An Introduction To Prosocial Behavior

Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever done something for someone with no thought of a reward? Or, has someone helped you without asking for anything in return? These kinds of behaviors can often be described as selfless acts or even altruistic behavior. While these are all selfless acts, they are more than that. These are examples of prosocial behavior. Here’s a look at what it means to behave in prosocial ways.

Helping Others Can Actually Improve Your Mental Health

What Is Prosocial Behavior?

The prosocial behavior definition psychology theorists created started as the opposite of antisocial behavior. While people engage in antisocial behavior with the intent to hurt someone, people engage in prosocial behavior to help. However, understanding prosocial behavior involves digging deeper than this, such as understanding the role of empathy and moral reasoning.

Prosocial behavior is a form of positive psychology that focuses on how people help each other out and do things for the greater good. It explores why some people feel a sense of personal responsibility to engage in prosocial behavior and how others use such behaviors to serve themselves.

Prosocial behaviors are often divided into three categories:

  • Proactive prosocial actions usually come out of self-interest. They tend to be status linked and enhance the popularity of the person within a particular group. 

  • Reactive prosocial actions are performed in response to a situation. 

  • Altruistic prosocial actions are actions that are meant to help others without asking for anything in return.

However, many psychologists question whether true pure altruism exists. It may be that there are other reasons people help each other in a seemingly unselfish way. Prosocial behaviors may go back to our evolutionary past when reciprocity and kin selection (helping raise a relative’s children for the good of the group) were essential for survival. In other words, when you behave altruistically, you may simply be doing what humans have learned to do for survival throughout millennia.

Furthermore, prosocial tendencies may be linked to genetics. For example, some people may have prosocial personality traits such as agreeableness and honesty, which make them more inclined towards prosocial behaviors. Also, there may be sex differences in how people exhibit prosocial behaviors or why they engage in those behaviors at all.

Examples Of Kinds Of Prosocial Behavior In Action

Once you can define it in an abstract way, the next step to understanding is to recognize examples of prosocial behavior. Here are some of the general types and specific examples of each, as identified in the social psychology volume “Handbook of Social Psychology”:

Helping

Helping behaviors are a type of prosocial behavior that benefits both individuals and society as a whole. Some ways to help others include:

  • Stopping to help a stranded motorist change a tire

  • Carrying someone’s heavy groceries to their car

  • Helping a new neighbor move in and unpack

  • Doing errands for someone who is too sick to manage them

  • Helping someone do needed repairs on their house

  • Paying for someone’s bus fare

  • Letting someone borrow your books, games, or videos

Donating

Charitable giving is a wonderful form of prosocial behavior. You can donate a wide variety of things to charities or people in your community who are less fortunate than you are. Here are some ways to donate:

  • Give nice clothing you no longer wear to a community clothes closet or homeless shelter

  • Send money to the Red Cross or another disaster relief organization

  • Give household goods to someone just starting on their own

  • Give books or blankets to residents of a nursing home

Volunteering

Volunteering is almost like donating, but instead of giving physical items, you’re offering your time, abilities, and talents to benefit someone. Here are some ways to volunteer:

  • Read to children who are in the hospital

  • Help with community cleanup after a flood

  • Help organize a community event

  • Sew quilts for police officers, firefighters, or veterans who were hurt on the job

Cooperating

Cooperating is simply working together with one or more people to accomplish a common goal. When people work together well, they can get more done than each could ever achieve on their own. Here are some specific ways to be cooperative:

  • Washing dishes while someone else dries

  • Working together to paint a mural

  • Doing your part in a community project

Being Emotionally Supportive

Being emotionally supportive is a prosocial behavior that might not be as easy as it sounds. It can be distressing to listen to someone’s troubles, and it can take some time to let them talk it out. But people do offer each other emotional support by engaging in prosocial behaviors such as:

  • Listening actively and empathetically while someone talks about a recent loss or challenge

  • Offering a hug when someone is sad or upset

  • Being available to talk when someone is lonely

  • Giving compliments when someone needs a boost to their self-esteem

  • Encouraging someone who feels like giving up

Obeying Society’s Rules

When you follow the rules, you benefit both yourself and society as a whole. What makes this prosocial behavior is that you do it willingly for the good of everyone. Here are some of the rules you probably follow:

  • Stopping at a stoplight

  • Filing your tax return

  • Paying at a store rather than shoplifting

Complying With Social Norms And Conventions

Aside from the hard and fast written rules in society, there are also social conventions that most people follow most of the time. Some of these social customs include:

  • Tipping a server at a restaurant

  • Greeting people when they arrive and saying goodbye when they leave

  • Returning favors

  • Using good etiquette (table manners, saying please and thanks, etc.)

The Psychology Of Prosocial Behavior

Several factors may influence whether you engage in prosocial behaviors or not. Some have to do with the situation while others depend on the individuals involved.

The Bystander Effect

One example of a situational factor in prosocial behavior is the bystander effect. If someone needs help, and many people are standing around doing nothing, individuals are less likely to help. But why is that? Usually, it’s because:

  • They don’t notice what’s happening.

  • They don’t see it as an emergency.

  • They don’t feel responsible because there are so many others there who could help.

  • They don’t think they have the skills needed to help properly.

  • They remain undecided about whether to help.

Unfortunately, the bystander effect can have some practical concerns and devastating consequences. For example, the bystander effect is common in toxic workplaces where employees do little to help those who are being abused or harassed by coworkers or superiors. Even worse, there have been murder cases where there have been many bystanders and witnesses, but none did anything to intervene or prevent the crime. However, as stated above, this is not out of self-importance or selfishness. The bystander effect occurs simply because the witnesses don't know what to do.

Individual factors

  • What you learned about prosocial behaviors as a child. (Did your parents donate or volunteer?)

  • Your cognitive, physical, and social capabilities

  • Your standards and ideals

  • Whether you practice empathy in your communication with others

  • Whether you have an agreeable disposition

Does It Matter If Someone’s Watching?

Would you do a good deed if no one knew you did it? You might, but you’d be more likely to do prosocial behaviors if someone was there to see. Despite the secret donors and Santas in the world, most people want others to know they’ve done something good. They want recognition for their positive behaviors. They want the social status that comes when people know they’ve done something for the community. They want the perks of being well-liked for their generosity.

Do People Perform These Behaviors Because Of Guilt?

Many people believe that prosocial behaviors only happen when someone feels guilty. If this is true, it could be that doing something kind and considerate diminishes their feelings of guilt for harming someone. However, research suggests that when someone else does something to make up for the damage, the person who caused the harm is less likely to act in prosocial ways to the victim.

There’s also the issue of a broader kind of guilt. If you see an ad from a world hunger charity where people look sad and starving, you may feel guilty for having what you need while others don’t. Whether this guilt is behind your prosocial behaviors or not, the bottom line is that by contributing, you are helping the less fortunate.

Yet, having generalized guilt may not be the healthiest attitude to have toward life. And if you feel guilty for things you had no control over, it can cause you unnecessary emotional distress. That’s why it’s important to deal with your excessive feelings of guilt. This is something you can talk to a therapist about; a licensed, qualified mental health professional can help you set boundaries so that you do not feel an excessive amount of guilt or shame.

Prosocial Behaviors In Children

There are two major questions that social scientists who are studying prosocial behavior wish to answer. The first is how early does this behavior show up in child development. And the second is why these behaviors develop early in life. Is this just learned behavior or is it a part of human nature?

The Timeline Of Prosocial Development

The answer to the first question is surprising. To date, many research findings point to the development of these behaviors in infants as young as 12-months old. However, infants under the age of 24-months are limited in their prosocial development. Though they have developed great empathy and have a genuine interest in helping others, they typically only demonstrate one form of prosocial behavior. Furthermore, infants and toddlers tend to only exhibit prosocial behaviors in limited situations, such as when someone is expressing obvious distress.

However, research suggests that the second year of life is when prosocial behavior truly blossoms. This is when toddlers begin to develop cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, inferring the wants and needs of those around them and taking prosocial actions to meet those needs. Of course, there are individual differences when it comes to prosocial and moral development, but generally, this is the age when most toddlers experience significant prosocial development.

Why Does Prosocial Behavior Form Early In Development?

So how do social scientists explain prosocial behavior developing at such a young age? One explanation is that infants have specialized cognitive and social capacities that encourage prosocial action. Some evolutionary psychologists have shown through research and study that infants already have the capacity for prosocial behavior and therefore it is a distinct part of human nature.

Another hypothesis is that prosocial behavior is learned and positively reinforced. When socializing with their parents or other children, the caregivers may positively encourage any behaviors that are seen as prosocial.

Researchers disagree as to which hypothesis is correct. However, neither should be fully excluded. The truth could contain both, as some prosocial acts may stem from early child development, while others are learned and reinforced. There is no definite answer to this question though, but much future research is devoted to it.

Prosocial Behavior In Middle Childhood And Early Adolescence

Experimental research suggests that friendship and connection motivate prosocial behavior more as we age. This was exemplified in many behavioral experiments, such as one in The Journal Of Early Adolescence that paired children with a close friend or a random classmate. The children selected for this experiment were all in grades four, six, or eight.

Once paired, the children were given two tasks to complete. The results showed that eighth-graders were far more generous and helpful to their friends than random classmates, while fourth and sixth graders treated both groups similarly. This study implies that people are more motivated to engage in prosocial behaviors when they are closely linked to the other person. However, young children are more likely to exhibit prosocial acts to friends and acquaintances equally.

This phenomenon may be due to our evolutionary history, where it was more beneficial to survival to exhibit prosocial behaviors towards your tribe or kin and not so much towards strangers. Perhaps future research will be able to confirm this for certain.

Further Reading

The study of prosocial behavior and moral development in children is a fascinating subject. If you wish to learn more, you can find great information in the works of Nancy Eisenberg. She is a major researcher in the field of prosocial behavior and has authored many books on the subject including The Caring Child (Harvard University Press), The Roots Of Prosocial Behavior In Children (Cambridge University Press), and The Development Of Prosocial Behavior (Elsevier Science).

What’s The Role Of Therapy?

Therapy helps with prosocial behaviors in a few ways. First, when you deal with your guilt appropriately through therapy, you can find more positive reasons to be a giving person. Second, your counselor can help and support you as you practice. That’s important to your mental health because these behaviors can lead to decreased anxiety and improved mood.

Also, cultivating positive emotions makes you more likely to act in prosocial ways. If you develop your sense of gratitude, you’re more likely to help others. And, when you help, the experience may generate a “helper’s high,” bringing more positive emotions afterward and reduce negatives, such as stress. In fact, some communities offer helper therapy, where prosocial behavior is a part of the treatment for a variety of mental health disorders.

You can easily talk to a counselor about guilty feelings, lack of prosocial behavior, and mood concerns online at BetterHelp. When you work through your mental health issues, you may feel more positive about helping the individuals in your life, and that in turn can help bring on more positive feelings. You’ll learn to value your abilities and characteristics so that you feel confident in using them to help your community. And in the process, you can build a better, happier, more fulfilling life.

Takeaway

Practicing prosocial behaviors is a win-win, helping you feel better by helping others. However, sometimes getting started can be the hardest part of becoming prosocial, especially if you’re experiencing negative mental health issues, like depression or anxiety.

Online counseling through BetterHelp can get you started towards a more positive outlook and life. If you want to increase your feelings of personal well-being and self-worth, develop better relationships, and help others in your community, therapy can help you achieve your goals. And, if you believe a mental health disorder is keeping you from doing the good things you want to do, getting therapy can help you manage that disorder, so you’re at your best. Contact BetterHelp to learn more. 

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