Media Influences of the “Helping People” Phrase

By Allison Jones Binkley and Zack Underwood

With so many academic and career choices, individuals can be overwhelmed by the task of deciding on a specific career path. Schwartz’ book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2004) explains that people today have more choices than ever before, which could certainly lead to confusion when choosing a career. Individuals seeking professional advice may describe a default direction of “helping people” when asked about their interests and goals. For example:

Counselor: What career would you like to pursue?
Individual: I’m not sure, but I definitely know that I want to help people.

This particular conversation and lack of direction can be frustrating or concerning for counselors, but it is important to look at what may be influencing individuals to default to the “helping people” phrase. By analyzing clients' interaction with media, counselors can obtain some insight into why they say they want to “help people,” and ideally assist in choosing a best-fit career objective.

Messages from the Media
Television programs and films display examples of people helping others, continuously bombarding viewers with this idea. Messages arise from media and can alter the way individuals think about certain careers. Popular films such as Star Wars and Frozen involve a protagonist or group of protagonists helping others. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker must rescue Princess Leia, which starts with the infamous line of “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” (Lucas 1979). Disney’s animated Frozen involves three friends helping one another to overcome a vicious ice spell. In television, helping examples are just a channel click away. Reality shows such as Extreme Home Makeover “help” neighbors in need and volunteers portray an average individual “helping” local families. Medical and crime dramas regularly show how professionals help others to cure diseases, weather crises, or catch criminals. Even the fictitious television show The Walking Dead pits groups of survivalist humans against hordes of apocalyptic zombies and constantly asks the question of whether humans should help other humans during a zombie apocalypse. Helping influences from media even impact children with television programs like Elmo’s World and Blues Clues.

Strinati’s book An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (2004) explains how television shows connect viewers to universal ideals such as helping others, which creates a larger collective of individuals who talk about their favorite characters on a daily basis, therefore spreading the word about helping. Helping others, being influenced by media along the way, is also part of human development, and can stretch into career development in adolescence and adulthood.

Developmental Theories on Helping People
Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of development offer opportunities for an individual to be influenced and work towards an identity. Chickering acknowledges that influences can alter development (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). Towards choosing a career, Chickering’s specific vectors of identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity could be directly affected through exposure to “helping” images in television shows or films. In career counseling, developing purpose especially plays a part in choosing one’s vocation (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton & Renn, 2010). Through conversations about finding meaning through helping others, and positive examples they have seen of this behavior, individuals can forge ahead with their career development. In the same vein, Erikson’s identity development model focuses on the influences of external environment factors, as well as internal factors, towards development (Widick, Parker & Knefelkamp, 1978). Erikson’s model is also ever-changing, meaning television or film could play a significant role in an individuals’ development over time.

Clarifying the Helping Goal
As students, in particular, come to advising appointments with the desire to “help people,” counselors can assist with clarifying this goal and its inspiration. Counselors then guide individuals towards considering related career and academic options through bridging these media-inspired ideas with the real world by

  • finding alumni and other professionals working in helping fields through LinkedIn or in-house databases, which may expand students’ understanding of potential majors and career paths to reach their goals
  • conducting informational interviews, clarifying daily responsibilities and potential career trajectories
  • intern or volunteer in a potential career to gain a deeper understanding of the career and how it relates to helping.

Conclusions and Future Directions
Counselors should reflect individually and with their students/clients to discover more influences of the motivation to “help,” which could include newer forms of media, like video games or social media platforms. Future research is needed in the fields of career education and media influences to see if one particular area influences individuals more than others. 

Chickering, A. & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.

Strinati, D. (2004). An introduction to theories of popular culture. London New York: Routledge.

Widdick, C., Parker, C., & Knefelkamp, L. (1978). Erik Erikson and psychosocial development. In L. Knefelkamp, C. Widick, & C. Parker (Eds.), Applying new developmental findings (p. 1-17). New Directions for Student Services, No. 4. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Allison Jones BinkleyAllison Jones Binkley, M.Ed, is a Career Counselor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her focus areas are helping deciding and transitioning students with major and career selection. She also works with students majoring in “Arts” majors to find their career direction and path. You can reach Allison at jonesad@uncw.edu



Zack UnderwoodZack Underwood, M.A., M.Ed. is an Academic Advisor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His focus areas include paperless advising, pre-orientation registration, and learning technologies in advising. Zack teaches a first-year seminar each semester and enjoys teaching as part of living and learning communities. He is a doctoral student at University of North Texas focusing on learning technology. You can reach Zack at underwoodz@uncw.edu

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