Prosocial Behavior Definition
Prosocial behavior is voluntary behavior intended to benefit another. Thus, it includes behaviors such as helping, sharing, or providing comfort to another. Prosocial behavior is evident in young children but changes in frequency and in its expression with age. Individual differences in prosocial behavior are caused by a combination of heredity, socialization, and situational factors. Prosocial behaviors can be preformed for a variety of reasons, ranging from selfish and manipulative reasons (e.g., helping get something in return) to moral and other-oriented reasons (e.g., helping because of moral principles or sympathy for another’s plight). Prosocial behavior that is not performed for material or social rewards (e.g., rewards, approval), but is based on concern for another or moral values, is usually labeled “altruism.”
A topic of attention in the social psychological literature is whether there is true altruism—that is, if people ever help others for reasons that are not really selfish. Although people sometimes assist others even when they receive no social or material benefits, some psychologists argue that there is always a selfish reason underlying altruistic motives. For example, they argue that people actually help because of the psychological merging of the self with another, the desire to elevate one’s own mood or to avoid negative feelings or a negative self-evaluation (for not helping). People sometimes help others to alleviate their own feelings of distress when dealing with someone else in distress or need, or primarily because of personal ties to needy others. Nonetheless, C. D. Batson has provided evidence that people often assist for other-oriented sympathy, and there is likely at least some selfless motivation for some types of prosocial actions.
Prosocial Behavior Importance
Prosocial behavior is relevant to both the quality of close interpersonal relationships and to interactions among individuals and groups without close ties. People, as individuals or as members of a group, often assist others in need or distress, as well as others whose needs are relatively trivial. Charities and societies depend on people helping one another. In addition, prosocial behavior has benefits for the benefactor. For example, children who are more prosocial tend to be better liked by peers, and adults who engage in helping activities tend to have better psychological health.
Personal Characteristics Associated with Prosocial Behavior
As is evident in everyday life, some people are more prosocial than others. Prosocial children and adults tend to be prone to sympathize with others. They also are more likely to understand others’ thoughts and feelings and to try to take others’ perspectives. In addition, people who tend to assist others often hold other-oriented values (e.g., value others’ well-being) and tend to assign the responsibility for actions such as helping to themselves. Prosocial children tend to be positive in their emotional expression, socially competent, well adjusted, well regulated, and have a positive self-concept. In both childhood and adulthood, people who reason about moral conflicts in more mature ways (e.g., use more abstract moral reasoning, with more sophisticated perspective taking and a greater emphasis on values) are also more likely than their peers are to help others. Of particular note, preschool children who engage in spontaneous, somewhat costly prosocial behaviors (e.g., sharing a toy they like) engage in more prosocial behavior as adolescents and tend to be sympathetic and prosocial as adults. Thus, there appears to be some continuity in prosocial responding from a fairly early age.
Situational Factors and Prosocial Behavior
Even though some people are more prone to help than are others, situational factors also can have a powerful effect on people’s willingness to help. For example, people are less likely to help when the cost of helping is high. They also are more likely to help attractive people and to help if they are the only ones available to help (e.g., there are no other people around who see an individual who needs assistance). People in good moods are likely to assist others more than are people in neutral moods, although sometimes people in bad moods seem to help others to raise their moods. People also are more likely to help if they are exposed to models of prosocial behavior. Moreover, the interaction of situational factors with personality characteristics of potential helpers is important; for example, sociable people seem more likely to provide types of helping that involve social interaction whereas shy individuals often may tend to help in situations in which they do not need to be outgoing or socially assertive.
Origins of Prosocial Behavior
Prosocial behavior is a complex behavior affected by numerous factors, both biological and environmental. Findings in twin studies support the view that heredity plays a role: Identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) are more similar to each other in prosocial behavior, as well as sympathetic concern, than are fraternal twins (who share only 50% of their genes). Heredity likely affects aspects of temperament or personality such as self-regulation, emotionality, and agreeableness, which contribute to people engaging in higher levels of prosocial behavior.
Considerable evidence also indicates that individual differences in prosocial behavior also are linked to socialization. For example, adults are more likely to help others if, as children, their parents were models of prosocial behavior. Warm, supportive parenting, especially if combined with the use of positive discipline (e.g., the use of reasoning with children about wrongdoing), has also been linked to prosocial tendencies in children, whereas punitive parenting (e.g., parenting involving physical punishment, the deprivation of privileges, or threats thereof) has been inversely related. Parents who help their children to attend to and understand others’ feelings tend to foster prosocial tendencies in their offspring. Appropriate levels of parental control, when combined with parental support, prosocial values, and behaviors that help children to attend to and care about others’ needs, seem to foster prosocial responding.
Age and Sex Differences in Prosocial Behavior
Even very young children, for example, 1-year-olds, sometimes help or comfort others. However, the frequencies of most types of prosocial behavior increase during childhood until adolescence. It currently is unclear if prosocial tendencies increase or not in adulthood. This increase in prosocial behavior with age in childhood is likely caused by a number of factors, including increased perspective-taking skills and sympathy, internalization of other-oriented, prosocial values, greater awareness of the social desirability of helping, and greater competence to help others.
There also are sex differences in sympathy and prosocial behavior. In childhood, girls tend to be somewhat, but not greatly, more likely to engage in prosocial behavior. Girls also are more empathic or sympathetic, albeit this sex difference is small and depends on the method of assessing empathy or sympathy. Women are perceived as more nurturant and prosocial, although they likely help more only in certain kinds of circumstances. Indeed, men are more likely to help when there is some risk involved (e.g., interactions with a stranger on the street) or if chivalry might be involved.
- Eisenberg, N. (1992). The caring child. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Eisenberg, N., & Mussen, P. (1989). The roots of prosocial behavior in children. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A., & Schroeder, D. A. (2005). Prosocial behavior: Multilevel perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 365-392.
- Schroeder, D. A., Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., & Piliavin, J. A. (1995). The psychology of helping and altruism: Problems and puzzles. New York: McGraw-Hill.