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What Motivates a Person to Be an Ally?

When people try to be allies, their motivation matters.

Before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., people who were not heterosexual and wanted access to legal marriage got a lot of support from heterosexuals. Some coupled heterosexuals even refused to marry until marriage equality was accomplished.

People who are single, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity, are still denied all the benefits and protections that come with legal marriage—there are more than 1,000 of them. As a single person, I sometimes think that I would welcome any allyship at all. Who cares whether the motivation is as pure as I would like? For some acts of support, the motivation may not matter much at all. For example, more signatures on a petition could translate to greater potential impact, regardless of the motivation of the signers. In other ways, though, motivation could matter a lot.

In “Beyond Allyship,” published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, University of Edinburgh lecturer Helena R. M. Radke and four colleagues described four different kinds of motivations for members of advantaged groups to try to help disadvantaged groups. They are not trying to sort people into four corresponding groups, because people can have more than one motivation, or different motivations at different times or in different contexts.

Genuine Helping: Focused on What Is Best for the Disadvantaged Group

People in advantaged groups who have an “outgroup-focused motivation” are motivated by “a genuine interest in improving the status of the disadvantaged group.” This is the sort of person we usually have in mind when we call someone an ally. They typically disavow the negative stereotypes of the disadvantaged group, and they are angered by the unfair disadvantages those groups endure. They also tend to be aware of their own privilege and they do not identify very strongly with their own in-group.

People motivated to engage in genuine helping tend to pay attention to what the members of the disadvantaged group really do want, rather than presuming to know or to speak for them. They are not trying to be the helper heroes who will continue to be needed; they want the disadvantaged group members to get the resources they need to be their own problem-solvers.

They don’t limit their willingness to help to the easy things, such as signing petitions. They will also take actions that require more effort. They will put themselves out there in public, such as by attending demonstrations, if they think that action has the best chance of resulting in genuine change. They will do things that could be risky for them, such as boycotting or picketing or participating in sit-ins, if they think those tactics will be most effective, rather than just doing the safer things such as writing letters or protesting peacefully.

Morally Motivated Helping

Sometimes helpers have a special interest in a particular disadvantaged group, maybe in part because of their identification (or lack of identification) with their own advantaged group. Other times, the particular identity of the helper or the members of the disadvantaged group is not what matters most. Instead, higher-order moral principles motivate helping. As Radke and her colleagues note, “if the treatment of disadvantaged group members is perceived by some advantaged group members as a violation of a basic moral principle, it may make participating in action for the disadvantaged group a moral imperative.”

Morally motivated helpers are likely to be active in many causes, rather than focusing on just one. Whether they help in private or public ways, whether they are willing to take risky actions, and whether their help puts the needs of the disadvantaged group ahead of the needs of their own advantaged group depends on the particular moral beliefs that are motivating their helping.

Morally motivated helping is not aligned with any one political ideology. The authors offer this example:

“Men might be motivated to take action for women against violent pornography which demeans women because this violates their moral belief in social equality (leading them to demand social change for the rights of women) or because this violates their moral beliefs that women should be protected (leading them to demand that we revert back to a time when men protected rather than exploited women).”

Helping That Benefits or Protects the Helper’s Own In-Group

When people identify strongly with their own advantaged group, they might still want to help a disadvantaged group, but only “on the condition that the status of their own group is maintained.” For example:

“Men might be willing to participate in a Reclaim the Night protest against the violence that women experience, but may not be willing to advocate for equal pay for women in the workplace.”

Helpers with this “ingroup-focused motivation” may be helping disadvantaged groups because that will bolster the reputation of their own advantaged group, perhaps making the members seem warmer and more moral.

Sometimes the people who are motivated to protect their own group are experiencing guilt, and they will look for the quickest and easiest way to alleviate that guilt, rather than engaging in the kind of help most likely to be useful to the disadvantaged group. They are more likely to feel sorry for the members of the disadvantaged group than to empathize with them.

People with this motivation often like hierarchical relationships better than equal ones. They are driven by zero-sum beliefs, meaning that they think that if one person gains something, then another person loses.

They may hold paternalistic beliefs “which are associated with support for the disadvantaged group as long as the advantaged group takes care of and provides for them.” That kind of help “maintains the lower status of the disadvantaged group by making them dependent on the help provided by the advantaged group.”

Helping That Is Self-Centered, and Maybe Even Narcissistic

Sometimes helping isn’t about the group that needs the help or even the advantaged group to which the potential helper belongs. Instead, it is personal. People in advantaged groups can help people in disadvantaged groups “to improve their reputation, increase opportunities to make money, or, in the case of politicians, increase the likelihood of being elected.”

When a member of an advantaged group steps into a disadvantaged group’s protest and grabs the bullhorn, they may be engaging in the kind of grandiose exhibitionism characteristic of narcissists.

Respectful and Disrespectful Help

Radke and her colleagues do not use the terms “respectful help” and “disrespectful help,” but I think they apply. Morally motivated helpers and genuine helpers (motivated by what is best for the disadvantaged group) are more likely to commit to:

  • “Listening to and amplifying the voices of the disadvantaged group.
  • Seeking advice from and following requests made by the disadvantaged group (including stepping back when necessary).
  • Accepting criticism.
  • Taking on the role of an ‘accomplice’ or ‘side-kick’ rather than seeking one as a ‘hero’ or ‘champion’ of a movement.”

When people are motivated to protect the interests of their own advantaged group, or when they are motivated by self-centered concerns, they are more likely to help in disrespectful ways. For example:

  • They don’t ask for guidance from members of the disadvantaged group.
  • They don’t consider how their actions affect that group.
  • They waiver in their support depending on how much trouble it is to help.
  • They might try to “take over the work, co-opt the movement and in doing so obfuscate or trivialize the movement’s message, actively seek to be a leader in the movement, and offer unwanted and/or unneeded advice with the expectation that the disadvantaged group will listen to them.”

As more people become aware of these kinds of considerations, the quality of help they offer may improve. Maybe people motivated by their own self-interest or the interests of their own group will help in better ways only because that will make them look better. Still, even that could be a step in the right direction.