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Prosocial behavior, is a form of social behavior, and is "voluntary behavior intended to benefit another",[1] consists of actions which "benefit other people or society as a whole,"[2] "such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering."[3] These actions may be motivated by empathy and by concern about the welfare and rights of others,[4] as well as for egoistic or practical concerns.[1] Evidence suggests that prosociality is central to the well-being of social groups across a range of scales.[5][6] Empathy is a strong motive in eliciting prosocial behavior, and has deep evolutionary roots.[7]

Prosocial behavior fosters positive traits that are beneficial for children and society. It may be motivated both by altruism and by self-interest, for reasons of immediate benefit or future reciprocity. Evolutionary psychologists use theories such as kin-selection theory and inclusive fitness as an explanation for why prosocial behavioral tendencies are passed down generationally, according to the evolutionary fitness displayed by those who engaged in prosocial acts.[8] Encouraging prosocial behavior may also require decreasing or eliminating undesirable social behaviors.[6]

Although the term "prosocial behavior" is often associated with developing desirable traits in children,[9][10] the literature on the topic has grown since the late 1980s to include adult behaviors as well.[11]

Origin of the term

According to CD Batson, the term "was created by social scientists as an antonym for antisocial."[12]

Reciprocity vs. altruism in prosocial behavior motivation

The purest forms of prosocial behavior are motivated by altruism, an unselfish interest in helping another person. According to Sanstock, [4] the circumstances most likely to evoke altruism are empathy for an individual in need, or a close relationship between the benefactor and the recipient. However, many prosocial behaviors that appear altruistic are in fact motivated by the norm of reciprocity, which is the obligation to return a favor with a favor. People feel guilty when they do not reciprocate and they may feel angry when someone else does not reciprocate. Thus some professionals argue that altruism may not exist, and is completely motivated by reciprocity.[13] Either reciprocity or altruism may motivate many important prosocial behaviors, including sharing.[4]

Situational and individual factors relating to prosocial behavior

Prosocial behavior is mediated by both situational and individual factors.

Situational factors:

The decision model of bystander intervention noted that whether or not an individual gives aid in a situation depends upon their analysis of the situation. An individual will consider whether or not the situation requires their assistance, if the assistance is the responsibility of the individual, and how to help.[14]

The number of individuals present in the situation requiring help is also a mediating factor in one’s decision to give aid, where the more individuals are present, the less likely it is for one particular individual to give aid due to a reduction in perceived personal responsibility.[14]

Additionally, Piliavin et al., (1981) noted that individuals are likely to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs when determining whether or not to give aid in a situation – that is, that people are rationally self-motivated. Prosocial behavior is more likely to occur if the cost of helping is low (i.e. minimal time, or minimal effort), if helping would actually benefit the individual providing the help in some way, and if the rewards of providing the help are large. If it is in an individual’s interest to help, they will most likely do so, especially if the cost of not providing the help is great.[15]

People are also more likely to help those in their social group, or their "in group". With a sense of shared identity with the individual requiring assistance, the altruist is more likely to provide help, on the basis that one allocates more time and energy towards helping behavior within individuals of their own group. The labeling of another individual as a member of one’s "in-group" leads to greater feelings of closeness, emotional arousal, and a heightened sense of personal responsibility for the other’s welfare, all of which increase the motivation to act prosocially.[15]

Researchers have also found that social exclusion decreases the likelihood of prosocial behavior occurring. In a series of seven experiments conducted by Twenge et al., (2007) researchers manipulated social inclusion or exclusion by telling research participants that other participants had purposefully excluded them, or that they would probably end up alone later in life. They found that this preliminary social exclusion caused prosocial behavior to drop significantly, noting that,"Socially excluded people donated less money to a student fund, were unwilling to volunteer for further lab experiments, were less helpful after a mishap, and cooperated less in a mixed-motive game with another student."[16] This effect is thought to be due to the fact that prosocial behavior, again, is motivated by a sense of responsibility in caring for and sharing resources with members of one's own group.

Individual factors

Individuals can be compelled to act prosocially based on learning and socialization during childhood. Operant conditioning and social learning positively reinforces discrete instances of prosocial behaviors. Helping skills and a habitual motivation to help others is therefore socialized, and reinforced as children understand why helping skills should be used to help others around them.[17]

Social and individual standards and ideals also motivate individuals to engage in prosocial behavior. Social responsibility norms, and social reciprocity norms reinforce those who act prosocially. As an example, consider the child who is positively reinforced for "sharing" during their early childhood years.[18] When acting prosocially, individuals reinforce and maintain their positive self-images or personal ideals, as well as help to fulfill their own personal needs.[19]

Emotional arousal is an important motivator for prosocial behavior in general. Batson's (1987) empathy-altruism model examines the emotional and motivational component of prosocial behavior. Feeling empathy towards the individual needing aid increases the likelihood that the aid will be given. This empathy is called "empathetic concern" for the other individual, and is characterized by feelings of tenderness, compassion, and sympathy.[20]

Agreeableness is thought to be the personality trait most associated with inherent prosocial motivation. Prosocial thoughts and feelings may be defined as a sense of responsibility for other individuals, and a higher likelihood of experiencing empathy ("other-oriented empathy") both affectively (emotionally) and cognitively. These prosocial thoughts and feelings correlate with dispositional empathy and dispositional agreeableness.[21][22]

Prosocial behavior in childhood

Prosocial behavior in childhood often begins with questions of sharing and fairness. From age 12- to 18- months, children begin to display prosocial behaviour in presenting and giving their toys to their parents, without promoting or being reinforced by praise. [23] The development of prosocial behaviour continues throughout the second year of life, as children begin to gain a moral understanding of the world. [24] . As obedience to societal standards becomes important, children’s ability to exhibit prosocial behaviour strengthens, with occurrence and diversity of these behaviours increasing with age and cognitive maturity. [23] [24] [25] [26] What is important developmentally is that the child has developed a belief that sharing is an obligatory part of a social relationship and involves a question of right and wrong.[4]

Parents can set examples that children carry into their interactions and communication with peers, but parents are not present during all of their children's peer exchanges. The day-to-day constructions of fairness standards is done by children in collaboration and negotiation with each other.[4]

Prosocial media programming and children

Studies have shown that different types of media programming may evoke prosocial behaviors in children.

Channels aimed at younger viewers like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel had significantly more acts of altruism than the general-audience demographic channels like A&E and or TNT, according to one large-scale study. This study examined the programming of 18 different channels, including more than 2,000 entertainment shows, during a randomly selected week on television. The study revealed that nearly three quarters (73 percent) of programs contained at least one act of altruism and on average viewers saw around three acts of altruism an hour. Around one-third of those behaviors were explicitly rewarded in the plot, potentially sending the message that these acts of prosocial behavior can come with positive consequences.[27]

However, other scholars have criticized academic discussions of this issue for often naively dichotomizing media into separate violent and prosocial categories when, in fact they overlap. For instance a study by Ferguson and Garza found that exposure to violent video games was associated with increased prosocial behavior, both on-line as well as volunteering in the real world. The authors speculated this may be due to the prosocial themes common in many violent games, as well as team oriented play in many games.[28]

Another study on the topic was conducted by University at Buffalo, Iowa State University and University of Minnesota professors. They studied children for two years for the purpose of investigating the role of media exposure on prosocial behavior for young boys and girls. The study concluded that media exposure could possibly predict outcomes related to prosocial behavior.[29] Other experimental research has suggested that prosocial video games may increase prosocial behavior in players.[30] However other scholars have been critical of this work for tending to falsely dichotomize video games into prosocial/violent categories despite significant overlap as well as methodological flaws in the experimental studies .[28]

In an effort to force stations to air education and prosocial programming for children, the Children's Television Act of 1990 was adopted. It states that channels must produce and air programming developed specifically for children as a condition to renew broadcast licenses. After discussions as to the definition of "specifically designed for children" really means. In 1996 guidelines were passed to specify these concerns.[31]

Pro-social dissidence

Stefano Passini and Davide Morselli argue that groups will obey authority so long as its system, basis, and demands are viewed as legitimate. Passini and Morselli distinguish between anti-social disobedience, which they see as destructive, and pro-social disobedience, which they see as constructive. "Disobedience becomes pro-social when it is enacted for the sake of the whole society, including all its different levels and groups. In contrast, anti-social disobedience is enacted mainly in favour of one's own group, in order to attain individual rights." A main difference between anti-social and pro-social dissidence is the way that they relate to authority; anti-social dissidents reject authority and disobey its norms and laws, while pro-social dissidents understand the important roles that societal laws play in maintaining order, but also recognize and address the flaws in authoritative reasoning. Pro-social protests, if viewed in a positive manner, can increase freedoms and equality for the general public, and improve democratic institutions.[32]

Prosocial Traits

There are many different ways to be prosocial. Ten ways to add these traits to a daily routine are listed below:

1. Donate your time- sometimes a simple hour with a project or with a person in need is all it takes to lift the spirits of others. Learn to appreciate what you have and share with others. Prosocial behavior is all about helping and giving.

2. Be consistent- Once you start helping others, continue to do so. Rather than only donating around the December holidays, continue to donate canned foods to organizations throughout the year. These foundations and organizations greatly appreciate any type of generosity.

3. Instead of donating money, donate items- You can donate old clothing items to charitable stores like Goodwill. Or one can help out at the homeless shelter.

4. Train others to help you- If considering starting a nonprofit organization, learn to quickly and effectively train your staff to get the job done.

5. Become informed- Research issues that are rising in your community/neighborhood. Find something that interests you and take on the project!

6. Become politically involved- Write letters to the government officials in your area. Express your opinion. If you don't take a stand, no one else will.

7. Look to help the younger generation- Some children live in impoverished areas. You can be a mentor to children and their families.

8. Donate some of your services- If you own your own business, you can give your product to someone who really needs it but can't afford it.

9. Turn passion into action- If you are passionate about helping others, encourage others to do the same. Build a non-profit organization dedicated to the betterment of others.

10. Don't ignore someone who's in need- Unfortunately, we live in a world where some people are more fortunate than others. If someone needs some assistance, help them out[33].

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 (2007). Handbook of Child Psychology.
  2. Prosocial behavior,, Aug. 4, 2011
  3. Arthur P. Brief and Stephan J. Motowidlo (1986). Prosocial organizational behaviors. The Academy of management Review 11 (4): 710–725.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Sanstock, John W. A Topical Approach to Life Span Development 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Ch. 15, pp. 489–491 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Sanstock" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Sanstock" defined multiple times with different content
  5. (2004). The social context of well-being. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 359 (1449): 1435.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Straubhaar, Joseph D., Robert LaRose, and Lucinda Davenport. Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2009. pp. 427–28 ISBN 1-4390-8257-X.
  7. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1231: 35–45.
  8. Barrett, Louise (2002). Human Evolutionary Psychology, Princeton University Press.
  9. Eisenberg, Nancy; Paul Henry Mussen. The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children, Cambridge University Press.
  10. Prosocial Behavior Page, US Dept. of Health and Human Services, US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families
  11. Prosocial Behavior. Excerpt from "More about Generosity: An Addendum to the Generosity, Social Psychology and Philanthropy Literature Reviews", University of Notre Dame, July 7, 2009
  12. Altruism and prosocial behavior CD Batson… – Handbook of psychology, 1998 – Wiley Online Library. Retrieved on 2012-01-08.
  13. Pinel, John P.J. Biopsychology 8th Edition. New York: Pearson, 2011. Chapter 17. ISBN-10: 0205832563
  14. 14.0 14.1 Latane, B., & Darley, J. 1970. The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Dovidio, J.F., Piliavin, J.A., Gaertner, S.L., Schroeder, D.A. & Clark, R.D., III. (1991). The arousal: Cost-reward model and the process of intervention. In M.S. Clark (Ed.) Review of personality and social psychology: Vol. 12: Prosocial behaviour. pp. 86–118. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  16. Twenge, J., Baumeister, R., DeWall, C. N., Ciarocco, N. and Bartels, J.M. (2007). Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology 92 (1): 56–66.
  17. (2000). New directions in analyses of parenting contributions to children's acquisition of values. Child Development 71 (1): 205–211.
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  19. Omoto AM, Snyder M. (1995). Sustained helping without obligation: motivation, longevity of service, and perceived attitude change among AIDS volunteers. Journal of personality and social psychology 68 (4): 671–86.
  20. Batson (1987). Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic?. Advanced Experimental Social Psychology 20: 65.
  21. Graziano WG, Eisenberg N. 1997. Agreeableness: a dimension of personality. In Handbook of Personality Psychology, ed. R Hogan, R Johnson, S Briggs, pp. 795–824. San Diego, CA: Academic
  22. Penner, Louis A., Barbara A. Fritzsche, J. Philip Craiger, and Tamara R. Freifeld. 1995."Measuring the Prosocial Personality." pp. 147–163 in J. Butcher and C.D. Spielberger (Eds.) Advances in Personality Assessment, Vol. 10. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Parke R, Gauvain M, Schmuckler, M. Child Development: A contemporary view point, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2010, pages=552-553
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  25. Eisenberg N, Fabes R, Spinrad T (2006). {{{title}}}, 6, 646–718, Wiley.
  26. Bouchard C, Cloutier R, Gravel F, Sutton A (May 2008). The role of language skills in perceived prosociality in kindergarten boys and girls. European Journal of Developmental Psychology 5 (3): 338–357.
  27. Wilson, Barbara J. (2008). Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism. Children and Electronic Media 18 (1).
  28. 28.0 28.1 (2011). Call of (civic) duty: Action games and civic behavior in a large sample of youth. Computers in Human Behavior 27 (2): 770–775.
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  32. Passini, Stephano, David Moreselli (2011). In the Name of Democracy: Disobedience and Value-oriented Citizenship. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 21 (3): 255–267.
  33. Pilkington, Steve. "10 Ways To Help Those In Need." Free Articles, Free Web Content, Reprint Articles. 22 Jan. 2003. Web. 18 July 2011. <>