Prosocial Behavior

18 Sep

By Roberta L. Knickerbocker

Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University


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.

The concept of prosocial behavior and its psychological foundations are extremely important in furthering research and practice in a number of fields, including education, social work, criminal justice and law. For the purpose of this paper, the concept is also key to understanding individual philanthropy and group philanthropy. It is this theoretical understanding that is needed to draw practical implication that assist in the health of the philanthropic sector.

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.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Practical Implications

Knowledge of the dispositional and situational factors motivating humans to engage in prosocial behavior is useful for nonprofit professionals who are developing and/or striving to improve their organizations’ practices of building human and financial resources. For example, the helping behavior decision-making model (Darley and Latane 1970) may be adapted to represent how a potential philanthropist determines whether she will make a contribution to an organization. First, she must know the agency exists. Next, she must believe the agency needs volunteers or financial assistance. Third, she must decide whether she is personally obligated to assist. Fourth, she must determine what kind of assistance she can give. Finally, she decides how to act on her decision to contribute.

From this five-step model, a novice fundraiser or volunteer recruiter develops the broad outline of a comprehensive strategy to generate human and financial resources. The agency must first publicize itself to ensure it is well known to potential supporters. Next, it must present a compelling argument to potential philanthropists, demonstrating its need for assistance and making them feel as though they have a personal responsibility to aid the cause. Also, the agency should inform supporters what gifts it can accept and what kind of volunteer services are needed. Finally, it should have well publicized procedures in place for collecting donations and involving volunteers, so philanthropists know how to act on their decision to contribute.
Key Related Ideas

  • Altruism
  • Egoism
  • Giving
  • Helping
  • Incentive
  • Motivation
  • Philanthropy
  • Self-interest
  • Service
  • Sharing
  • Volunteering

You might find these papers helpful, too:

Important People Related to the Topic

Since the early 1970s, a number of scholars have studied prosocial behavior. Consult Daniel Batson ‘s chapter in The Handbook of Social Psychology (1998) for a comprehensive listing of those individuals. Several researchers, however, are particularly worth noting. The team of Bibb Latane and John M. Darley (1970) wrote The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help in response to bystanders’ shocking inaction during the drawn out murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. Clary and Snyder (1990) conducted an important study on the factors motivating individuals to volunteer demonstrating volunteers are motivated by both altruistic and egoistic considerations. Developmental psychologist Nancy Eisenberg is a widely published researcher on the development of prosocial behavior in children; for a summary of studies related to this topic, see The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children(Eisenberg and Mussen 1989).
Related Nonprofit Organizations

Prosocial behavior is relevant to all nonprofit organizations because all require supporters who are willing to share their expertise, manpower, and financial resources. However, this topic would be of particular interest to a handful of organizations that exist primarily to study voluntarism and giving, and educate other nonprofits in these areas:

American Association of Fundraising Counsel: “The purpose of AAFRC is to further philanthropy in an ever-changing environment, while its vision is to realize nonprofits utilizing counsel governed with the latest ethics, while applying the highest standards of practice” (

American Council on Gift Annuities: A nonprofit organization with “the purpose of providing educational and other services to American charities regarding gift annuities and other forms of planned gifts” (

Association for Volunteer Administration: AVA’s mission is “to enhance the competence of our members and strengthen the profession of volunteer resources management” (

Association of Fundraising Professionals: An association of professionals that “advances philanthropy by enabling people and organizations to practice effective and ethical fundraising” ( ).
Bibliography and Internet Resources

Aristotle. “Posterior Analytics, Book II.” In Introduction to Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974. ISBN: 0226560325.

Batson, Daniel C. “Altruism and Prosocial Behavior.” In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., edited by Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0195213769.

Bentley, Richard J. and Luana G. Nissan. The Roots of Giving and Serving: A Literature Review Studying How School-age Children Learn the Philanthropic Tradition. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1996.

Burlingame, Dwight F. “Altruism and Philanthropy: Definitional Issues.” Essays on Philanthropy 10. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1993.

Clary, E.G., and M. Snyder. “A Functional Analysis of Volunteers’ Motivations.” Spring Research Forum Working Papers. Washington, D.C.: INDEPENDENT SECTOR, 1990.

Darley, John M. and Bibb Latane. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970. ISBN: 0139386130.

Eisenberg, Nancy and Paul H. Mussen. The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN: 0-521-33771-2.

McChesney, R.D. “Charity and Philanthropy in Islam: Institutionalizing the Call to do Good.” Essays on Philanthropy 14. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1995.

Morgan, Wesley G./University of Tennessee. “The Murder of Kitty Genovese” [online]. Available: (12 December 2001).

Pearson, Birger A. “Ancient Roots of Western Philanthropy: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian.”Essays on Philanthropy. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1997.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 25th Anniversary Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0674002350.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
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