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Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism

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Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism

According to the mechanisms of natural selection, individuals compete for survival. The fittest will live and reproduce successfully, while the less fit won’t be able to survive the harsh conditions and will have a lower chance of successfully reproducing. Despite this evolutionary basis of competition, humans evolved to care for each other, even at their peril, which extends beyond the adult development of morality; there are even examples of prosocial behaviours in early childhood.

So, why do we help others? What are the benefits of prosocial behaviour? Is there a difference between prosocial behaviour and altruism? Let’s find out.

Helping Hand Altruism Prosocial StudySmarterHelping hand, Flaticon

What is prosocial behaviour?

Prosocial behaviour refers to actions that result in a benefit to other people.

Social norms, reciprocity or empathy, can motivate prosocial behaviours. We can distinguish two main types of prosocial behaviour:

  • Mutualism or cooperation, which mutually benefits the actor and recipient.

  • Altruism, which benefits the recipient with no benefit for the actor.

Examples of prosocial behaviour include volunteering, taking care of others, donating blood or protecting others from harm by taking action at the time of emergency.

Prosocial behaviour can also result in benefits to society as a whole. It encourages reciprocity and cooperation or even selfless support of others in need. If prosocial behaviour is the standard, we can expect others to help us once we need it.

What are the factors affecting helping behaviour?

Some explanations propose we help others because we learn growing up that helping is the right thing to do, while others emphasise potential benefits helping can bring us.

Prosocial behaviour can be studied using surveys or experiments. Experiments can involve presenting participants with an opportunity to help a person in need and recording their behaviour.

Social learning theory: examples of prosocial behaviours in early childhood

Growing up, we learn helping behaviour by being exposed to social norms like reciprocity (if you do good to others, they will repay with the same behaviour) or social responsibility (we are responsible for helping those who depend on us).

Parents may also encourage and reward helping behaviour in children.

Social learning theory argues children learn to be prosocial through reinforcement and exposure to social norms.

Supporting evidence for the social learning theory

Gentile et al. (2009) demonstrated that exposure to prosocial video games encouraged more prosocial behaviour in children and young adults.

  • First study: a survey-based study of 727 Singaporean secondary-school students found a positive correlation between time spent playing prosocial video games and children’s prosocial behaviour.

  • The second study collected survey data from 780 Japanese children around the age of 11. Researchers measured prosocial behaviour and time playing prosocial video games, and the two were again positively correlated. They repeated the measurements three to four months later with the same results, showing a longitudinal relationship between content consumed and behaviour.

  • Third study: 161 US college students played either a prosocial game or an aggressive game for 20 minutes before an experimental task (choosing puzzles of different difficulty for a partner). Playing prosocial games predicted helping behaviour in the task (choosing easy puzzles), while playing aggressive games predicted hurting behaviour (choosing complex puzzles), demonstrating immediate causality between content consumed and behaviour.

Developmental evidence: limitations to the social learning theory

Studies done with children show that prosociality is already present in early childhood.

Between ages one and two, children spontaneously help adults in need. Warneken and Tomasello (2006) showed that when children see an adult holding books and is interested in putting them in the cabinet, they read adult intentions, see the adults’ hands being full and open the cabinet door for them before being asked for help.

However, it is hard to conclude whether prosocial behaviour is innate or learned. The universality of prosociality across cultures and the innate character of empathy suggests an intrinsic component to prosocial behaviour.

Even newborns seem to be concerned with the well-being of others. Newborns get upset when they hear another baby crying. Interestingly, they don’t get upset by their own recorded cries, which indicates that it’s the distress of others that affects them, not just the noise (Dondi et al., 1999).

Is this behaviour produced out of altruistic concern? Or perhaps the newborns are distressed because they know a potential threat is in the immediate area because of the other newborns’ cry?

Social exchange theory: the benefits of prosocial behaviour

Social exchange theory proposes that we interact with others to maximise benefits and minimise costs to ourselves. According to this theory, people engage in prosocial behaviour when it can provide them with significant gains at relatively low costs.

So what are the benefits of helping?

In the case of cooperation, both parties benefit. Groups can often achieve more than one single person can.

Cooperation in hunter-gatherer societies, men hunted in groups. By hunting in groups, they could hunt down bigger prey than they could alone.

Reciprocity refers to an expectation that other people will repay you for your efforts to help. If we help someone, they will likely want to help us too.

An example of reciprocity would be helping a classmate prepare for a maths test in exchange for help with drama homework.

Benefit from helping others can be indirect feeling good, improving your reputation in the community and signalling that you deserve cooperation in the future.

Indirect reciprocity

  • Wearing a pin that says you are a blood donor can improve your reputation and make other people like or admire you more.
  • Donating blood because you know one day you might need a transfusion. You expect that in that case, someone else will donate blood that will save your life.

Responsibility and the bystander effect

One of the most critical factors influencing prosocial behaviour is how we feel responsible for acting. Even in situations of emergency, people don’t act if they don’t feel personally accountable. The more people we are surrounded by, the less likely we will take action.

This phenomenon is called the diffusion of responsibility: if everyone is responsible, no one is.

Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism Bystander Effect StudySmarterThe bystander effect, Flaticon

Another explanation for the bystander effect is pluralistic ignorance.

Pluralistic ignorance incorrectly assigns the majority position/opinion as the minority position/opinion, and vice versa; the minority position is mistakenly seen as the majority’s position/opinion.

People base their judgements on the reactions of others. If we don’t see others around us reacting, we might conclude there is no emergency. It, therefore, takes effort to be the first person to react when surrounded by an ignorant crowd.

Overall, possible situational variables that may affect behaviour and the urge to help are:

  1. Pluralistic ignorance
  2. Bystander apathy
  3. Diffusion of responsibility
  4. Fear after evaluation
  5. Cost vs benefit analysis

The case of Kitty Genovese

In the 1960s, a young woman was murdered on the street outside her apartment in New York. The newspaper reported that 38 people witnessed the murder but did not respond during the entire 35 minutes that the murder was occurring.

The murderer was interrupted several times, but no one deterred him from continuing the crime. People in the area could hear Kitty screaming and calling for help, but it was 20 minutes before anyone called the police.

Did the witnesses have no sympathy for the woman? The more likely explanation is that they had compassion but did not feel personally responsible or were too afraid to act. If they had seen other people nearby, they might have assumed that someone else would surely call the police.

Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism factors affecting helping behaviour Bystander Effect StudySmarterThe bystander effect: a man not speaking, Flaticon

Latané and Darley (1968) designed an experiment to test the bystander effect:

  • Participants were asked to sit in a room and complete questionnaires when suddenly the room would start to fill up with smoke.

    • Participants sitting alone in the room reacted immediately; after six minutes, 75% reported the smoke.

    • When in a 3-person group, most participants (62%) never took any action or addressed the potential emergency.

  • Participants later stated they referred to the group for signs of distress, but everyone seemed calm, so they didn’t do anything about the smoke.

  • This experiment shows people are less likely to act prosocially if in a group due to pluralistic ignorance, or at least not appreciate the potential gravity of the situation if others appear to take it less seriously.

What is altruism?

Altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Altruistic behaviour refers to acts that benefit others with no benefit to you or at a cost to yourself. It can be motivated by genetic survival, feelings of empathy, or social norms.

Difference between prosocial behaviour and altruism

Altruism is a type of prosocial behaviour. Contrary to other prosocial behaviours, which can involve reciprocity or some benefits to the actor, altruistic behaviour comes at a cost without bringing any benefits.

Recipient Benefits
Benefit given to ActorCooperation and reciprocity
No Benefit or Cost to ActorAltruism

Examples and explanations of altruism

Kin selection: one evolutionary explanation points to increasing genetic survival as a reason behind altruism. When we direct altruism towards someone genetically related to us, like our child, helping them means improving the reproductive success of our genes.

However, it doesn’t explain altruism towards strangers.

Mothers can stay awake all night taking care of a crying baby, even if it means working exhausted the next day.

Empathy: people seem to show innate distress in response to the suffering of others, which could motivate altruistic action.

Hepach and colleagues (2012) research found that 2-year-old children showed distress in response to an adult in need. This distress decreased when they either helped the adult or saw someone else help them.

Is altruism genuinely selfless?

The negative-state relief model Cialdini (1987) proposed suggests we help others to minimise our distress rather than out of concern for others. According to Cialdini, our ego pushes us to help, an egoistic desire to relieve our sadness.

  • When participants were told helping wouldn’t reduce their distress due to a placebo-drug they took, participants did not demonstrate helping behaviour (Cialdini, 1987).

Social norms: As the social learning theory proposed, we could learn altruistic behaviour if we internalised social norms that support it. By internalising the social responsibility norm, we learn to believe it’s only right to help those that depend on us.

If we believe it’s our responsibility to take actions that benefit society, we might decide to recycle or save water and electricity even if it’s an inconvenience to us personally.

Volunteering because your school requires you to or because you want to improve your CV is not a good example of altruism. Altruism refers only to helping behaviour motivated by the concern for others, not by obligations or benefits to yourself.


Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism - Key takeaways

  • Prosocial behaviour refers to actions that result in a benefit to other people.
  • Examples of prosocial behaviour include cooperation and altruism.
  • Social learning theory proposes prosociality develops as a result of exposure to social norms.
  • Developmental evidence shows that newborns can already display empathy and young children engage in prosocial behaviour.
  • Social exchange theory proposes that we interact with others to maximise benefits and minimise costs to ourselves.
  • Reciprocity refers to an expectation that other people will repay you for your efforts to help.
  • The diffusion of responsibility or pluralistic ignorance explains the bystander effect.
  • To take action, people need to assume personal responsibility.
  • Altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Explanations of altruism include kin selection, empathy and social norms.

Frequently Asked Questions about Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism

Altruism is a type of prosocial behaviour. Contrary to other prosocial behaviours, which can involve reciprocity or some benefits to the actor, altruistic behaviour comes with no benefit or at a cost to the actor.

Prosocial behaviour can result in benefits to society as a whole. It encourages reciprocity and cooperation or even selfless support of others in need. If prosocial behaviour is the standard, we can expect others to help us once we need it.

Prosocial behaviour can be driven by altruism but it's not always the case. In some cases, prosocial behaviour is driven by expectations of reciprocity or mutual benefit.

Examples of prosocial behaviour include volunteering, taking care of others, donating blood or protecting others from harm by taking action at the time of emergency.

Prosocial behaviour can be studied using surveys or experiments. Experiments can involve presenting participants with an opportunity to help a person in need and recording their behaviour.

Final Prosocial Behaviour And Altruism Quiz

Question

What is the bystander effect?

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Answer

The bystander effect suggests that people are less likely to help someone with other people around.

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Question

Why might the bystander effect occur?

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Answer

  • If no one else is helping, the individual believes the situation is not an emergency.
  • They fear others will unfavourably judge them.
  • Diffusion of responsibility.

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Question

What is the diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

If there are several bystanders, each bystander feels their responsibility decreases.

Show question

Question

What was the aim of Piliavin et al. (1969) study?

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Answer

The aim was to investigate whether subway passengers would be more likely to help someone drunk or ill and white or black. They also investigated whether the presence of a helper would influence others to help too.

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Question

How many trials in total were conducted?

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Answer

103 trials.

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Around how many participants in total took part in the experiment?


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Answer

Around 4450 participants.

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What were the two conditions of the study?

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Answer

The ‘no help’ condition and the ‘help’ condition

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What were the study controls?


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Answer

  • The victims all dressed the same and behaved the same way, so all participants were exposed to the same standardised behaviour.
  • The scenario took place between the same two subway stations in New York City.
  • Victims were always male.

Show question

Question

Who did the study find is more likely to receive help, an ill or a drunk person?

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Answer

An ill person.

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Question

In both conditions, who were more likely to help, men or women?

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Answer

Men.

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Question

In how many trials did people come to an ill person’s assistance before the helper?

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Answer

In 62 out of 65 trials.

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Question

In how many trials did people come to a drunk person’s assistance before the helper?

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Answer

In 19 out of 38 trials.

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Question

In what percentage of trials did more than one person come to the victim’s assistance?

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Answer

In 60% of the trials.

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Question

What did Piliavin et al. (1969) conclude from the study?

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Answer

They found that more help was given and more quickly than ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’ would have suggested. The results could be due to the location where the passengers were in a subway, and there was no way for them to ‘escape’ or run away from the emergency, resulting in a higher level of assistance.

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Question

What was Piliavin et al. (1969) model of why someone helps another?

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When someone witnesses an emergency, it prompts an emotional response, and they decide whether they help by a cost-reward analysis. Their motivation to help is to get rid of the unpleasant emotions while witnessing the emergency.

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Question

What were the ethical considerations of the study?

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As this was a field experiment, the participants could not consent before being in the study. Also, it was not possible to withdraw from the study. It may have been stressful for the participants to see someone collapse. If the participant did not help at the time, later they might have felt guilty for their inaction.

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Question

What is altruism?

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Answer

The act of helping others because you are concerned about them and truly want to help them. This concern is unselfish and does not require reciprocation in any form.

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What did Levine et al. (2001) want to investigate?

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They wanted to cross-culturally investigate factors that may influence helping behaviour in a city. 

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What were the cultural values the study looked at?


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Individualism vs collectivism and ‘simpatia’.

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How many countries was the study conducted in?

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18.

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How did the study try to control for experimenter effects?

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All experimenters were male. They received a detailed information sheet and training in acting out the roles. They all practised their parts together. No verbal communication was required of the experimenters.

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What were the three helping measures used in the study?

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The three helping measures were: dropping the pen, hurting leg, helping a blind person cross the road.

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What city was ranked first in helping behaviour?

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Answer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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Question

What were the study results?

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Answer

The only variable associated with helping behaviour was economic productivity. People tended to help more in countries with poorer economies. Also, ‘simpatia’ countries were more helpful than ‘non-simpatia’ countries. 

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Why may countries with poorer economies be more helpful?

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Answer

Countries with poorer economies may also have a more traditional value system that includes guidelines for helping strangers.

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Did individualism vs collectivism make a difference to helping behaviour?

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Yes.

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Are the results of this study generalisable?

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Yes, because the study tested a large number of countries and participants.

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What is a weakness of correlational studies?

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They cannot establish cause and effect.

Show question

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What is prosocial behaviour? 

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Answer

Prosocial behaviour refers to actions that result in a benefit to other people.

Show question

Question

What factors motivate prosocial behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Social norms, reciprocity or empathy can motivate prosocial behaviours.

Show question

Question

How does social learning theory explain prosocial behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Social learning theory argues through reinforcement and exposure to social norms, children learn to be prosocial. 

Show question

Question

What evidence supports the social learning explanation of prosociality?

Show answer

Answer

Exposure to prosocial content for example in video games predicts prosocial behaviours in children and young adults (Gentile et al., 2009).

Show question

Question

What are some limitations of the social learning explanation of prosociality?

Show answer

Answer

Studies done with children show prosociality is already present in early childhood. Moreover, newborns already show empathy.

Show question

Question

How does social exchange theory explain prosocial behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Social exchange theory proposes we interact with others to maximise benefits and minimise costs to ourselves.  According to this theory, people engage in prosocial behaviour when it can provide them with significant gains at relatively low costs.  

Show question

Question

What statements about prosocial behaviour are true?

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Answer

Prosocial behaviour allows for effective cooperation in groups.

Show question

Question

Outline one explanation for altruistic behaviour.

Show answer

Answer

As the social learning theory proposed, we could learn altruistic behaviour if we internalised social norms that support it. By internalising the social responsibility norm, we learn to believe it’s only right to help those that depend on us. 

Show question

Question

What is altruism?

Show answer

Answer

Altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Altruistic behaviour refers to acts that benefit others with no benefit to you or at a cost to yourself.

Show question

Question

What motivates altruistic behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Increasing genetic survival, feelings of empathy, or social norms can motivate altruism.  

Show question

Question

Outline an example of indirect reciprocity.

Show answer

Answer

Donating blood because you know one day you might need a transfusion. You expect that in that case, someone else will donate blood that will save your life.

Show question

Question

Why is cooperation beneficial?

Show answer

Answer

Groups can often achieve more than one single person can. In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunted in groups rather than alone. By hunting in groups, they could hunt down bigger prey than they could alone. 

Show question

Question

What is the difference between altruism and prosocial behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Altruism is a type of prosocial behaviour. Contrary to other prosocial behaviours, which can involve reciprocity or some benefits to the actor, altruistic behaviour comes with no benefit or at a cost to the actor.

Show question

Question

Is prosocial behaviour driven by altruism? 

Show answer

Answer

Prosocial behaviour can be driven by altruism but it’s not always the case. In some cases, prosocial behaviour is driven by expectations of reciprocity or mutual benefit.

Show question

Question

How is prosocial behaviour studied? 


Show answer

Answer

Prosocial behaviour can be studied using surveys or experiments. Experiments can involve presenting participants with an opportunity to help a person in need and recording their behaviour. 

Show question

Question

Why does empathy motivate altruism?

Show answer

Answer

People seem to show innate distress in response to the suffering of others. To reduce the distress, people take action that benefits the person in need, even if it's at a cost to themselves.

Show question

Question

What social norms can motivate prosocial behaviour?

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Answer

Reciprocity – if you do good to others, they will repay with the same behaviour.

Social responsibility – we are responsible for helping those who depend on us.

Show question

Question

What are examples of prosocial behaviours? 

Show answer

Answer

Examples of prosocial behaviour include volunteering, taking care of others, donating blood or protecting others from harm by taking action at the time of emergency. 

Show question

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