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In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, an elderly washerwoman donated her lifelong savings of $150,000 for scholarships at the local college. Oseola McCarty had lived alone for decades. Who else but strangers would get her gift? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oseola_McCarty)

Why did Ms. McCarty give her unselfish gift? Social psychologists study such prosocial behavior, examining its underlying causes—both dispositional and situational. Social psychologists also debate its core motives—egoistic, altruistic, collectivist, or principled. This chapter argues that these motives fit combinations of our core social motives. Debates have raged over the evolutionary significance of self-sacrificial behavior, as we will see, and the core motives shed some light on this contentious issue. We will examine how prosocial behavior can result from specific factors as varied as social learning, mood, attributed responsibility, empathy, identity, norms, and moral reasoning. But first, let’s define our terms and organize these topics according to clusters of motivations.


No one would disagree that Oseola McCarty’s gift represents prosocial behavior. But what about a fictional family whose son dies, and they take in his young widow? Blamed for his death and hideously disfigured by a botched suicide attempt, she is barely tolerated, but she is called Precious Auntie and lives with the family nonetheless. In keeping with ancient beliefs in traditional China, the son’s ghost came to the grandmother

in a dream and warned that if Precious Auntie died, he and his ghost bride would roam the house and seek revenge on those who had not pitied her. Everyone knew there was nothing worse than a vengeful ghost. They caused rooms to stink like corpses. They turned bean curd rancid in a moment’s breath. They let wild creatures climb over walls and gates. With a ghost in the house, you could never get a good night’s sleep. (Tan, 2001, p. 175)1

Given their beliefs, was caring for her a prosocial act, and if so, was it egoistic self-interest, empathic altruism, collective family loyalty, or principled morality? As we will see when we define these terms and the research they each encompass, cultures differ in their interpretations of responsibility, with some Eastern ones emphasizing responsibility (for certain ingroup members) and some Western ones emphasizing more personal factors such as liking and direct self-interest.

Conceptual Definitions

Prosocial behavior includes behavior intended to benefit others—behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, cooperating, reassuring, defending, and showing concern (Schroeder, Penner, Dovidio, & Piliavin, 1995, p. 15). Note several features of this definition: First, it includes the intent to help others, so acts that unintentionally help others do not count (for example, taking a new job may benefit another person who fills the old one, but that was probably not the intended consequence). However, acts intended to help, which may actually fail to help, would be included (for example, it would be useless, but still prosocial, to shovel snow off the front walk of someone who uses only the back door). Second, what actually benefits another person is socially defined, changing with time and place. Depending on the context, prosocial acts might include circumcision, foot-binding, piercing, scarring, tooth-pulling, or ruthless criticism. Finally, note that benefit to one or more others, including society, but not benefit to self, is key. The positive behavior is social and interpersonal, not self-directed in its intent.

Social psychologists often distinguish a subset of prosocial behaviors according to their motivations. Although prosocial behaviors are intended to benefit others, the underlying motivation might or might not be other-oriented. Altruism conceptually underlies the subset of prosocial behavior that is “motivated mainly out of a consideration of another’s needs rather than one’s own” (Piliavin & Charng, 1990, p. 30). As a motive, altruism involves self-sacrificial costs, absent “obvious, external rewards” (Batson, 1998, p. 282). Altruism thus involves concern for others’ needs, independent of hoped reward or feared punishment outside the self (Grusec, 1991). By these definitions, then, the traditional family that took in their widowed daughter-in-law, for fear of her ghost, acted prosocially but not altruistically.

Operational Definitions

Prosocial behavior is good. Social psychologists, like everyone else, want to promote it, but to do so, they must first explain it. They have pursued two approaches, dispositional and situational. One possible explanation is that people behave prosocially because they have prosocial personalities. In this view, the Oseola McCarties of the world differ from the rest of us, and the trick is to socialize children to become more prosocial. Researchers pursuing this track use personality questionnaires, combining variables to predict helping, for example, a fellow student with severe stomach cramps (Gerbasi & Prentice, 2013; Staub, 1974; see Table 9.1).

TABLE 9.1 Personality Predictors of Helping Another Student

Positive predictors
Valuing helpfulness
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