An Introduction To Prosocial Behavior

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated December 19, 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 fall under the definition of altruism and can often be described as selfless acts. These are also examples of prosocial behavior. 

Below, we’ll take a look at different types of prosocial behaviors and how they can affect you and those around you on an everyday basis.

Helping Others Can Actually Improve Your Mental Health

What Is Prosocial Behavior?

The prosocial behavior definition developed by psychology researchers started as the opposite of antisocial behavior. People may engage in antisocial behavior with the intent to hurt someone, but they can also engage in prosocial behavior that redounds to the greater good, regardless of the motives of the person engaging in such behavior. 

Prosocial behavior is a form of positive behavior that benefits others. The study of prosocial behavior focuses on how and why people help each other. It explores why some people feel a sense of personal responsibility to engage in prosocial behavior and how others may 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 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 kin selection and reciprocity (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 thousands of years.

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 toward prosocial behaviors. 

Examples Of Kinds Of Prosocial Behavior In Action

Below are some of the general types of prosocial behavior and some specific examples of each, as identified in social psychology:

Helping

Helping behaviors are prosocial behaviors that benefit both individuals and society as a whole. Some examples of helping others include:

  • Stopping to help a stranded motorist change a tire
  • Carrying someone’s groceries to their car
  • 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 another form of prosocial behavior. You can donate a wide variety of items to charities or people in your community who are less fortunate than you are. Below are some ways to donate:

  • Give nice clothing you no longer wear to a community clothes closet or a shelter for individuals without a home
  • Send money to a 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. Below 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 involves working together with one or more people to accomplish a common goal. When people work well together, they can often get more done than each could ever achieve on their own. Cooperation can also take place in everyday life. Below are some specific ways to cooperate:

  • 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 concerns, and it can take some time to let them talk it out. However, 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 normally 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 (following 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 may 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, studies show that people are often less likely to help. Usually, it’s because of the following reasons:

  • 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.

The bystander effect can have some practical concerns and devastating consequences. For example, the bystander effect may be common in toxic workplaces where employees do little to help those who are being abused or harassed by coworkers or superiors. Also, in some murder cases, there have been many bystanders and witnesses, but no one did anything to intervene or prevent the crime. However, as stated above, this is not always out of self-importance or selfishness. The bystander effect sometimes occurs simply because the witnesses don't know what to do or they assume someone else has already called the police.

Individual Factors

There may also be some individual factors that affect whether a person is likely to engage in prosocial behaviors. The following are just a few:

  • What they learned about prosocial behaviors as a child (e.g., did their parents donate or volunteer?)
  • The person’s cognitive, physical, and social capabilities
  • Their standards and ideals
  • Whether they practice empathy in their communication with others
  • Whether they 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 many people may be more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors if someone is there to see. Despite the secret donors in the world, many people want others to know they’ve done something good. This may be because they want recognition for their positive behaviors. They may also want the social status that comes when people know they’ve done something for the community, or they may want the perks of being liked for their generosity.

Prosocial Behaviors In Children

There are two major questions about prosocial behavior that many social scientists would like to answer. The first is how early this behavior shows up in child development. 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

To date, many research findings point to the development of prosocial behaviors in infants as young as 12 months old. However, children under a certain age tend to be limited in their prosocial development. Although they may have a genuine interest in others, they typically only demonstrate one form of prosocial behavior: responding to distress. 

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 can be 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?

One explanation is that infants have specialized cognitive and social capacities that encourage prosocial action. Some evolutionary psychologists have shown through research that infants already have the capacity for prosocial behavior, and therefore it is thought to be a distinct part of human nature.

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

Researchers disagree as to which hypothesis is correct. The truth could contain both, as some prosocial acts may stem from early child development, while others may be learned and reinforced.

Further Reading On Prosocial Development

If you wish to learn more about prosocial behavior and moral development in children, you can find more information in the works of Nancy Eisenberg. She is a major researcher in the field of prosocial behavior and has authored several 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?

If you’re interested in learning more about prosocial behaviors, therapy may help in a few ways. A therapist may be able to support you as you practice prosocial behaviors and explore your motivations for them. This may improve your mental health because these behaviors can lead to decreased anxiety and improved mood.

Also, cultivating positive emotions may make you more likely to act in prosocial ways. If you develop a greater sense of gratitude, you may be more likely to help others. Also, when you help, the experience may generate a “helper’s high,” bringing more positive emotions afterward and reducing stress. In line with this theory, some communities offer helper therapy, where prosocial behavior is a part of the treatment for a variety of mental health conditions.

If you’d like to explore prosocial behavior with a mental health professional but don’t want to visit a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy. Research has shown online therapy to be just as effective as in-person therapy for a variety of concerns. 

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Helping Others Can Actually Improve Your Mental Health

With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist from home via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing. With BetterHelp, you can also contact your therapist in between sessions through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can.

Takeaway

Practicing prosocial behaviors can be beneficial not only for the recipients of such behavior but also for the person who is helping others. However, sometimes getting started can be the hardest part of becoming prosocial, especially if you’re experiencing mental health challenges like depression or anxiety.

If you’re experiencing these or other mental health conditions, you may benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist in your community or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience with the specific concerns you are facing, and you can engage in therapy from the comfort of home or anywhere you feel comfortable. Take the first step toward getting help and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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