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Prosocial Behavior: Why Do People Help?


Major Issues

I. Basic Motives Underlying Prosocial Behavior

II. Personal Determinants of Prosocial Behavior

III. Situational Determinants of Prosocial Behavior

IV. How Can Helping Be Increased?

I. Basic Motives Underlying Prosocial Behavior: Why Do We Help?

Prosocial behavior is any act performed with the goal of benefiting another person
Altruism is any act that benefits another person but does not benefit the helper and often involves some personal cost
to the helper
A basic question that people have asked is whether people are willing to help when there is nothing to gain, or if they
only help when there is some benefit for them

A. Sociobiology: Instincts and Genes

Sociobiology is the application of evolutionary theory to social behavior

Darwin recognized that altruistic behavior posed a problem for his theory: if an organism acts altruistically, it
may decrease its reproductive fitness
Modern sociobiologists have 3 answers to this puzzle:
The idea of kin selection refers to the view that behaviors that helps a genetic relative are favored by natural
selection. Helping a kin member may decrease one's own probability for survival/passing on one's genes, but
kin share the same genes, so saving a kin member may pass one's own genes. Evidence from bees and self-
reports from people show that organisms help more, the closer another is related to them. This vie cannot
explain why people would help those that are not related to them
The reciprocity norm refers to the assumption that others will treat us the way we treat them. Sociobiologists
suggest that humans who were most likely to survive were probably those who developed an understanding
with their neighbors based on this norm. They would have been more likely to survive than those who were
completely competitive or completely cooperative people
Simon (1990) suggests that those who are the best learners of societal norms have a competitive advantage.
Thus people are genetically programmed to learn social norms and one of these norms is altruism. The claims
by sociobiology are still being debated among psychologists

B. Social Exchange: The Costs and Rewards of Helping

Social exchange theory suggests that much of what we do stems from the desire to maximize our outcomes
and minimize our costs - the minimax principle. Like sociobiology, it is a theory based on self-interest. Unlike
sociobiology however, it assumes that self-interest does not have a genetic basis
Helping is rewarding in three ways: it can increase the probability that someone will help us in return in the
future; it can relieve the personal distress of the bystander; and it can gain us social approval and increased
Helping can also be costly; thus it decreases when costs are high. Social exchange presumes that people help
only when the rewards outweigh the costs. Thus social exchange presumes that there is no pure altruism

C. Empathy and Altruism: The Pure Motive of Helping

Batson is the strongest proponent of the idea that people often help purely out of the goodness of their hearts.
He argues that pure altruism is more likely to come into play when we experience empathy for the person in
need - that is, we are able to experience events and emotions the way that the person in need experiences
Batson's empathy-altruism hypothesis states that when we feel empathy for a person, we will attempt to help
purely for altruistic reasons. If we do not feel empathy, then social exchange concerns will come into play
Toi and Batson (1982) had students listen to a taped interview with a student who had ostensibly broken both
legs in an accident and was behind in classes. Two factors were manipulated: empathic vs. non-emphatic set,
manipulated by instructions given to participants; and the costs of helping, manipulated by whether or not the
injured student was expected to be seen everyday once she returned to class
As the empathy-altruism hypothesis predicted, people in high empathy condition helped regardless of cost,
while those in the low empathy condition helped only if the cost of not helping was high

II. Personal Determinants of Prosocial Behavior: Why Do Some People Help More than Others?

A. Individual Differences: The Altruistic Personality

1. Instilling Helpfulness With Rewards and Models

Developmental psychologists find helping in very young children (18 months)

Helping can be encouraged by rewards, but (due to the overjustification effect) rewards should not be given too
much emphasis. One way to do this is to tell children that they helped because they are kind and helpful people
Parents can also increase prosocial behavior in their children by modeling it themselves. Children learn from
observation what is valued and desired
Rushton (1975) had children play a game in which they could win tokens. They had the opportunity after the
game to donate tokens to a needy child named Bobby. Half of the children had previously witnessed a teacher
keep all her tokens; the other half watched her donate half her tokens
Rushton found that those children exposed to the generous model were more likely to help both immediately
(when they might have felt social pressure to do so) and, more impressively, two months later (with a different
experimenter and charity).

2. Is Personality the Whole Story?

An altruistic personality refers to the aspects of a person's make-up that are said to make him or her likely to
help others in a wide variety of situations
However, there is little evidence of consistency in altruism. For example, Hartshorne and May (1929) found
only a .23 correlation between different kinds of helping behaviors in children, and Piliavin and Charng (1990)
found that those who scored high on a personality test of altruism were not more likely to help than those who
scored low. Instead, it seems that different kinds of people are likely to help in different situations

B. Gender Differences in Prosocial Behavior

Eagly and Crowly (1986) did a meta-analysis and found that men are more likely to offer help in chivalrous,
heroic ways, and women are more likely to help in nurturant ways involving long-term commitment
C. The Effects of Mood on Helping: Feel Good, Do Good

People who are in a good mood are more likely to help. For example, Isen and Levin (1972) did a survey in a
shopping mall where participants either found or did not find a dime in a phone booth. As the person emerged
from the booth, a confederate walked by and a sheaf of papers. 84% of those who found the dime helped,
compared with 4% of those who did not find the dime
Good moods can increase helping for 3 reasons: (a) good moods make us interpret events in a sympathetic
way; (b) helping another prolongs the good mood, whereas not helping deflates it; (c) good moods increase
self-attention, and this in turn leads us to be more likely to behave according to our values and beliefs

1. Negative-State Relief: Feel Bad, Do Good

When people feel guilty, they are more likely to help

Sadness will lead to helping under certain conditions. The negative-state relief hypothesis suggests that people
in order to alleviate their own sadness and distress
According to this theory, people in a sad or distressed mood will be more likely to help, but only if there is no
other way to reduce the negative mood. To test this notion, Cialdini, Darby, and Vincent made participants feel
guilty by accidentally messing up a graduate student's set of data entry cards. After doing one experiment,
they were then asked by a second, ostensibly unrelated, experimenter to volunteer help in making phone calls
Participants who had knocked over the cards were more likely to help than those who hadn't; but those who
knocked over the cards and then made to feel better in another way (receiving an unexpected reward) did not

III. Situational Determinants of Prosocial Behavior: When Will People Help?

A. Rural Versus Urban Environments

People in rural areas are more helpful. This is a finding that holds across a wide variety of ways of helping and
in may countries. One explanation is that people from rural areas are brought up to be more neighborly and
thus more likely to trust strangers
An alternative hypothesis, posited by Milgram, is the urban-overload hypothesis, the idea that people living in
cities are likely to keep to themselves in order to avoid being overloaded by all the stimulation they receive.
The evidence supports the latter hypothesis, indicating that where an accident occurs matters more in
influencing helping than where potential helpers were born, and that population density is a more potent
determinant of helping than is population size

B. The Number of Bystanders: The Bystander Effect

Latane and Darley are two social psychologists who were working in New York when the Kitty Genovese murder
occurred. They hypothesized that, paradoxically, it might have been the large number of bystanders (38) that
witnessed the murder that led to a failure to help
In a laboratory study, participants sat in separate booths and communicated over an intercom. As they
listened, one of the other participants ostensibly had a seizure. The experimenters manipulated how many
other participants the true subject believed were present
They found that the more other people the subject believed were present, the less likely they were to help, and
the slower they were to do so (Latane & Darley, 1968)
The bystander effect is the finding that the greater the number of bystanders who witness an emergency, the
less likely any one of them is to help
Latane and Darley (19700 developed a step by step description of how people decide to help in an emergency.
The 5 steps are:
1. Noticing an Event

In order for people to help, they must notice that an emergency has occurred
Sometimes very trivial things, such as how much of a hurry a person is in, can prevent them from noticing that
someone else is in trouble.
Darley and Batson (1973) showed that seminary students who were in a hurry to give a sermon on campus
were much less likely to help an ostensibly injured confederate groaning in a doorway than were those who
were not in a hurry
They also found that helping was not predicted by personality scores or by the topic of the sermon (half of the
participants were about to lecture on the parable of the Good Samaritan)

2. Interpreting an Event as an Emergency

The next determinant of helping is whether the bystander interprets the event as an emergency. Ironically,
when other bystanders are present, people are more likely to assume that an emergency is something
This pluralistic ignorance occurs because people look to see others' reactions (informational influence). When
they see that everyone else has a blank expression, they assume there must be no danger
This was demonstrated in a study by Latane and Darley (1970) in which participants were seated in a room
when white smoke began pouring out of a vent. The more other participants were in the room, the less likely
anyone was to seek help and the longer they took to do so. For ambiguous events, people in a group seem to
gain false reassurance from each other and convince each other that nothing is wrong

3. Assuming Responsibility

The next step that must occur if helping is to take place is for someone to take responsibility. When there are
many witnesses, there is a diffusion of responsibility, the phenomenon whereby each bystander's sense of
responsibility to help decreases as the number of witnesses increases. Everyone assumes that someone else
will help, and as a result, no one does

4. Knowing How to Help

Even if all the previous conditions are met, a person must know what form of assistance to give. If they don't,
they will be unable to help

5. Deciding to Implement the Help

Finally, even if you know what kind of help to give, you might decide not to intervene because you feel
unqualified to help or are too afraid of the costs to yourself

C. The Nature of the Relationship: Communal Vs. Exchange

The negative state relief hypothesis holds that people will help only if there are immediate short-term benefits
for doing so. When people know each other well, however, they are often more concerned with the long-term
than the short-term effects of helping
Communal relationships are those in which people's primary concern is with the welfare of the other, whereas
exchange relationships are governed by equity concerns. One possibility is that the rewards are equally
important in the two different types of relationships, but that the rewards are different.
Clark and Mills (1993) argue that the nature of the relationship is fundamentally different, such that those in
communal relationships are less concerned with rewards
In a study by Clark et al., (1988), people participated in pairs of friends or strangers. One person was told
either that a light flashing on the wall meant that their partner needed help, or that it meant that their partner
did well. The researchers monitored how often people looked at the lights. In exchange relationships
(strangers), people were more likely to look at the light if they thought it meant that their partner did well. In
the communal relationships (friends), people were more likely to look at the light if they thought it meant their
partner needed help
Generally, we are more helpful towards friends than strangers; the exception occurs when the other is beating
us in a domain that is personally relevant and thus threatens our self-esteem

IV. How Can Helping Be Increased?

People do not always want to be helped - if being helped means that they appear incompetent, they will often suffer in
silence, even at the cost of failing at the task
Simply being aware of the barriers to helping can increase people's chances of overcoming those barriers. Beaman et
al., (1978) had students listen either to a lecture about Latane or Darley's work or to one about an unrelated topic. Two
weeks later, in a different context, they encountered a student lying on the floor, while a confederate lounged by,
apparently unconcerned. Those who had heard the bystander intervention lecture were more likely to help
The goal of helping is to make it supportive, highlighting concern for the recipient. Be careful about rendering help that
merely threatens the other's self-esteem

Suggested Readings

Batson, C.D. (1995). Prosocial Motivation: Why do we help others? In A. Tesser (Ed.), Advanced social psychology, pp. 338-
381. New York: McGraw Hill

Kerber, K.W. (1980). Rewards, costs, and helping: A demonstration of the complementary nature of experimental and
correlational research. Teaching of Psychology, 7, 50-52.

Kohn, A. (1990). The brighter side of human nature: Altruism and empathy in everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Schroeder, D.A., Penner, L.A., Dovidio, J.F., & Piliavin, J.A. (1995). The psychology of helping and altruism. New York:

Steblay, N.M. (1987). Helping behavior in rural and urban environments: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 102, 346-