Beyond Kindness: Understanding the Psychology of Prosocial Behavior

Understanding the Psychology of Prosocial Behavior

What is prosocial behaviour? Well, prosocial behaviours are actions that do not necessarily benefit the actors but benefit others. It could be giving money to the homeless, driving your friend to the airport, or assisting a neighbour in need. Most of us understand the concepts of altruism – the selfless concern for the needs of others. This is indeed a form of prosocial behaviour, alongside any actions that are for the benefit of others. 

Most of these behaviours come from a place of empathy or sympathy, connecting individuals through acts of compassion and shaping a society built on support and empathy. Such actions underscore the intrinsic value of behaviours that extend beyond individual interests.

Prosocial behaviour can be applied in many settings and taught in even more. Whether you are new to psychology entirely or are looking to advance your skillset, consider the many courses, such as a Master of Social Work qualification, to expedite the learning process and effect real change. 

The benefits 

Prosocial behaviour can have huge benefits to our psyche. Studies have shown that prosocial acts boost a number of mental states, such as life satisfaction, psychological well-being and overall satisfaction. A study on college students found that prosocial behaviour could decrease depressive symptoms. The same study looked at how gratitude affects empathy, which in turn increases prosocial acts, as gratitude is simply a positive emotional response to the kindness of others. Having a high level of gratitude towards others not only enables those around us to feel more satisfied but also enables us to have a higher level of empathy. This theory of positive emotions can be applied broadly and practised to increase prosocial behaviour. 

Beyond its positive impact on mental well-being, prosocial behaviour strengthens social bonds. Engaging in acts of kindness fosters connections and reciprocity between the actor and those affected. Studies on online behaviours show that, as opposed to what most would suspect, the online connection is overwhelmingly positive, with regular practice of prosocial behaviour leading to more robust social networks and interpersonal relationships. The reciprocal nature of these acts builds a supportive community, creating a cycle of kindness and cooperation. 

Real-World Examples 

There have been some fascinating studies on prosocial behaviour. A famous example is the dictator game. In this economic experiment, one participant (the Proposer) is given a sum of money. The proposer is then asked to decide how much to share with another player (the responder) who has no input. In most versions of the test, neither party has a relationship with the other. The game is designed to pit self-interest and overall equality against one another. Despite economic self-interest predictions, participants often exhibit prosocial behaviour, sharing a significant portion of the money. 

The Bystander effect – a thoroughly studied phenomenon. In essence, the effect states that people are less likely to help someone in need when others are present. It’s like a social inertia, where everyone assumes someone else will step up. This happens because of diffusion of responsibility – the more people around, the less each person feels individually responsible. 

A fascinating example that first-year psych professors love is the video of a man crying out in pain for help and rolling on the floor outside a train station, over 50 people walk past the man as he lies there for 20 minutes before a stranger asks if he is ok. It’s a psychological phenomenon that shows how social factors can influence helping behaviour. 

Understanding the bystander effect is crucial in understanding prosocial behaviour and when it may be more likely. This sheds light on why individuals might hesitate to assist others when in a group setting and highlights the importance of promoting individual responsibility to foster a more compassionate society.

Effecting behavioural change 

While we are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, the above studies contrast one another to show where we are good at prosocial behaviour and where there are gaps. The group or herd mentality is often the reason negative behaviour prevails; it is the reason we get viral trends on social media, but on the flip side, it drives cyber mobs to single out and destroy individuals the group dislikes. 

Many have argued that, as with other traits, the ability to act with empathy is innate, labelling some as “empaths” – those who can take on and feel the emotions of others to an abnormal level. There is, however, no peer-reviewed evidence to date that supports this idea, with most recognising empathy to be something almost anyone can learn and increase.  

Why choose the prosocial path 

These studies are a mere snapshot of behavioural psychology and how its research enables us to understand prosocial behaviour and its driving factors. In essence, most people have the innate capacity for good, so unless you are one of the 4.5% of the population that are psychopaths, there is really no excuse. Any promoting prosocial behaviour can be so simple, whether you are a parent, teacher or simply someone trying to better themselves 

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