What is Pro-social Behavior ? Its Meaning, Causes, Benefits

During the recent flood in Kerala, you might have noticed various groups of people visiting door to door to collect relief materials. Such as food, clothes, medicines, etc. from various parts of country. Thousands of people from countrywide rushed to the flood affected areas in Kerala and volunteered themselves in rescue operations. Similarly, you might have also seen certain people helping a blind or old person to cross a busy street. All these behaviors are examples of Pro-social Behavior.


What is Pro-social Behavior?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines pro-social behavior as exhibiting behavior that benefits one or more people. 

In general, it defines as an intentional act or behavior of an individual which benefits some other person or the society at the larger level. However, the behavior does not provide any immediate benefit to the helper.

Why do we help others? Motives of Pro-social Behavior

Why do people help others? That’s a very basic question in efforts to understand the nature of prosocial behavior. As we’ll soon see, many factors play a role in determining why people engage in such actions. In fact, several aspects of the situation are also important. Moreover, a number of personal (i.e., dispositional) factors are also influential. We focus on these factors in later discussions. Here, though, we focus on the basic question, What motives underlie the tendency to help others?

1. Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

One explanation of prosocial behavior involves empathy – the capacity to be able to experience others’ emotional states, feel sympathetic toward them, and take their perspective. (e.g., Eisenberg, 2000; Hodges, Kiel, Kramer, Veach, & Villaneuva, 2010).

In other words, we help others because we experience any unpleasant feelings they are experiencing vicariously. And we want to help bring their negative feelings to an end. This is unselfish because it leads us to offer help for no extrinsic reason.

Reflecting these basic observations, Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, and Birch (1981) offered the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which suggests that at least some prosocial acts are motivated solely by the desire to help someone in need.

Such motivation can be sufficiently strong that the helper is willing to engage in unpleasant, dangerous, and even life-threatening activities (Batson & Batson et al., 1995). Compassion for other people outweighs all other considerations.

In fact, research findings indicate that empathy consists of three distinct components: (e.g., Gleason, Jensen- Campbell, & Ickes, 2009).

  • Emotional Empathy – An emotional aspect which involves sharing the feelings and emotions of others.
  • Empathetic Accuracy – A cognitive component, which involves perceiving others’ thoughts and feelings accurately.
  • Empathetic Concern – which involves feelings of concern for another’s well-being.

2. Negative-State Relief Hypothesis

Negative-state relief hypothesis is an approach opposite to empathy altruism hypothesis. It proposes that our pro-social behavior is motivated by our desire to reduce painful emotions.

In other words, we do a good thing in order to stop feeling bad. The knowledge that others are suffering, or more generally, witnessing others in pain can be distressing. To decrease this distress in ourselves, we help others.

Research indicates that it doesn’t matter whether the bystander’s negative emotions were aroused by something unrelated to the emergency or by the emergency itself. That is, you could be upset about receiving a bad grade or about seeing that a stranger has been injured.

In either instance, you engage in Pro-social Behavior primarily as a way to improve your own negative mood (Dietrich & Berkowitz, 1997; Fultz, Shaller, & Cialdini, 1988). In this kind of situation, unhappiness leads to prosocial behavior, and empathy is not a necessary component (Cialdini et al., 1987).

3. Empathetic Joy Hypothesis

It is generally true that it feels good to have a positive effect on other people. This fact is reflected in the empathetic joy hypothesis (Smith, Keating, & Stotland, 1989) It suggests that helpers enjoy the positive reactions shown by others whom they help.

For instance, do you recall how good it felt seeing someone you care about smile and show pleasure when you gave them a gift? That is an example of empathetic joy.

This hypothesis assumes that helping others produces positive impact on others. Similarly the victim, whom we help also reacts back with positive gestures. This positive feedback for pro-social behavior provides an empathetic joy to the helper.

An important implication of this idea is that it is crucial for the person who helps to know that his or her actions had a positive impact on the victim. If helping were based entirely on emotional empathy or empathetic concern, feedback about its effects would be irrelevant since we know that we “did good” and that should be enough. But it would not guarantee the occurrence of empathetic joy.

To test that prediction, Smith et al. (1989) asked participants to watch a videotape in which a female student said she might drop out of college because she felt isolated and distressed. She was described as either similar to the participant (high empathy) or dissimilar (low empathy). After participants watched the tape, they were given the opportunity to offer helpful advice. Some were told they would receive feedback about the effectiveness of their advice while others did not know the consequences.

It reflected that empathy alone was not enough to produce a prosocial response. Rather, participants were helpful only if there was high empathy and they also received feedback about their action’s impact on the victim.

4. Kin Selection Theory

This theory explains Pro-social Behavior from evolutionary perspective.

Socio-biologists are scientists who study the evolutionary and genetic bases of social organizations in both animals and humans. They see altruistic behavior as a way of preserving one’s genetic material, even at the cost of one’s own life.

This is why the males of certain species of spiders, for example, seem to willingly become “dinner” for the female mates they have just fertilized, ensuring the continuation of their genes through the offspring she will produce
(Koh, 1996). It also explains the mother or father who risks life and limb to save a child.

Why we won’t help?

When an emergency arises, people often rush forward to provide help—as was true in the Kerala flood incident at the start of this article. But we also often learn of situations in which witnesses to an emergency stand around and do nothing; they take no action while victims suffer or perhaps even die. What can explain such dramatic differences in people’s behavior? Let’s see what social psychologists have discovered about this important question.

1. The Bystander Effect

On March 13, 1964, at about 3:15 in the morning, Winston Mosely saw Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in the parking lot of her apartment complex, stabbed her, left, and then came back nearly half an hour later to rape and stab her to death in the entryway of the complex. Upon learning of the crime, a reporter for The New York Times wrote a story in which he claimed that at least 38 people heard or watched some part of the fatal attack from their apartment windows and that not one of these people called the police until after the attack was over.

One man, whose apartment door opened onto the entryway where the second attack occurred, cracked open his apartment door, saw the attack—and closed the door (Cook, 2014).

People were outraged by the apparent indifference and lack of sympathy for the poor woman’s plight. Why did those people simply stand by and watch or listen?

Social psychologists would explain that the lack of response to Kitty Genovese’s screams for help was not due to indifference or a lack of sympathy but instead to the presence of other people.

The bystander effect refers to the finding that the likelihood of a bystander (someone observing an event and close enough to offer help) to help someone in trouble decreases as the number of bystanders increases. If only one person is standing by, that person is far more likely to help than if there is another person, and the addition of each new bystander decreases the possibility of helping behavior even more (Darley & Latané, 1968; Eagly & Crowley, 1986; Latané & Darley, 1969). In the case of Kitty Genovese, there were 38 “bystanders” at the windows of the apartment buildings, and none of them helped.

2. Diffusion of Responsibility in Pro-social Behavior

Diffusion of responsibility is the phenomenon in which a person fails to take responsibility for either action or inaction because of the presence of other people who are seen to share the responsibility (Leary & Forsyth, 1987). It is a form of attribution in which people explain why they acted (or failed to act) as they did because of others.

Contrary to popular belief, bystanders who fail to act do not do so out of apathy (a lack of caring about the victim). But instead may care quite deeply. They do not act because of diffusion of responsibility, among other concerns (Glassman & Hadad, 2008). “I was just following orders,” “Other people were doing it,” and “There were a lot of people there, and I thought one of them would do something” are all examples of statements made in such situations.

Kitty Genovese received no help because there were too many potential “helpers,” and not one of the people listening to cries for help took the responsibility to intervene—they thought surely someone else was doing something about it.

Five Decision Points in Pro-social Behavior

Latané an Darley proposed a model regarding emergency situations. Such cases which warrant immediate help, a bystander passes through five different stages.

At every step he / she has to take  decision before helping the person in need. The mode assumes that help is provided by the bystander only when he / she –

  1. Notices something unusual in the situation.
  2. Interprets it as an emergency.
  3. Assumes responsibility to help.
  4. Understanding if you have the skill required to give help and decide how to help
  5. Decide to implement help.

When we are suddenly and unexpectedly faced with an emergency, the situation is often complex and hard to interpret. Before acting, we must first figure out what is going on, and what we should do about it. This requires a series of decisions, and at each step—and for each decision—many factors determine the likelihood that we will fail to help. Here’s a summary of the decisions involved, and the factors that play a role in each one.

Noticing, or failing to notice, that something unusual is happening

An emergency is obviously something that occurs unexpectedly. There is no sure way to anticipate that it will take place or to plan how best to respond.

We are ordinarily doing something else and thinking about other things when we hear a scream outside our window. Or observe that a fellow student is coughing and unable to speak. Or observe that some of the other passengers on our airplane are holding weapons in their hands.

If we are asleep, deep in thought or concentrating on something else, we may simply fail to notice that something unusual is happening.

For example, The passengers on Flight 93 saw the weapons of the hijackers. And further, learned from the captain that the plane was being taken over by these people. In addition, they used their cell phones to learn of the other attacks (e.g., on the World Trade Center). So they knew that something very terrible was occurring, and this made it easier for them to take action.

Correctly interpreting an event as an emergency.

Even after we pay attention to an event, we often have only limited and incomplete information as to what exactly is
happening. Most of the time, whatever catches our attention does not turn out to be an emergency. Hence, does not require immediate action.

Whenever potential helpers are not completely sure about what is going on, they tend to hold back and wait for further information. After all, responding as if an emergency is occurring when it is not occurring – can lead to considerable embarrassment. Hence, Pro-social Behavior is not found in such situations.

Deciding that it is your responsibility to provide help

In many instances, the responsibility for helping is clear. Firefighters are the ones to do something about a blazing building, police officers take charge when cars collide, and medical personnel deal with injuries and illnesses

If responsibility is not clear, people assume that anyone in a leadership role must take responsibility—for instance, adults with children, professors with students.

As we have pointed out earlier, when there is only one bystander, he or she usually takes charge because there is no alternative.

Deciding that you have the knowledge and/or skills to act

Even if a bystander progresses as far as Step 3 and assumes responsibility, a pro-social response cannot occur unless the person knows how to be helpful.

Some emergencies are sufficiently simple. Almost everyone has the necessary skills to help.

If someone slips on the ice, most bystanders are able to help that person get up. On the other hand, if you see someone having a heart attack, you would be hesitant to take the situation in your own hands unless you are trained in CPR.

When emergencies require special skills, usually only a portion of the bystanders are able to help

Making the final decision to provide help

Even if a bystander passes the first four steps in the decision process, help does not occur unless he or she makes the ultimate decision to engage in a helpful act.

Helping at this final point can be inhibited by fears (often realistic ones) about  potential negative consequences. In effect, potential helpers engage in “cognitive algebra” as they weigh the positive versus the negative aspects of helping. In other words its costs and rewards.

Rewards for helping – gratitude from victim, monetary reward, recognition from peers, etc.

Rewards for not helping – avoiding potential danger,  arriving somewhere on time, etc.

Costs of helping – possible injury, embarrassment, inconvenience, etc.

Costs of not helping  – loss of self esteem

Factors affecting our Pro-social Behavior

1. Pluralistic Ignorance

It’s quite possible that in the early morning when Kitty Genovese was murdered, her neighbors could not clearly see what was happening. Even though they heard the screams and knew that a man and a woman were having a dispute. It could have just been a loud argument between a woman and her boyfriend.

Or perhaps the couple were just joking with each other. Either of these two possibilities is actually more likely to be true than the fact that a stranger was stabbing a woman to death. With ambiguous information as to whether one is witnessing a serious problem or something trivial, most people are inclined to accept the latter, and take no action (Wilson & Petruska, 1984).

This suggests that due to presence of multiple witnesses, one may avoid helping. Not only because of the diffusion of responsibility, but also because it is embarrassing to misinterpret a situation and to act inappropriately. Making such a serious mistake in front of several strangers might lead them to think you are overreacting in a stupid way.

And when people are uncertain about what’s happening they tend to hold back and do nothing. This tendency for an individual surrounded by a group of strangers to hesitate and do nothing is based on what is known as pluralistic ignorance. Because none of the bystanders knows for sure what is happening, each depends on the others to provide cues. Each individual is less likely to respond if the others fail to respond.

2. Similarity with the victim affects Pro-social Behavior

People are more likely to provide help to those who are close to them, such as family members and friends. As compared to strangers. Studies show that a victim is more likely to receive help if they are similar to the bystander in terms of age, nationality, ethnicity, etc.

3. Helping those who are not responsible for their problem

Helpfulness would be influenced by all of the factors we have discussed—from the presence of other bystanders to interpersonal attraction. But there is an additional consideration.

For example, A man is lying unconscious on the footpath. His clothing is stained and torn and an empty wine bottle is by his side. What would you assume about his problem? You might well decide that he is a hopeless drunk who passed out on the footpath.

In contrast, what if he is wearing an expensive suit and has a nasty cut on his forehead? These cues might lead you to decide that this man had been brutally mugged on his way to work.

Based on your attributions about the reasons for a man lying unconscious on the footpath, you would be less likely to help the victim with the wine bottle than the one with the cut on his head. In general, we are less likely to act if we believe that the victim is to blame (Higgins & Shaw, 1999; Weiner, 1980).The man in the business suit did not choose to be attacked, so we are more inclined to help him.


  • Baron, R. A. and Byrne, D. (1997). Social Psychology, 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
  • egyankosh.ac.in
  • Ciccarelli, S. K.; White J. N. Adapted by Girishwar Misra (2018). Psychology (5th Edition). Pearson.

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