Social influence is the area of social psychology concerned with situations in which the actions of an individual or group affect the behavior of others. This text examines the basic concepts of human interactions from a psychological perspective. Two specific examples of human behavior serve as case studies to explore the underlying social situations and the context in which the behaviors occurred. From a social psychology view will the behavior be analyzed regarding precursors and consequences of the behavior. Thus, the identification of associated phenomenon are searched for which facilitate the behavior: aggression and altruism. Finally, do the mentioned exhibited behaviors necessitate therapeutic intervention or not?


When he saw a boy breaking through the ice of the lake, Martin Schell, 16 years old, rushed to save him. Aware that he was in danger himself, Martin struggled to help the boy out of the icy water. His efforts came just in time because the boy was close to drown. With this altruistic behavior Martin won the Bavarian award for heroism.

Steven Kazmierczak, 27, walked into a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University of DeKalb near Chicago. He was clothed black and carried two pistols and a shotgun. The student killed 5 classmates and him self and injured 16 others. Steven was on psychiatric medications for anxiety, depression and sleeplessness and had put down two of his medication recently.

In these two incidents, one sees the best and the worst of humanity. In the first, one gets a considerable positive view of the world. In the second, one sees violence being inflicted on innocent human beings. If events such as these foster only a negative, pessimistic interpretation of human capacities, other, equally dramatic incidents promote a more optimistic view of humankind. In addition to dramatic incidents of heroism such as those performed by Martin, consider the simple kindness of life: lending a valued CD, stopping to help a older woman who has fallen off her bicycle, or merely paying a cup of cappuccino for one’s friend. Such instances of helping are no less characteristic of human behavior than the more distasteful examples. In the following paragraph the work of social psychology in explaining precursors and consequences of both helping and aggressive behavior will be analyzed.


In Martin’s case, he behaved altruistically. Altruism is a helping behavior that is beneficial to others but clearly requires self-sacrifice. For example, an instance in which a person runs into a burning house to rescue a strangers’ child might be considered altruistic, particularly when compared with the alternative of simply calling the fire department.

Some research suggests that individuals who intervene in emergency situations tend to have certain personality traits that differentiate them from non-helpers. For example, Shotland (1984, p. 51) suggests that helpers tend to be more self-assured. Other research has found that individuals who are characteristically high in empathy – a personality trait in which an individual observing another person experiences the emotions of that person – are more likely to respond to others’ needs (Kowalski & Westen, 2005, p. 448). Still, most social psychologists agree that there is no single set of attributes or precursors that differentiate helpers from non-helpers. Situational factors play the predominant role in determining whether an individual intervenes in a situation requiring aid or not.

Consequently, a person who underwent an altruistic behavior will subsequently to it again. His reward system within the brain was triggered and a positive vicious circle will start. Kohlberg’s moral reasoning process is promoted as a precursor and as a consequence of an altruistic behavior. (Kowalski & Westen, 2005, p. 523). The moral development of an individual and the self-concept of one self facilitate moral judgment needed to undergo altruism.

Aggressive behavior means intentional injury of or harm to another person. Instinct approaches suggest that humans have an innate drive to behave aggressively and that if aggression is released in socially desirable ways, it will be discharged in some other form – a point for which there is relatively little research support. Frustration-aggression theory suggests that frustration produces a readiness to be aggressive – if aggressive cues are present. This theory tries to explain aggression in terms of events such as the one with Steven. Frustrations always lead to aggression of some sort, and that aggression is always the consequence of some frustration. It is a fact, that when a frustrated individual is close to weapons, he will behave more violently. The same is true for violent movies being watched by individuals. The aggressive behavior will increase. Finally, observational learning theory hypothesizes that aggression is learned through reinforcement, particularly reinforcement that is given to models (parents, teachers, and coaches). According to observational learning theory, people observe the behavior of models and the subsequent consequences of the behavior. If the consequences are positive, the behavior is likely to be imitated when the observer finds himself or herself in a similar situation.

The threshold of desensitization to the suffering of victims of violence is changed and produces little emotional responses when violent behavior is shown on TV or in the environment of an individual. This findings have important implications for understanding the consequences of aggression observed in the media.


Altruism is a phenomenon within itself. Plenty of altruistic behaviors are shown and known on a local and worldwide base. The mass rescues, as for the disaster of  9/11, which lead to an emergence of  non-victims to help victims. Here, human cohesiveness is formed by a common cause – to help. On a smaller scale, as in the case of Martin, prosocial behavior or prosocial responding in times of disaster and with it altruistic behaviors are one outstanding characteristic coming to surface within the human species.

The act of altruism is a social facilitation by the means of gaining social prestige and emotional well being of an individual and is favored by the majority of humans. The necessity of altruistic behaviors is essential for the survival of groups and society to balance out aggression.

The intensity of aggression is increased with the number of incidents of aggression, or our physical environment as the rise in temperature, or the density of people living together and it will enhance the probability of an aggressive drive and the level of aggression. Thus, gender, age and social status play another role. Many theories evolved around the phenomenon aggression and no real conclusions can be drawn. The worst of all aggressive behaviors are those with the case of Steven or the once still taking place around the world – war. The underlying emotion or drive of all harm done to human beings is the phenomenon aggression and it doesn’t matter if aggression is constituted by one individual, a group, or a nation upon a human being or human beings.


Therapeutic intervention is not needed when it comes to altruism. Regarding aggression, therapeutic intervention would have been needed in the case of Steven. He was in psychiatric hands and his frustration or aggression was not detected, and that he will be a danger to others and himself. The only treatment given, was that of medicine only. Here, we have to argue if the established systems do work of overseeing patients in need. Medication alone will not treat human beings with anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness (like in Steven’s case). He would have needed psycho-education, relaxation tools, behavioral assignments to overcome frustration and stress and to learn to deal with his life in a better way. The task of all should be to take concern about those in need.

In brief, considered together, they do appear to be reasonable approaches to bring about a society in which helping behavior is the rule instead of the exception.

Techniques for promoting prosocial behavior include providing helpful models, using moral admonitions, and teaching moral reasoning. Most aggressive behaviors surface with young age, here therapeutic intervention is a task not only parents but also institutions should put on their platform to help to avoid disasters like those in Illinois.

Yours, Beate Landgraf


Kowalski, R. & Westen, D. (2005), Psychology (4th ed.), 448-523. John Wilex & Sons, Inc. Retrieved February 20, 2008, from University of Phoenix, rEsource, PSY300.

Shotland, R.L. (1985). When bystanders stand by. Psychology today, 19. 50-55. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from