help is an emotive-
motivational property of relational-emotive ties.

Lasallian community member’s relational-emotive ties
with social groups that nurture helping and serving others
also affect the desire and conviction to help. These social
groups serve as the member’s social context and milieu. It
seems that the more the social context nurtures helping
and serving others the greater the desire to help others.
Those who belonged to offices, departments, and social
groups that nurtured helping did often mention personal
helping behaviors. It also seems that the more the social
group’s orientation toward a specific nature of the target’s
problems, the greater the sensitivity to targets with
problems of that specific nature. Psychologists and staff
members working in the guidance-counseling center tended
to be sensitive to psychological and emotional problems.
Members associated with education and academic groups
tended to be sensitive to academic and educational
problems of targets. Those who associated with cause
oriented groups tended to be sensitive to poverty related
problems, and members in business and commerce groups
tended to perceive youth at risk as the inability to function
and contribute to society.

A member’s desire to help and serve seems to cause a
personal conviction towards helping. However, this desire is
not enough to explain helping behavior. It seems that the
member passes through a series of rational-pragmatic
deliberations before helping. These deliberations include
the target’s appropriateness to be helped (a dualistic
perceptual typology), the cost-benefit ratio of helping and
serving, the capability to help, and the logistics of helping.
In a sense, the rational-pragmatic deliberations check the
member’s emotional convictions against a rational
assessment of the situation. The strength of the desire and
personal conviction to help juxtaposes against the strength
of the rational-emotive deliberation resulting in helping a
person or not.

Appropriateness of the Target

The first rational-pragmatic deliberation is the target’s
appropriateness to be helped and served. This
appropriateness tends to be based on a dualistic perceptual
typology of targets. Targets are either perceived as victims
(=targets with debilitating circumstances not caused by
themselves), or non-victims (=targets where debilitating
circumstances are a result of their own actions and
decisions). Rationally, victims are appropriate to help and
serve because they are perceived as innocent and not
responsible for their circumstances. Non-victims are
perceived as inappropriate to help because they are
perceived to have caused their own circumstances of need.
One member defined youth at risk as “those who through
no fault of their own are in situations that causes serious
disadvantage or disability” and another member claimed
that “those who plan to be wayward are not at risk”.

Thus, youth groups who were identified to be in more
need than others by the nature of their problems, and who
were perceived as not responsible for their own
circumstances (=victims) were helped and served by the
members and the schools in which they worked. Groups
who were identified to be in more need than others by the
nature of their problems but who where perceived as
responsible for their own circumstances (=nonvictims)
were not helped by the members or the schools they
worked in. The schools often gave punitive actions to youth
groups who were responsible for their own circumstances
(drug addicts, alcohol users, tardy and truant students,
sexually active students, pregnant teenage students).

Costs and Capabilities of Helping

The second rational-pragmatic deliberation involves
costs of helping and serving as well as capabilities and
capacities to help and serve. This deliberation starts with
rational-pragmatic assessments of the cost of helping
versus the benefit that accompanies helping the target.
This gives a cost-benefit ratio of helping.

Financial costs, time loss, amount of effort, and
deviation from priorities that would result in helping the
target are measured and related to the benefits and
personal gain that comes from helping and serving the
target. Some members mentioned “I feel better about
myself when I help others”. Members also mentioned that
“finances should be considered”, “I do not have enough
time to help all of them so I refer some to the guidance
center”, “I try to help some of them but sometimes it is too
difficult”. If the cost-benefit ratio is favorable (low cost and
high benefit) then there is a greater probability of helping
and serving the target.

Member’s capabilities and capacities to help such as
knowledge, expertise and know-how are also assessed.
Members mention inabilities to help as some problems
need expertise beyond their capability: “When the problem
is emotional or psychological, I refer them to the guidance
office”. If the problem is within the member’s know-how to
help there is a greater probability of helping. If the nature
of the need is beyond the member’s capability then either
helping is not done, or the target is referred to a person
that can help.

Logistics of Helping and Serving

The logistics of helping incorporates the plan of who,
when, where, and how the target will be helped. This plan
assumes that the target is appropriate to help, that the
cost-benefit ratio of helping is good, and that the help need
is within the capability of the helper.

The who of helping tends to be “who can assist me in
helping the target” or “who can better help the target”.
“When will I help the target”, “where will I help the target”,
and “how shall I help the target”. Once the who, when,
where and how are decided, then the actual helping and
serving begins.

The emergent theory is presented in the following
chart.[please see PDF version for chart]

The schematic diagram describes the decision making
process a member goes through before actually helping a
target. It begins with the rational-emotive beliefs and
relational-emotive ties. These beliefs and ties create
desires or convictions to help, which undergo a set of
rational-pragmatic deliberations. The first is the
appropriateness to be helped. Victims are seen as
appropriate and move to the next set of rationalpragmatic
deliberations. Nonvictims are perceived as not appropriate
to be helped and are punished, pushed away and not
helped. The second rational-pragmatic deliberation deals
with the cost of helping and the member’s capability to
help. If the cost of helping is too high and the benefit too
low then the member re-evaluates the desire and
conviction to help. If the desire is high then a new cost-
benefit analysis may be done, but if the desire is low, then
the desire to help may be shelved. Last comes the logistical
planning of helping and serving. Once the last rational-
pragmatic deliberation is made, then the actual helping is
done. The helping behavior is then evaluated from time to
time by rational-pragmatic deliberations.


In this paper I have presented a grounded theory of
helping as a decision-making process. It involves
convictions and deliberations explaining how people
working within an organization devoted to helping others
actually do the helping. In the following I will discuss the
attribution helping model, and relate it to the grounded
theory of helping.

The attribution helping model suggests that helping
behavior is determined by cognitive emotive processes in
exploring the cause and controllability of a person’s need
that lead to inferences to responsibility (Corrigan,
Markowitz, Watson, Rowan, and Kubiak, 2003). This works
as an attribution-effectuation motivation sequence in that
the helper makes a cognitive attribution on the cause and
controllability of the need. This then influences the helper’s
feelings, which in turn determines possible actions (Higgins
and Shaw, 1999). The attribution helping model is based
on the cause of the target’s need for help and the locus of
control in that particular circumstance.

Higgins and Shaw (1999) tested the model in both
laboratory and situational experiments. The attribution
styles of undergraduate college students were categorized
as supportive (the tendency to view other’s misfortunes as
uncontrollable by the target) or unsupportive (the tendency
to view other’s misfortunes as controllable by the target)
by the Reason for Misfortune Questionnaire. Based on the
questionnaire results the researchers used random
matched-pair design to assign the students into two

In the laboratory experiment each group was given
two situations – a person falling in the bus, and an
acquaintance borrowing money for rent. One group was
given low controllability of the cause for need (health
problems: visual impairment for the bus situation, and
hospitalization for the rent situation). Another group was
given high controllability of the cause for need (being drunk
for the bus incident, and laziness for the rent situation).

Eight weeks after the laboratory experiment one
researcher, blinded to the experimental hypothesis,
contacted the students. The researcher was allegedly
working for the “study skills office” of the university and
requested to borrow some notes of the students for a
fictional student who missed classes. One group was given
hospitalization as reason for need, while the other group
was given skiing vacation as reason for need. The students
were given a phone number to call if they wanted to lend
their notes. The other researcher acted as the needy
student and recorded the calls of the students who
volunteered help. The results showed that unsupportive
students perceived the target as having less personal
control in the uncontrollable need situations in comparison
to those in the controllable need situations. Most students
reported that they would help the target in the
uncontrollable need situations more than targets in the
controllable need situations. In the situational experiment
the students helped more when the reason for need was
uncontrollable than controllable. In total, students with a
more supportive attribution style helped more often than
those with an unsupportive attribution style. However,
students with an unsupportive attribution style helped
more often when the need was uncontrollable than when it
was controllable, while the students with a supportive
attribution style helped uncontrolled and controlled need
equally as often (Higgins and Shaw, 1999). Thus,
supportive students helped targets whether they were
responsible or not for the situation the target was in
whereas unsupportive students helped targets if the target
was not responsible for the situation. This led the
researchers to conclude that the causal structure of the
situation is influential in helping behavior (Higgins and
Shaw, 1999).

Corrigan et al. (2003) tried the attribution helping
model studying 518 college students reacting to
hypothetical vignettes on mental illness. The students’
knowledge and experience of the nature of the illness
influenced their appraisal of the targets responsibility for
their condition. The researchers conclude that familiarity
with mental illness reduces discriminatory responses. Their
results validate the study of Higgins and Shaw (1999).
Their study also concludes that knowledge and experience
of the nature of the situation affects helping response.

The present grounded theory of helping incorporates
the conclusions of the related studies (Higgins and Shaw
1999, Corrigan et al. 2003), and expands the attribution
model of helping by showing the importance of personal
convictions and deliberations in the helping process. The
attribution helping model is similar to the current grounded
theory of helping, but the latter is more complex. In the
attribution helping model the helper’s beliefs influences
feelings and these feelings affect behavior. In the grounded
theory of helping rational-emotive beliefs and relational-
emotive ties affect the desire to help. Then a series of
rational-pragmatic deliberations are made before helping is
done. The grounded theory of helping thus offers a
comprehensive explanation to helping behavior since it
incorporates personal conviction and a deliberation of the


The emergent grounded theory on helping and its
decision-making process is an expansion of the attribution
model of helping. It incorporates personal convictions as
well as deliberations of the situational variables. The theory
explores the influences of the helper’s rationalemotive
beliefs (philosophical ideals and values that nurture
helping, and knowledge of the nature of the problem),
relational-emotive ties (with the person who needs help,
and with the helper’s social groups), and the helper’s
rational-pragmatic deliberations of the situation (the
dualistic perceptual typology of the person in need of help,
the cost and capability of helping, and the logistics of
helping). The emergent theory lends itself to theory
verification studies, and future studies on variables relating
to helping convictions and resultant helping behavior are
encouraged. Lastly, the theory and its implications is a
contribution to grounded theory research.


Bro. Hans Steven Moran, FSC
Professor, Psychology Department
University of St. La Salle
Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, Philippines
Email: hansfsc@yahoo.com


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