Prosocial behavior: definition and theories (2023)

Humans show prosocial behavior from an early stage of development. Whether out of empathy or the perceived benefit of being a good person, we like to do good and help those around us. As prosocial behavior is important for the cohesion of societies, psychologists are interested in what drives people to act in a prosocial manner and what factors might prevent us from doing so.

We'll examine what factors might prevent us from helping in an emergency and how the presence of others affects our sense of responsibility to act.

Prosocial behavior: definition and theories (1)Prosocial behavior is intended to help and support others,

Whether it's our time, energy or resources, being prosocial comes at a cost to us (the actor). So why should we engage in behavior that costs us something? We act prosocially to benefit other people or to get something out of it, for example in cooperations.

Definition of prosocial behavior

prosocial behaviorrefers to actions we take that benefit others(Eisenberg, 1982). Prosocial behavior is often motivated by concern for others or a sense of responsibility to help.

Prosocial behavior includes giving emotional support to your friends or caring about the environment to donate money to charity.

When you and your friend work together on a group project, you both contribute and therefore benefit each other, which is an example of collaboration.

Helping your friend prepare for a test because you know they are struggling with the content and need help is an example of altruism. You don't necessarily gain anything from this, but you do it to help your friend.

Compliance with social norms can also be an example of prosocial behavior (eg compliance with social rules such as standing in queues helps maintain order in society).

Prosocial behavior and altruism

How is prosocial behavior different from altruism? The term prosocial behavior encompasses all actions that benefit others, regardless of whether we benefit from them. Prosocial behavior includes cooperation (when both the actor and the recipient benefit from a behavior) and altruism (when only the recipient benefits).

Altruism occurs when we act to help others when the action does not benefit us.

Prosocial behavior: definition and theories (2)Cooperation is an example of prosocial behavior,

theories of prosocial behavior

Several theories have been proposed to explain why we engage in behaviors that benefit others.

  • Baumeister (2012) proposed that our innate need to belong leads us to cooperate and help others (Need to Belong Theory).
  • According to self-categorization theory, we behave prosocially toward our group members because we identify with the group.
  • While Leary (2012) argues that people act prosocially to gain group approval and acceptance.
  • It has also been suggested that evolutionary factors, empathy and the influence of cultural norms play a role in prosocial behavior.

The Bystander Effect

Bystander behavior refers to what we do when we witness an emergency (for example, when someone's life or well-being is at risk).

The bystander effect refers to the social phenomenon of bystanders remaining passive when there are several other witnesses to an emergency, sometimes costing the victim their life.

The most famous example ofaudience effectis the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese. Kitty was murdered outside her New York apartment in the 1960s; It was reported that 38 people witnessed the murder during the attack and the eventual murder that night, but no one stopped the killer or called for help until it was too late.

Social factors influencing viewer engagement

Social factors refer to external environmental factors or the context of a situation. This includes the presence of others and the cost of the behavior. Both of these factors are event-specific and can affect how likely people are to act in an emergency.

Prosocial behavior: Presence of others

The more people who witness an emergency, the less likely it is, counterintuitively, that someone will respond and try to help the victim. Bystanders feel less personal responsibility when there are more people around who could act, which is known as diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon that describes the relationship between the number of spectators and the level of individual responsibility. As the number of spectators increases, the degree of personal responsibility decreases.

Prosocial behavior: definition and theories (3)As the number of viewers increases, ownership decreases, - StudySmarter Originals

When you're in a busy city center with hundreds of people and you see a man collapse, you feel less personally responsible for taking action, examining him and calling an ambulance. After all, a lot of people saw it; surely someone would take care of it. Maybe someone more experienced than you. However, if you see the same thing happening when you're alone in the room with the man, there's no one there to help you and you feel more responsible for doing something.

Prosocial behavior: the cost of helping

In an emergency, the cost of helping can be the time and effort it takes to help, the embarrassment of not knowing how to provide adequate help, or putting yourself at risk. One theory of bystander behavior states that bystanders perform a risk-benefit analysis and act accordingly.

There is also a cost to not helping, such as feelings of guilt and powerlessness, although it can evoke positive feelings such as contentment and pride in being the hero.

Disposition factors influencing viewer engagement

Disposition factors refer to internal individual characteristics (eg, personality) that can influence behavior in an emergency. This may include the level of expertise and our similarity to the victim.

Prosocial Behavior: Specialization

Knowing how to intervene builds confidence in an emergency and increases the likelihood that bystanders will help.

When you witness a seizure for the first time, you may have no idea how to react and choose not to react, whereas someone with medical training, or at least trained in first aid, may feel more confident about taking action.

Prosocial behavior: resemblance to the victim

Resemblance to the victim can make bystanders more likely to intervene, no matter how many other people remain passive. Similarity involves sharing common identities with the victim (race, gender, membership in a common group) and increasing empathy for them.

We tend to have strong feelings for people we are similar to; Therefore, we are more likely to take action to help them.

Prosocial behavior: Piliavin's subway study (1969)

Piliavin (1969) found that the victim's appearance can affect the likelihood that bystanders will help the victim. Piliavin measured people's reactions on the New York subway after witnessing aVictim (an actor) falls on the subway.

  • A victim who needed help walking and was dressed appropriately was seen 95% of the time.

  • A victim who appeared to be drunk was rescued only 50% of the time.

  • Also, it took people longer on the subway to help the drunk victim than the disabled victim.

One explanation for these results is that a disabled victim drew more empathy from people than a drunk victim, reflecting how people's attitudes toward different groups influence their decisions to help.

Prosocial behavior - main conclusions

  • Prosocial behavior refers to actions that benefit others. Includes prosocial behaviorcooperation and altruism.
  • Prosocial behavior includes giving emotional support to your friends or caring about the environment to donate money to charity. Altruism is a form of social behavior.
  • O audience effect refers to the social phenomenon of bystanders remaining passive during an emergency in the presence of other witnesses, sometimes costing the victim their life.
  • As much social asdispositional factorscan influence prosocial behavior.
  • social factorsinfluence tthe behavior of bystanders, such as the presence of others and the cost of help.
    • More people make it less likely that we will intervene because responsibility is shared.As the number of spectators increases, personal responsibility decreases.
    • When the cost of helping is greater than the benefit of helping, bystanders are less likely to help.
  • This influences viewer behaviordispositional factorsas experience and resemblance to the victim.
    • Experience makes viewers more confident and more likely to help.
    • Resemblance to the victim heightens the sense of empathy and makes bystanders more likely to intervene.


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