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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).


Prosocial behavior refers to "voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals" (Eisenberg and Mussen 1989, 3). This definition refers to consequences of a doer's actions rather than the motivations behind those actions. These behaviors include a broad range of activities: sharing, comforting, rescuing, and helping. Though prosocial behavior can be confused with altruism, they are, in fact, two distinct concepts. Prosocial behavior refers to a pattern of activity, whereas, altruism is the motivation to help others out of pure regard for their needs rather than how the action will benefit oneself. A familiar example of altruism is when an individual makes an anonymous donation to a person, group or institution without any resulting recognition, political or economic gain; here, the donation is the prosocial action and the altruism is what motivates the doer to action.

Historic Roots

There is evidence that voluntary actions that benefit others are rooted in human (and animal) behavior. In the 1970s, biologist Edward O. Wilson began a new field, sociobiology, to study social behaviors of animals and humans as motivated by the organism's biology (1975). Wilson used documented examples of "helping" within many animal and insect species. Since the publishing of his innovative textbook, many books and articles have been published asserting that helping and, even, rescuing behaviors are innate in primates, helper bees, ants, wild dogs, and other species. Naturally, developmental psychologists and other social scientists point to the animal world as proof that prosocial behavior is a preprogrammed biological function of humanity rather than solely nurtured or learned actions.

Examples of humans engaging in helping behaviors are found in early, recorded history and prehistory. In North America, Native peoples had very strong communal cultures, with group survival relying on helping and giving practices. In the Northwestern Indian potlatch practice, guests were (and still are) invited to the event and given gifts by the host in the stature of the host's guests' position in the community. Among the Hopi, since A.D. 500, helpfulness and cooperation serve the good of the household as well as the individual; competition and self-assertion are not an aspect of Hopi culture. Similar prosocial traditions or life attitudes are found throughout time and the world.

Often, the motivation for organized prosocial helping behaviors and altruism are associated with religious practice. The world's three primary monotheistic traditions — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — teach that helping the less fortunate is a religious obligation. The compulsory alms tax, or zakat, is one of the five pillars of Islam. There are also numerous examples of God commanding Jews to aid the poor throughout the Old Testament. Additionally, Jesus tells his followers the parable of "The Good Samaritan," instructing them to follow the example of the good neighbor who aided a poor beaten man previously ignored by other passers-by, including a priest. The emphasis on giving and helping within the Judeo-Christian religions is a primary reason prosocial behavior is considered a social norm and a moral imperative in Western culture.

Historically, the term prosocial behavior has been used only since the 1970s. Social scientists began using the term as an antonym for antisocial behavior. A body of research evolved to illuminate the psychology of giving, helping, and sharing. The field of social psychology had emerged as a discipline in the early 1900s, and focused primarily on the most pressing concerns of the day: the rise of Nazism, the world wars, the Holocaust, the proliferation of nuclear arms, and racism. However, in the 1960s the significance of helping behaviors and their psychological motivations became of interest. The understanding of prosocial behavior was recognized as being key to harmonious interpersonal and group relations.

Searching for a key to harmony was timely for two reasons. First, during the Civil Rights movement, the nation witnessed blacks and whites subject themselves to corporal punishment and death in protest of racial segregation, despite the fact that many of those activists were not direct victims of what they were fighting. Second, there was a sharp increase in the number of cases of bystanders failing to help victims of heinous crimes — the most sensational of these was the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. Stabbed outside her Queens apartment, Genovese repeatedly called for help but received no assistance from the thirty-eight individuals who heard her. One of the witnesses called the police thirty minutes after the assault began and after Genovese was dead. The Civil Rights movement and murder of Genovese captivated the nation's attention, raised the question of why people do or do not engage in prosocial behavior, and compelled social psychologists to study the psychological motivations that drive helping and sharing.

The subsequent body of research on prosocial behavior has been fruitful. For one detailed description of the various situational and dispositional factors that affect one's decision to give, share, and help, see Daniel Batson's chapter on "Altruism and Prosocial Behavior" in The Handbook of Social Psychology. For a different view on factors leading to prosocial behavior and a look at a growing field of research on prosocial behaviors in children, see Eisenberg and Mussen's The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children (1989). A noteworthy model is the five-step decision-making process of helping behavior developed by Darley and Latane in 1970.


Theoretical Understanding

Philanthropy is very similar to prosocial behavior in its definition and in that varied motivations influence philanthropic action. Philanthropy is voluntary action for the common good, including voluntary giving, serving, and association. According to Aristotle, one can define a thing by explaining the reason for its existence. Simply put, philanthropy exists because people of a certain disposition under a certain set of conditions are inclined to assist others, to enact prosocial behavior. Since the psychology of prosocial behavior sheds light on what those circumstances are and how those inclinations play out, it arguably explains why philanthropy exists (see Chapter V., Bentley and Nissan 1996).

Moreover, both prosocial behavior and philanthropic acts are driven by a blend of altruistic and self-interested motivations. Self-interest comes in varying degrees. Egoism, seen as extreme self-interest, occurs when self-importance or a need to feed one's own image is the motivator (e.g., making a large monetary donation to the city symphony for the purpose of having the hall named in your behalf). Mutual benefit occurs when a person assists another with an expectation that person or another will one day do something to return the favor (such as when a person cares for his vacationing neighbor's home). Even people whose philanthropy is highly altruistic, and recipient-oriented, will derive some personal benefit from their own prosocial actions, though, the benefit may simply be a sense of self-worth. Once a person learns she derives personal benefit (e.g., higher self-esteem) from engaging in philanthropic activities, the desire for that benefit becomes a powerful incentive to engage in the behavior again.

In a model identifying five factors that prompt voluntarism, Clary and Snyder (1990) found it is a combination of those incentives that ultimately motivates volunteers. One of the factors is the desire to be altruistic, but the others are self-serving. Volunteers are motivated by socially-adjustable considerations (i.e., the wish to be a part of a group), ego-defensive considerations (i.e., the wish to reduce guilt), and the desire to acquire knowledge or skills for personal or professional education. However, the strength of egoistic motives relative to the strength of altruistic motives will vary by person and by situation - for instance, one person may be driven by a high level of altruism and a low level of egoism while another responds from a low level of altruism and a high level of egoism.

Finally, it should be remembered that prosocial behavior refers to helping which, in turn, means understanding the needs of the recipient and making a sincere effort to fulfill them. Thus, prosocial behavior should only refer to activities that honor the recipient's interests. And as long as the would-be philanthropist considers those interests and tries to satisfy them, any act of helping or sharing may be considered philanthropic—even if it happens to be driven by a high degree of self-benefit.



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.

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19. april 2021

19. april 2021