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Prosocial behavior is defined as actions that benefit other people or society as a whole (Twenge, Ciarocco, Baumeister, & Bartels, 2007). It is characterized by helping that does not benefit the helper; in fact, prosocial behavior is often accompanied by costs. Psychologists suggest that one way this behavior may outweigh the associated costs concerns the human desire to belong to a group. Helping facilitates group work and in turn, provides individuals with immense benefits for the long run (Twenge et al., 2007).
The ubiquity of prosocial behavior amongst humans has long been a significant puzzle in the social sciences (Simpson 2008). Prosocial behavior can be defined as voluntary actions intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals (Knickerbocker 2003). While these actions benefit the recipient, they can also be costly to the doer (Bénabou 2005). One is thus faced with the decision to help others at the expense of oneself (Simpson 2008). When considering prosocial behavior, the external, explicit actions are emphasized; as opposed to the internal, implicit motivations for those prosocial actions. Prosocial behavior entails both the physical and mental amelioration of others (Knickerbocker 2003).
Historical evidence indicates that voluntary action which benefits others has biological roots, observable in both humans and animals (Knickerbocker 2003). The field of sociobiology, developed by Edward Wilson in the 1970s, examines the social behaviors of organisms as motivated by their biology. Wilson and others have documented examples of “helping” in several animal species, supporting the notion that prosocial behavior is genetically predisposed (Penner 2005) with an innate biological function, as opposed to a learned phenomenon (Knickerbocker 2003).
Helping behaviors amongst humans have been evidenced since early history, in accordance with the communal cultures of native peoples worldwide. (Penner 2005) From an evolutionary perspective, early humans’ survival relied strongly on the processes of giving and helping. Those who displayed prosocial dispositions were thus met with evolutionary success (Penner 2005). Group selection evinces that if two groups are in direct competition with one another, the group with the larger number of altruists will have an advantage over a group of mainly selfish individuals (Penner 2005). Kin selection, or the successful transmission of one’s genes from all sources to the next generation, is thus supported (Penner 2005). Religious practice has also been associated with prosocial and helping behaviors, as helping is often considered a religious obligation. Weight on giving and helping in the Judeo-Christian culture can be considered a primary reason that prosocial behavior is a social norm and moral imperative in Western Culture today (Knickerbocker 2003).
The term prosocial behavior arose in the 1970s, leading to psychological analysis of the giving, helping, and sharing processes. The nonresponsive bystanders in the brutal Katherine “Kitty” Genovese murder in 1964, as well as the 1960s Civil Rights Movement refuting racial discrimination, further prompted examination of human nature and the significance of helping others (Knickerbocker 2003). Prosocial behavior came to be seen as key in harmonious interpersonal and group interactions. Prosocial moral reasoning has been theoretically and empirically linked to prosocial behaviors (Carlo 1996). Culture, with its respective values and emphasis on socialization, may thus influence levels of prosocial moral reasoning (Carlo 1996). Other significant influences on moral reasoning include education and logical skills. (Carlo 1996).
Prosocial behavior is driven by a combination of egoistic and altruistic motivations. (Knickerbocker 2003) Arousal and affect theories share the guiding principle that people are motivated to behave in ways that help them attain some goal, and the interpretation of this arousal can shape the nature of prosocial motivation (Penner 2005). With egoistic motivation, self-importance or one’s own image is the primary driver for prosocial behavior (Knickerbocker 2003). Egoists thus act prosocially when reputational incentives are at stake (Simpson 2008). An intermediate, mutual benefit occurs when reciprocity is expected – prosocial behavior is thus performed with the expectation of repayment (Simpson 2008). In contrast, altruists tend to act prosocially regardless of reputational incentives (Simpson 2008). Thus, altruistic individuals who are most likely to give in the absence of rewards are those who do not seek reputational gains (Simpson 2008) However, it is possible for even highly altruistic people to derive some personal benefit from their prosocial actions, if as menial as a sense of self-worth or personal gratification (Knickerbocker 2003). Reciprocal altruism explores the evolutionary advantages of helping unrelated individuals, where the favor is repaid in kind (Penner 2005), while indirect reciprocity addresses the receipt of such long-term benefits or rewards for short-term prosocial acts. Furthermore, altruists are more likely to indirectly reciprocate others’ prosocial behaviors (Simpson 2008). [This contrasts with the direct reciprocity of egoism, where individuals directly return favors to those who have provided past help (Simpson 2008).] Altruistic behavior is thus observed not only when incentives exist, but also when they do not (Simpson 2008).
In assessing altruistic and egoistic motivations, gender and age may be factors. The related concept of moral reasoning is defined as reasoning about moral dilemmas where one person’s needs/desires conflict with those of needy others, with formal obligations minimal or absent (Carlo 1996). Adolescents who reported more feminine characteristics were more likely to prefer internalized and less approval-oriented moral reasoning. (Carlo 1996). Adolescent girls have also been found to express higher-level modes of moral reasoning than adolescent boys (Carlo 1996). Personal and contextual factors are also said to influence one’s prosocial moral reasoning.
There are also situational factors which contribute to prosocial behavior, involving concerns of extrinsic incentives and social reputation. The overjustification effect addresses the dominance of extrinsic incentives, as the presence of rewards and punishments cloud one’s true motives, often deterring prosocial behavior (Bénabou 2005). Typically, rewards confer benefit, while punishment confers harm to the respective recipients. (Bénabou 2005) Thus, intrinsic motivation is superseded by extrinsic incentives, leading to decreased motivation and reduced performance in terms of prosocial behavior (Bénabou 2005).
Social pressures and norms largely impact why people engage in good deeds and refrain from selfish ones. Within society, individuals confer important advantages on those who act prosocially towards others, and benefactors are indirectly reciprocated (Simpson 2008). As honor is associated with unselfish behavior, shame is correspondingly tied to selfish behavior (Bénabou 2005). Overt prosocial behavior is more readily observed than more subtle behavior, and rewards are readily appreciated. This can be seen in the tactics by nonprofit and charitable organizations to provide their donors with material gifts, such as T-shirts, pens, etc. (Bénabou 2005). Anonymous donations, where credit cannot be granted, are rare occurrences. Potential benefactors respond strategically to social benefits, cooperating at higher levels amongst reputational benefits and indirect reciprocity (Simpson 2008).
Introspection is another major factor in prosocial behavior. With concern over one’s self-image, individuals often try to self-evaluate their own actions from a neutral, third person point of view. If the motives are acceptable, they are typically transformed into behavior (Bénabou 2005). Psychologists and sociologists identify a strong need for conformity between one’s internal values and motivations, and one’s external actions (Bénabou 2005).
It is also generally agreed that empathic responses precede many (but not all) prosocial acts. (Penner 2005) Factor analysis of several prosocial personality traits have led to two dimensions of the prosocial personality. The first is abstract, correlating prosocial thoughts and feelings (such as a sense of responsibility and tendency to experience empathy) with measures of agreeableness and dispositional empathy (Penner 2005). The second is more specific, namely the self-perception that one is a helpful and competent individual (Penner 2005). These facets are manifested in the act of volunteering, which incorporates prosocial action in an organized context (Penner 2005). Volunteering usually stems from a thoughtful decision to join and contribute to an organization, with a prosocial motive (at least initially). Interpersonal helping, in contrast, incorporates a sense of personal obligation (Penner 2005).
With a long history in psychology, particularly social psychology, the phenomenon of prosocial behavior combines intrinsic, extrinsic, and reputational motivations (Bénabou 2005). A combination of altruism and egoism are integrated with concern for both society and the self (Bénabou 2005). Prosocial behavior thereby encompasses several areas, including biological, motivational, cognitive, and social processes (Penner 2005). Psychological theories regarding prosocial tendencies have moved from a strong environmental bias towards models which focus on the interplay between biologically based tendencies and socialization experiences (Penner 2005). While the study of prosocial behavior is continuously evolving, it is evident that at the minimum, comprehensive analysis is required (Penner 2005). Future work in this area can investigate the possible mental and physical benefits of prosocial actions, and the ongoing contribution of prosocial behavior to interpersonal and intergroup relations (Penner 2005).
Bénabou, Roland and Jean Tirole. (2005). Incentives and Prosocial Behavior. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1-7. Retrieved April 9, 2008, from NBER Working Paper Series.
Carlo, Gustavo, Marcia S. Da Silva, Nancy Eisenberg, Claudia B. Frohlich, and Silvia H. Koller. (1996). A Cross-National Study on the Relations Among Prosocial Moral Reasoning, Gender Role Orientations, and Prosocial Behaviors. Developmental Psychology (Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 2231-240).
Knickerbocker, Roberta L. (2003). Prosocial Behavior. Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, (pp. 1-3).
Penner, Louis A., John F. Dovidio, Jane A. Piliavin, and David A. Schroeder. (2005). Prosocial Behavior: Multilevel Perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology (Vol. 56, pp. 365-392).
Simpson, Brett, and Robb Willer. (2008). Altruism and Indirect Reciprocity: The Interaction of Persona and Situation in Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychology Quarterly (Vol. 71, pp. 37-50).
Twenge, J.M., Baumeister, R.F., DeWall, N.C., Ciarocco, N.J., Bartels, M.J. (2007). Social Exclusion Decreases Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 56-66.