It was around midnight when a little dog darted out in front of Dr. Abigail Marsh’s car.
She swerved to avoid it, sending her car into a spin across the freeway until it finally came to a stop in the fast lane.
In a daze, she realized that someone was knocking on her passenger-side door, asking her if she needed help. Yes, she did. And with her permission, he hopped into her car, gunned it across the freeway, and parked behind his own vehicle. Then he hopped back into his car and drove off, leaving Dr. Marsh, a Georgetown University professor of psychology, wondering this:
Why would somebody risk his life to help a stranger when there was clearly no possibility of a payoff at all?
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This article contains:
- What Is Prosocial Behavior? 2 Theories in Psychology
- 3 Real-Life Examples of Prosocial Behavior
- 4 Thought-Provoking Findings and Experiments
- Prosocial Behavior in Child Development
- 2 Ways to Increase Prosocial Behavior
- 3 Helpful Activities
- Assessing Prosociality: Questionnaires and Scales
- Prosocial Behavior, Antisocial Behavior, and Altruism
- Relevant PositivePsychology.com Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Prosocial Behavior? 2 Theories in Psychology
Prosocial behavior is any behavior that is intended to benefit another person or persons (Dunfield, 2014). Examples include volunteer work, donating money, or helping a neighbor move a heavy item of furniture. The most striking type of prosocial behavior is altruism, where a person takes on a cost to help another person with no expectation or possibility of receiving a benefit in return.
This is what Dr. Marsh experienced from the anonymous driver who put in time and effort to help her to safety and asked for no compensation in return.
When you engage in prosocial behavior, the goal of your behavior is to address another person’s needs. Generally speaking, people’s needs fall into three categories:
- Instrumental needs, where an individual experiences difficulty achieving a goal on their own
- Unmet desires, where an individual does not have access to a required resource
- Emotional distress, such as grief or loneliness
When you help a person reach a goal, share your resources, or provide comfort, you are engaging in prosocial behavior.
Scientists and philosophers have proposed numerous theories to explain the paradox of prosocial behavior. Why do people willingly impose costs on themselves to benefit others rather than focusing solely on benefiting themselves?
Theoretical explanations of prosocial behavior fall into two broadly defined categories. The first category contains evolution-based theories that explain prosocial behavior as adaptations to the pressures inherent in social living.
Kin selection theory explains why you are more likely to help genetic relatives than friends or strangers. If you help people who share genes with you, you increase their chances of survival and ensure that your genes remain (or increase) in the gene pool (Hamilton, 1963, 1964).
Reciprocal altruism theory points out that helping non-kin can also be adaptive if the recipients of your generosity can be relied upon to reciprocate help when you need it (Trivers, 1971).
Scientists Robert Axelrod and William Hamilton (1981) summarized prosocial behavior in the natural world this way:
The theory of evolution is based on the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest. Yet cooperation is common between members of the same species and even between members of different species.
The second broad category of theories includes those that attribute prosocial tendencies to individual differences in social learning experiences, mood, and ability to empathize (Bierhoff, 2005).
For example, a large meta-analysis found that the strongest predictor of prosocial behavior is the ability to empathize with feelings and viewpoints of other people (Bierhoff, Klein, and Kramp, 1991).
Other studies have found that children and adults are more willing to help or share with others when they are in a happy mood than when they are in a neutral or negative mood (Rosenhan, Underwood, & Moore, 1974).
3 Real-Life Examples of Prosocial Behavior
Most social species exhibit a distinct preference for helping relatives over non-related individuals but also frequently extend prosocial behavior to strangers.
For example, rats will work a latch to free a trapped rat or rescue a drowning one, even when turning their backs would allow them to obtain a tasty reward (Sato, Tan, Tate, & Okada, 2015).
Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though doing so puts them at risk of attack (Cheney & Seyfarth, 1990).
Over 115 episodes of humpback whales intervening in killer whale attacks on unrelated species have been documented by marine biologists (Pitman et al., 2017).
People engage in prosocial behavior when they donate time or money to charitable causes, help a friend move heavy furniture, run errands for someone who is ill, and encourage someone who feels like giving up.
In each case, we offer time and effort to ease someone else’s burden or improve their wellbeing.
4 Thought-Provoking Findings and Experiments
According to standard economic theories that are taught in business schools and political science, the most rational choice in any situation is the one that maximizes benefits to you, regardless of the impact on others (Anand, Pattanaik, & Puppe, 2009).
To put it another way, you behave rationally only when you behave selfishly. Yet decades of research in experimental economics, experimental psychology, and anthropology have proven otherwise. When making decisions, people take the impact their choices have on others seriously.
The most dramatic demonstrations come from studies based on Dictator and Ultimatum economic games, such as the following.
In the Dictator game, a sum of money is given to one person, and that person has complete authority to decide whether to keep or share the money with another person.
According to standard economic theories, the rational thing to do is to keep all the money for yourself. But that is not what people do. Instead, dictators freely give away about 15–35% of the money to their partners – strangers they just met and will probably never see again (Camerer, 2003).
This result has been replicated worldwide, from small-scale hunter–gatherer societies to large industrialized societies (Henrich et al., 2005).
In the Ultimatum game, one party is given the right to propose how the sum should be divided, and another party (the responder) can either accept or reject the offer. If the offer is rejected, nobody gets any money.
According to standard economic theories, proposers should offer the minimum amount possible, and responders should accept whatever is offered (because something is better than nothing). But that is not what people do. Proposers typically offer 40–50%, and responders routinely reject offers of less than 20% (Camerer, 2003).
Even more surprising is the observation that people are often willing to pay a penalty to be given the opportunity to punish a player who behaves selfishly in Dictator and Ultimatum games, even if they are not playing the game but merely watching it (Fehr & Gächter, 2002).
Worldwide, people’s choices appear to be motivated by concerns about fairness, often creating norms (social rules) that are intended to promote prosocial behavior.
Prosocial individuals are typically sought after as partners, friends, and mates. Those who behave selfishly are avoided because they signal their willingness to exploit rather than help their partners (von Rueden, 2014).
Prosocial Behavior in Child Development
Over the past four decades, developmental psychologists have devised ingenious methods for probing the minds of infants to discover what they know and how they learn.
Because infants can’t talk, these methods rely on other kinds of measurable behaviors such as how long they look at displays that differ in theoretically relevant ways or which choices they make when given a chance to reach for different types of toys. Surprisingly, infants show strong prosocial as well as in-group biases from a very early age.
Infants as young as six months prefer individuals who help others in distress over those who harm others or stand by while another is being harmed.
In one series of experiments, six-month-old infants were shown video clips of a red disk straining to roll up a hill (Hamlin, Bloom, & Wynn, 2007). A yellow square raced into view and pushed the circle up the hill. A blue triangle then appeared and pushed the circle back down to the bottom of the hill.
The infants watched this display repeatedly until they became bored and looked away. Then they were presented with a tray containing a yellow square and blue triangle and were allowed to choose one. Infants overwhelming chose the yellow square.
This result has been replicated in a variety of experiments using different types of actors behaving in either prosocial or antisocial ways.
Other studies have found that infants in this age group prefer individuals who punish people who harm others (Hamlin, Wynn, Bloom, & Mahajan, 2011).
By nine months of age, infants prefer individuals who help those who are like them, and they prefer individuals who harm those who are not like them. For example, in one set of studies, nine-month-olds preferred individuals who harmed puppets that didn’t share their food preferences (Hamlin, Mahajan, Liberman, & Wynn, 2013).
Between 12 and 36 months of age, young children readily engage in prosocial behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, and cooperating with others (Brownell, 2013).
By the third year of life, children also show a marked precocity for learning social rules and monitoring compliance with them. For example, they actively enforce rules during games even when they are spectators rather than players (Cummins, 1996; Schmidt & Tomasello, 2012).
By the age of four, children become adept at taking multiple factors into consideration when deciding how to partition resources, such as effort, need, group membership, cost, and past experiences with different individuals (Fehr, Bernhard, & Rockenbach, 2008).
During middle childhood, children begin to use prosocial lying to protect another’s feelings or, in some cultures, to appear modest. Their cognitive skills have also matured sufficiently to allow them to appreciate that harm is sometimes necessary to achieve a greater good, such as pulling someone off an unsafe play structure to prevent them from injury (Evans & Lee, 2014).
2 Ways to Increase Prosocial Behavior
Nudge people toward prosocial choices
Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler and coauthor Cass Sunstein introduced a powerful means for steering people’s choices in specific directions, called nudging, which involves arranging choices in a way that shifts preferences predictably without forbidding any options.
For example, rather than giving employees the choice of whether or not to enroll in a retirement program, the “Save More Tomorrow” program automatically enrolls employees but gives them the right to opt out at any time.
Programs like these increased retirement savings by as much as $30 billion over the past decade (Malito, 2018).
Improve empathy skills
Empathy essentially means putting yourself in another’s shoes.
Emotional empathy means feeling the same emotion that another person is feeling. If the person is sad, you feel sad as well. If they feel happy, you feel happy.
Cognitive empathy means seeing things from another person’s perspective, understanding why and how they are interpreting and responding to events taking place. Countless studies have repeatedly shown that individuals who excel at cognitive and emotional empathy find it easier to cooperate with, help, and defuse conflicts between others (Stocks, Lishner, & Decker, 2009).
One of the best ways to improve empathy skills is to read fiction and biographies. When you read a novel or biography, the story unfolds in a character’s own words, putting you right there inside their minds and feelings.
Neuroscience studies have reported that when reading fiction, there is more activity in parts of the brain that are involved in simulating what other people are thinking (Tamir, Bricker, Dodell-Feder, & Mitchell, 2016). Other studies have found that reading fictional narratives increased self-reported empathy and empathetic skills over time (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013).
3 Helpful Activities
Engage in turn-taking games with young children, such as taking turns pressing the buttons on a toy, rolling a ball back and forth, or handing toys to each other.
Psychologists Rodolfo Barragan and Carol Dweck (2014) found that even one-year-olds quickly begin to respond to new playmates as people to help and share with after playing games like these.
Hone your skills at reading emotional facial expressions. It is easier to behave in prosocial ways if you are adept at interpreting facial expressions and anticipating what people want or what they’ll do. Courses for adults to improve emotion reading skills have been developed by Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and expert in the fields of emotions, nonverbal communication, and deception detection.
Play party games that encourage perspective taking. Game designer, artist, and professor Mary Flanagan developed a subtle, less preachy approach to improving social coordination skills called the Awkward Moment Card Game, which requires players to choose solutions to awkward social problems. Adults and children have been found to improve their perspective-taking skills after playing the game regularly.
Assessing Prosociality: Questionnaires and Scales
The most widely used and respected assessment instrument is the Prosocial Tendencies Measure (Carlo & Randall, 2002). The measure was initially developed to use with college-aged students and young adults and was later modified to use with middle and high-school-aged adolescents.
It is an extensive scale of 23 items, which distinguish the following six types of prosocial behaviors:
- Altruistic (example item: I feel that if I help someone, they should help me in the future.)
- Anonymous (example item: I tend to help needy others most when they do not know who helped them.)
- Dire (example item: I tend to help people who are in a real crisis or need.)
- Emotional (example item: I tend to help others, particularly when they are emotionally distressed.)
- Compliant (example item: When people ask me to help them, I don’t hesitate.)
- Public (example item: I can help others best when people are watching me.)
Another widely used instrument is the Prosocialness Scale for Adults (Caprara, Steca, Zelli, & Capanna, 2005). The scale is composed of 17 items and classifies behaviors and feelings into four types: sharing, helping, taking care of, and empathy with others.
Notably, the scores people receive on these questionnaires are predictive of their behavior in Dictator and Ultimatum games. For example, individuals who score high on altruism tend to make generous offers in these economic games (Rodrigues, Nagowski, Mussel, & Hewig, 2018; Zhao, Ferguson, & Smillie, 2016).
The National Mentoring Resource Center offers a useful online questionnaire for assessing the prosocial behavior of children between the ages of 6–11 years.
Prosocial Behavior, Antisocial Behavior, and Altruism
The opposite of prosocial behavior is antisocial behavior, that is, behavior that is intended to hinder or harm others.
Altruism is an extreme version of prosocial behavior because it involves imposing costs on yourself solely to benefit others.
Psychopathy is an extreme version of antisocial behavior because harm is imposed on others solely to the benefit of oneself, without regard to the suffering inflicted on others.
Extraordinary altruists – such as those who donate kidneys to others – show exceptional sympathetic neural responses to others’ emotions (particularly fear), which drive them to sympathetic action (Brethel-Haurwitz et al., 2018).
In contrast, psychopaths show a deficiency in this kind of neural response and a corresponding reduction in empathy for others’ distress (Blair, 2013).
Relevant PositivePsychology.com Resources
At PositivePsychology.com, two excellent tools will help you develop your prosocial behavior skills.
The first is When Hot Buttons are Pushed, which teaches how to regulate emotions and not act impulsively. This exercise takes approximately 30 minutes and is well suited to group sessions or exercises.
The second, the 15-minute Connecting to Your Intuition exercise, helps you learn to connect with and trust your intuition so that you can make decisions more quickly and solve problems creatively.
A third tool, Making an Effective Request, is an exercise that will show you how to improve communication skills. Whether your goal is to get your kids to clean up their rooms or to get your boss to extend a work deadline, it is important to frame the request in a way that is unlikely to be perceived as a threat, demand, or negative evaluation by the other person. This exercise takes about 10 minutes to complete.
Finally, Building Social Capital is a powerful tool for building robust and reliable social networks. Social capital refers to the benefits that you gain from your connection with others. If your social capital is high, the people in your social network can offer benefits such as providing support in difficult times, helping you stay relaxed, and assisting you in achieving your goals. This exercise takes 20–30 minutes to complete.
A Take-Home Message
Decades of research in cognitive science, developmental science, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and anthropology have quite clearly shown that we are born with prosocial biases and that the strength of these biases varies across individuals and societies.
Our early learning experiences and cultural pressures shape these biases, either strengthening or weakening this inborn tendency to help or hinder others.
Adults and children tend to prefer to interact with people who display prosocial behavior and to avoid those who behave selfishly.
Historically, societies that favor cooperative effort and prosocial behavior thrive, while those that prefer self-interest eventually self-destruct.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
If you want more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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