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Altruism is simply defined as helping behaviours which are actions designed to help others without obvious benefit to oneself (Huffman, 2007). People help and support one another by donating blood, giving time and money to charity, helping stranded motorists or strangers, rescuing, defending, etc. But there are other times when people do not help. It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself (Post, 2002).  There is abundant evidence that people have been interested in understanding the nature of pro-social behaviour for a long time (Niesta, 2011). Folktales, legends and parables provide insight into issues that are common concerns to members of a culture and because pro-social behaviour may have an adaptive value that will increase the chance of survival of an individual, or group or culture, it is not surprising that the story and folklore of many cultures stress the value of helping one another (Niesta, 2011).

The New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, serve as an example of altruism. In this well known tale, a man who has been beaten and robbed on his way to Jericho received no assistance from two men of strong religious convictions- a priest and a Levite. However, a Samaritan, who was considered to be a sort of a religious outcast stopped to help the victim, bandaging his wound and taking him to an inn for further treatment. The message for those listening to this parable was to be concerned about the wellbeing of others and to follow the Samaritan’s model. The lessons to be learnt from folklores and parables are represented and formalized in many academic disciplines (Psychology, Religion, Philosophy and Anthropology) of which social Psychology has taken the lead. A variety of criteria have been proposed in an attempt to show who is more likely to receive help, who is most likely to give help, and what criteria determine this. To name just a few, social and personal norms about what is appropriate or acceptable behaviour may motivate people to help (Niesta, 2011). In this tradition, people are motivated to help because they feel external or internal pressure to comply with these norms, such as cooperative and benevolent behavoiur or personal responsibility- taking when noticing that something is wrong.  It is worth noting that anyone who neglects to raise the fallen  should fear, lest when he/she falls, no one will stretch out a helping  hand to lift him/her up: For this reason, altruism is very important.

The word “altruism” is a part of a larger lexicon of human goodness. However, its meanings and its link to related terms (e.g., helping) have not always been clear. Altruism derives from the Latin root “alter” meaning “other” (Post, 2002) Consistent with that root, Post (2002) defines an altruist as someone who does something for the other and for the other’s sake, rather than as a means to self-promotion or internal well-being.  Oliner (2002) asserts that a behavior is altruistic if it meets four criteria: it is directed toward helping another; involves a high risk or sacrifice to the actor; is accompanied by no external reward, and is voluntary. In contrast to Oliner, Batson (1994) distinguishes between altruism and two related terms: helping and self-sacrifice. Altruism, Batson asserts, has the ultimate goal of increasing the welfare of one or more individuals other than oneself. Batson notes that helping behaviors, although often altruistic, cannot be assumed to be intrinsically altruistic because they are not always intended to enhance the welfare of others (e.g., giving money to a homeless person so that one does not have to witness his/her distress is helpful but not altruistic since the intent was not to improve the lot of the person in need). However, Batson contrasts altruism, which references the improved lot of the recipient, with “self-sacrifice” which references the costs paid by actors for their actions. Batson notes that it is not the fact that someone suffers a cost that defines his/her actions as altruistic. Instead, actions are altruistic if the actor intended to improve the well-being of the recipient. In keeping with Post’s and Batson’s definitions, altruistic behaviors are actions that are: voluntary; undertaken without an a priori interest in receiving internal or external rewards; intended to enhance the welfare of others.

Batson (1991) takes a less dogmatic path and defined altruism as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. The term altruism emerged as a modern secular scientific concept within the nineteenth century domain of the scientific positivism, as an attempt to substitute empirical reason for religion (or superstition). Altruism is the secular version without the emotion or spiritual undertones of the Christian concept of Agape love (Koenig, et. al.,  2007). Even within the scientific community thought, there is controversy about the definition of altruism. Some scholars claim that a truly altruistic act must be free of self- interest, a sort of transcendent self- sacrifice (Niesta, 2011). Comte (1975), who coined the word altruism about 150 years ago, conceived of it as a devotion to the welfare of others based on complete selflessness (Koenig, et. al,2007). Huffman (2007) narrated a story that occurred in 1964 where a woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed repeatedly to death by a knife wielding assailant as she returned from work to her apartment. Thirty-eight neighbours watched as she struggled to fight off her attacker and her screams and pleas for help. Though the attack lasted for an hour, but when one neighbour finally called the police, it was too late- Kitty Genovese was dead. How could such a thing happen? Why did she not receive help from her neighbours? More generally, under what conditions do people help and sometimes ignore others’ pleas for help in an emergency situation? Initial findings opined that thirty-eight of Genovese’s neighbours witnessed the event and chose not to react (Huffman, 2007).

The study on altruism was first carried out after Kitty Genovese’s death by Latane & Darley who focused on the subject of what is now known as the bystander effect (Latane & Darley,1968). This experiment had subjects discussing their college lives over an intercom. While this was going on, a tape of one participant having what was apparently an epileptic seizure was played. This study measured the amount of time it took for the participants to help the victim (dependent variable). Some participants were under the impression that they were alone in the exercise, while others were told that they were as many as six other subjects (independent variables). The effect of this experiment suggest that when the number of bystanders decreases, the chances of the person receiving help will be slim. The most common criticism of the bystander effect is that there are other reasons for why people choose not to help. For example, indivuidual assumes other bystanders are more qualified in times of need (such as the presence of Doctor or Police officer). As a result, these people feel as though their intervention would be unhelpful and unnecessary. Another reason for social inaction is evaluation apprehension, some feel self-conscious about the image they give off to other bystanders. In order to avoid losing face, the individuals simply do not respond or react to a person in need of aid. Other factors that influence one’s lack of helping are associated with perception which the bystander experiment did not consider and this current study seeks to fill in the gap. For example, in view of ethnic identity and gender, bystanders may consider helping a female than a male victim, a victim who shares the same ethnicity with them or  whom they perceive as being from a specific tribe that is most related to them. Although, some people are obviously more helpful than others, personality alone does not determine behaviour- the pressure of the situation matter as well. Predicting how helpful people will be is no exception. Studies of both children and adults for example, find that people with high score on personality tests of altruism are not that much more likely to help than those with lower scores. (Batson, 1998).  Several other critical factors need to be considered as well, such as the situational pressures that are affecting people, their gender, the culture in which they grew up, ethnic identity, how religious they are, and even their current mood (Graziano, Habashi, Sheese, & Tobin, 2007). Before a bystander is likely to take action, he/she must define the event as an emergency and decides that intervention is the proper course of action. While making the decisions, the bystander may become influenced by the decision they perceive other bystanders to be taking. If each one of the other bystanders seems to regard the event as non-serious, it changes and affects the perception of any single individual and inhibits potential helping behaviour (Lantane & Darley, 1970; Hart & Meithe, 2008). This definition will be adopted throughout in this study. Apart from factors such as personality, gender, culture, and mood that contribute a piece to the puzzle of why people help others, they donot complete the picture. Rather, the social situation in which people find themselves is also very crucial. However, there are five steps to helping, they include: noticing the event (or in a hurry and not notice it); interpreting an event as an emergency (or assume that others are not acting, it is not an emergency); assuming responsibility (or assume that others will do this); knowing how to help (or not); and deciding to implement the help (or worry about danger, legislation, embarrassment, etc.) (Christensen, 2008). But in Genovese’s case, where did the sequence break down? Her neighbours obviously noticed what was happening and interpreted it as an emergency, but the break down came at the third stage- taking personal responsibility for helping. Bystanders fail to intervene in help-needing situation because they usually feel someone else would do so- a phenomenon Lantane and Darley termed diffusion of responsibility. (Lantane & Darley, 1970). This phenomenon means the dilution/diffusion of personal responsibility for acting by spreading it among other group members. For instance, if you see someone fall off a moving motor cycle or involved in a ghastly motor accident, if you are the only person around, then responsibility falls squarely on you. But if other people are present, there may be a diffusion of responsibility. It is ironic that if only one neighbour had seen the brutal attack on Genovese, and not thought that there were other witnesses: Genovese might have been alive today (Latane & Darley, 1970).

Although, it has been suggested that individuals are less likely to offer help in emergency situation when other people are present- the bystander’s effect (Darley& Lantane, 1968), later research has shown that other factors in addition to the presence of others are influential in determining one’s helping such as time constraints, age, gender, physical appearance, ethnic identity, mood, individual difference (personality), physical environment, among others.

Cultural identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular culture or ethnic group. This process involves learning about and accepting traditions, heritage, language, religion, ancestry, aesthetics, thinking patterns, social structure of a culture. Normally, people internalize the beliefs, values, norms, and social practices of their culture and identify themselves with that culture. The culture becomes a part of their self-concept (Lustig, 2013).  cultural identity can also be seen as the identity of a group or culture or of an individual as far as one is influenced by one’s belonging to a group or culture. New forms of identification have been suggested to break down the understanding of the individual as a whole subject into a collection of various cultural identifiers. Such identifiers can result from various conditions including: traditional attires, location, gender, race, history, nationality, language, sexuality, religious beliefs, ethnicity, aesthetics, and even food. Cultural identity includes a sense of companionship, beliefs, interest and basic principles of living. When a person identifies with their culture, they often embrace traditions that have been passed down through the years. The cultural identity links of a person to their heritage, can help them identify with others who have the same traditions and basic belief systems. Some people claim that a person’s cultural identity is the foundation or groundwork on which every other aspect of their being is built. It is the cornerstone of what makes them who they are. Embracing one’s culture often means practising a specific religion, wearing a certain type of clothing or something else that represents their culture, it creates an outward, visible means of identifying that person as part of a culture or nationality. Tha Aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand are excellent examples of this. Many tribes still live and dress, celebrate and live their lives as if no one has ever attempted to influence them, they follow a tribal form of government and also adhere to a strict code of ethics both in tribal and family life. Traditions are often passed down from generation to generation and have been in existence for hundreds of years.

However, some recent studies have noted that existing cultural identity theory may not account for the fact that different individuals and groups may not react to or interpret events, happenings, attitudes, etc. in the same ways as other individuals or groups.

Myron Lustig (2013), points out that cultural identities are dynamic, and they exist within a changing social context. As a result, a person’s identity changes as do one’s ongoing experiences in life. To this end, it could be deduced that the way people perceive an individual’s or a victim’s culture, especially his/her ethnic identity, goes a long way to determine how bystanders would offer help to such a person in an emergency situation.

Language and dressing (like traditional attires) may also be an important factor in ethnic identity. The communication that comes with sharing a language and dress pattern promotes connections and roots to ancestors and cultural histories.  Lustig also notes that ethnic/cultural identities are central to a person’s sense of self. That is because cultural identities are central, dynamic, and multifaceted components of one’s self concept (Lustig, 2013). Other researchers describe cultural identity as referring to the content of values as guiding principles, to meaningful symbols, and to life styles that individuals share with others, though not necessarily within recognizable groups (Boski et al., 2004). In addition, Boski et al. point out that most books and studies have ignored cultural identity as a theoretical construct in the field of cross-cultural psychology. Instead, books and journals report works on the theme of social identity. Social identity is described as a sense of “We-ness,” or attachment to a group that one is a member of, and by comparison to others. The sense of “We-ness” remains culturally empty, however, Even with natural groups, it is portrayed in trait-attributes, “which is not different from those used to characterize individuals” (Boski et al., 2004). There is, however, research evidence about the social (ethnic) vs. cultural distinction (Sanchez-Burks et al., 2000). This study found that the task-oriented cultural style was generally more favored than the task-plus interpersonal alternative, particularly among Anglo-American participants, for whom ethnicity did not matter. Mexican and Latino participants, however, showed some degree of favoritism toward ethnically similar participants (Sanchez-Burks et al, 2000).

Jean, S. Phinney proposed three stages of acquiring cultural identity- Unexamined cultural identity; Cultural identity search; Cultural identity achievement.

Unexamined Cultural Identity is chaacterized by a lack of exploration of culture and cultural differences- they are rather taken for granted without much critical thinking. This stage is usually reserved for childhood when cultural ideas provided by the parents, the community or the media are easily accepted. Children at this stage tend not to be interested in ethnicity and are generally ready to take on the opinions of others.

Cultural Identity Search is the second stage that is characterized by the exploration and questioning of one’s culture inorder to learn more about it and to understand the implications of belonging to it. During this stage, one begins to question where someone belief come from and why he/she holds them and are ready to compare and analyze them across cultures. For some, this stage may arise from a turning point in their lives or form a growing awareness of other cultures and it can also be a very emotional time, this is often the time when high-school  students decide to go on programs that can satisfy a growing awareness of the world around one and the desire to learn more about the culture.

Cultural Identity achievement- ideally people at this stage have a clear sense of their cultural identity and are able to succesfully navigate it in the contemporary world which is undoubtedly very interconnected and intercultural. The acceptance of oneself and one’s cultural identity may play a significant role in other important life decisions and choices, influencing one’s attitude and attitude and behaviour. This usually leads to an increase in self-confidence and positive psychological development.

When young people are severed from the ideals and positively sanctioned statuses, feelings of alienation or social isolation may develop. These feelings can result in undesired treatment and status. This process results in personal marginalization, and it may lead to social marginalization which includes that person’s relative economic, employment, educational, and cultural loss compared to those around him. This provides a second source of alienation from mainstream society. This can cause an individual to experience extreme discomfort called ego identity discomfort. Because external sources have too much control, the individual cannot construct a personal definition of him/her self. The person is then motivated to identify with an alternative social group such as a drug subcultural group. Such groups provide opportunities to resolve identity problems. Identification with such a group reduces the person’s ego identity discomfort, or it helps to solve identity problems. Scholars today are focusing on the basic elements of social organization (race, ethnicity, gender, and social class) in their theory and research.

People with different cultural backgrounds have different expectations, norms and values, which in turn have the potential to influence their judgements and decisions as well as their subsequent behaviour. European Americans, for example, are generally influenced by the positive consequences of a decision, whereas Asians appear to be more influenced by the negative consequences that may occur due to a decision or line of action. Asians are therefore more “prevention” focused, manifesting a greater tendency to compromise, seek moderation or to postpone decisions if it is possible. However, recent research shows that cultural norms and values are not the only criteria to influence behaviour. The extent to which they come into play also depend on situational factors, and how much the situation calls these norms and values to mind when the judgement or decision is being made. Culture is transmitted to people through language as well as through the modelling of behavior, and it defines which traits and behaviors are considered important, desirable, or undesirable. Within a culture there are norms and behavioral expectations. These cultural norms can dictate which personality traits are considered important. The researcher Gordon Allport considered culture to be an important influence on traits and defined common traits as those that are recognized within a culture. These traits may vary from culture to culture based on differing values, needs, and beliefs. Positive and negative traits can be determined by cultural expectations: what is considered a positive trait in one culture may be considered negative in another, thus resulting in different expressions of personality across cultures.

Considering cultural influences on personality is important because Western ideas and theories are not necessarily applicable to other cultures (Benet-Martinez & Oishi, 2008). There is a great deal of evidence that the strength of personality traits varies across cultures, and this is especially true when comparing individualist cultures (such as European, North American, and Australian cultures) and collectivist cultures (such as Asian, African, and South American cultures). People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are important. In contrast, people who live in collectivist cultures tend to value social harmony, respectfulness, and group needs over individual needs. These values influence personality in different but substantial ways; for example, Yang (2006) found that people in individualist cultures displayed more personally-oriented personality traits, whereas people in collectivist cultures displayed more socially-oriented personality traits.

However, ethnicity which is the umbrella under which cultural identity takes its bearing, refers to the various ethnic groups individuals belong to, which  can differ from one another in terms of their appearances, dressing, food, Cultural practices, religious beliefs, and of course, their language or speech style. Language and speech style is often one of the most distinct and clear markers of ethnic identity. For instance, the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria- Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are the most distinctive ethnolinguistic groups in terms of accent and language because language or speech style cues ethnic identity (Hogg & Vaughan, 1995). An ethnic group can be categorized into clans or tribes. These might later form their own ethnicities or some different ethnic groups may merge together forming one ethnicity- a concept known as ethnogenesis.Depending on the source of identity, several ethnic groups can be seen as ethno-racial, ethno-religious and ethno-linguistic groups but it is posible for individuals to move from one ethnic group to another if there is acceptance from the latter.

Ethnicity in Nigeria is so varied that there is no definition of a Nigerian beyond that of someone who lives within the borders of the country. In Nigeria, the ethnic groups are occasionally fusions created by intermarriage, intermingling and/or assimilation . The three major ethnic group under study are: Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba; The Igbos are a synthesis of a smaller ethnic groups and their origin is completely unknown as they claim to be from about nineteen different places, but they do maintain an ‘indigenous home’; The Hausas are themselves a fusion, a collection of Sudanese people that were assimilated, long ago into the population inhabiting what is now considered Hausaland (Northern region); The Yorubas are like the others made up of numerous smaller numerous connections of people who are united by their common belief in the town of Ife as their place of origin. However, these three groups comprise only about 57% of the Nigerian population while the remainder of the people are members of the ethnic minority groups (Hodgkin, 1960). Ethnic identity can be biologically inherited which has the possibility of of people moving from one ethnic group from another provided there is an acceptance from both ethnic groups and it can also be socially acquired in that it is dynamic and anybody can acquire others’ cultural traits by virtue of socialization (Miladinovic, 2015).

Another important factor determining altruism is gender. The social and cultural roles that people of different gender are made to assume in the society makes altruism an important subject of discuss. Elementary insight about socially identified sex (Eagly, 1987), gender role beliefs are both descriptive and prescriptive in that they indicate what men and women usually do and what they should not do. (Wood &Eagly, 20002, 2009). For example, women, more than men are thought to be communal- that is, friendly, unselfish, concerned with others and  emotionally expressive. While men, more than women are thought to be agentic- that is, masterful, assertive, competitive and dominant. A question is very crucial at this point- Are men meant to be gallant? It seems that males are more likely to help females than vice versa (Latane & Dabbs, 1975). Typically, such a situation involves helping a motorist in distress or of offering a ride to a stranger that is trekking. When the person in need of such help is a female, passing cars are much more likely to stop than for a male or a male/female pair (Pomazal & Clore, 1973; Snyder et al.1974; West et al. 1975). Those who stop are typically young males driving alone. It is interesting that the male tendency to be more helpful to females stands up in a meta-analysis of research findings, despite a baseline difference of women showing more empathy generally than men (Eagly & Crowley, 1986).

In virtually all cultures, norms describe different trait and behaviours for males and females, learned boys and girls are growing up. In western cultures, the male sex role includes being chivalrous and heroic: females are expected to be nurturant and caring and to value close long-term relationships. In contrast to men, women are more likely to provide social support to their friends and to engage in volunteer work that invo;ves helping others (Eagly & Keonig, 2006; Mcguire, 1994; Monin, Clark & Lemay, 2008).  However, the logic for gender effect is thus similar to that for other roles including those associated with personal characteristics. In particular, gender roles influence behavior in conjunction with many other roles, including those associated to other group membership (e.g., religion, ethnicity and specific obligation-occupation and family).


Bringing the concept of altruism into the Nigerian setting, the idea of collectivism (the African spirit of being your one another’s keeper) dominated the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria and was held as a highly esteemed value. But, in recent times, the idea of individualism (which is mainly a western orientation),  is fast infiltrating into and has become rampart in the country. Consequently, it is very alarming how people usually display unwillingness, lack of concern  and non-challancy to helping a victim in an emergency or critical situation even when they witness such.  People are becoming more indifferent to the affairs of their fellow citizens, very self-centered and biased to people from other ethnic groups. This is becoming rampart and is fast turning Nigeria into a callous, indifferent and unfriendly society as reflected in America during Kitty Genovese’s case.

The idea of altruism is fast going into oblivion in Nigeria especially with the negative turn of events ranging from violence, terrorism, ethnic and religious crises, etc.The prevalence of individualism that is being constantly encouraged in almost every sphere of life is fast spreading. Out of the  various factors that affect altruism,  people’s ethnic identity and gender will be of major interest in this study. There seems to be some form of discrimination when a victim needs help from bystanders in an emergency situation. For instance, people (bystanders) may have a positive bias in the wilingness to help a potential victim on the basis of ethnic/cultural similarity with them or they may feel readily disposed to offer help to a victim whom they perceive to be of the same tribe with them or show gender bias in helping victims in emergency situation.

This has prompted an interest and a serious concern on which this research will be embarked upon, with the aim of exploring how deep this has eaten into the fabrics of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria and its impact on the negative turn of event in the country which is growing on a fast lane.

The following are some questions which this research explored:

  1. Does cultural identity determine whether a person would receive help from others in an emergency situation?
  2. Does the gender of a victim determine whether he/she will receive help in an emergency situation?


This study is aimed at exploring how deep this ethnic bias or segregation has hampered the altruistic tendency of Nigerians and has eaten up the spirit of oneness that Nigeria is well known for despite her cultural diversity. Its impact on the negative turn of event in the country which is growing on a fast lane is also of interest.

However, the purpose of this study included the following:

  1. To determine whether people’s cultural identity affect the way they help victims in an emergency situation.
  2. To know if the gender of a victim determine how he/she will receive help from bystanders in an emergency situation.


  • Willingness to help: was measured on the basis of the overall readiness to help a victim in an emergency situation on a 10-point rating (1-Not willing to help to 10-very willing to help) and the willingness to help the victim on a 7-point rating(1-very unwilling to help to 7- very willing to help).
  • Cultural identity: refered to positive bias in willingness to help on the basis of the ethnic/cultural similarity between the victim and the bystanders. However, three conditions were created using the traditional attires and names perculiar to the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. They are: Isi-Agwu &red cap/ George wrapper, Lacy blouse, head gear & beads (Igbo- Emeka& Chinenye respectively); Kaftan & hula/ wrapper,blouse & Dankwali(Hausa- Adamu & Amina respectively) and Aso- oke & fila/ Iro, Buba & Gele (Yoruba- Shola & Bola respectively).
  • Gender: this is a state of being a male or a female with reference to social and cultural differences.