The Martian Teaches Us Why We Help Each Other

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in Andy Weir and Ridley Scott's The Martian

Ridley Scott’s The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an Astronaut who gets trapped on Mars. Based on Andy Weir’s super nerdy book, the story focuses on Watney’s struggle to survive on the red planet and NASA’s quest to bring him home. 

The book is a celebration of science, critical thinking, and being a smart-ass. It gets dense in parts and could have benefitted from more editing, but if you’re a space geek like me it’s a must read. 

A Faster, More Cinematic Story


What’s awesome about the movie is it combines the best of Weir’s original story with the cinematic vision of Ridley Scott. Just like Alien and Blade Runner, everything feels real! From the viral marketing that includes a fake Neil deGrasse Tyson documentary, to the astronaut banter, and all the scenes on the Mars terrain, it's easy to get absorbed into this movie. 

Things move quickly in the film, and whether you like that depends on how you felt about the book. The tension and excitement of staying alive for another Sol doesn’t hit you as hard as it does in the book, but at the same time you don’t have to read pages and pages about the science of growing potatoes. 

Speaking of science, there’s a lot of psychology we could dive into here but I want to focus on NASA’s story - the responsibility they feel to rescue Watney. 

We see NASA mission control and the crew of the Ares debate how much they should risk in an attempt to save Watney? How many more lives should be put in danger? Should the future of all missions to Mars be jeopardized all for one person? 

NASA decides to move forward with a rescue mission because of altruism

Why People Help

Social psychologists have long known that for altruism, helping behavior, to occur, three things must happen: 

  1. You see someone in urgent need of help. 
  2. You feel a personal responsibility to them. 
  3. You know how to help and can help. 

NASA knows Watney can’t survive on Mars alone, they feel responsible for mistakenly leaving him there, and their rescue plan have some chance of success. NASA is moving forward with a rescue plan because all of these criteria are met.

The same thing happens to you and me every day. Get a frantic text from a friend asking for a place to crash and if you have room you’ll let them. If someone asks you for directions, and you know where they’re going, you’ll respond. When there’s a natural disaster, your sense of responsibility to your neighbors increases and you’re more likely to share your resources.  

But the less responsible you feel, the less likely you are to help. Ever been in a situation when someone fell down in front of a group of people and no one did anything? What happened is responsibility became diffused and spread out across everyone there. No one knew who should act. 

Knowing what to do is a big barrier to altruism. Most of us keep walking past a homeless person in the streets because we just don’t know how to help them. The more this happens, the easier it becomes to ignore the issue of homelessness. 

Supporting NASA, Again

Over the past few decades, that’s what happened with the space program - we stopped caring. Maybe that’s changing. COSMOS showed us how we fit into the rest of the universe. New Horizon’s gave us our first clear look at the mysterious Pluto. And now we know water is flowing on Mars. Maybe The Martian will remind us of our responsibility to future generations and the importance of investing in science, space, and exploration. 

For more space psychology, check out my article on the 3 Things Astronauts Need to Survive in Space. What did you think about The Martian? Let me know in the comments below.