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Social scientists use the word altruism to describe two distinct phenomena—motivation and prosocial behavior. Although it is more common to describe altruism as a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare, some researchers, especially within the field of sociobiology, use the term as a synonym for prosocial behavior, which refers to any behavior that benefits someone other than oneself, regardless of the motivation involved. The factors that predict when, and for whom, prosocial behavior will occur can be divided into three categories—dispositional, situational, and evolutionary.
Dispositional factors are personal characteristics that predispose an individual to engage in prosocial behavior. These include sensitivity to norms of personal and social responsibility, internalization of prosocial values, moral reasoning ability, a tendency to empathize, intelligence, nurturance, religiosity, and self-esteem. Although none of these factors alone predicts prosocial behavior well, a combination of empathic tendencies, moral reasoning ability, and sensitivity to norms of personal and social responsibility constitute what some have called an altruistic personality. A person may also be prone to engage in prosocial behavior as a consequence of social learning. Those who have received (or observed others receive) rewards for helping, or punishments for not helping, are more likely to help than are those who have not.
Situational factors are stimuli in an individual’s environment that promote prosocial behavior. There are many situational factors that affect prosocial behavior, but only a few have received detailed scientific attention. Among these is the presence of bystanders. In an emergency situation, as the number of bystanders increases diffusion of responsibility for helping also increases, which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of prosocial behavior. Another factor is the presence of prosocial norms, which are written and unwritten rules of behavior that communicate when, how, and for the benefit of whom help is to be provided. If a situation promotes attention to prosocial norms, then prosocial behavior is more likely to occur. Information about the cause of a victim’s need also affects prosocial behavior such that those viewed as not responsible for their need are more likely to be helped. Factors that increase positive mood and feelings of empathy promote prosocial behavior, as do situations that promote negative mood or personal distress, but only if prosocial behavior is perceived as rewarding or if escape from such feelings is possible only through helping.
Evolutionary factors are those that promote prosocial behavior as a consequence of natural selection. According to sociobiologists, individuals are predisposed to benefit those who are likely to share or promote their own genes. Kin selection suggests that people are more likely to benefit genetically related individuals because helping kin can promote the survival and reproduction of one’s own genes in future generations. Similarly, reciprocal altruism suggests that people will help those who are likely to help them back because doing so increases the likelihood that one’s own genes will be protected or promoted when in need at a later date. Research also suggests that younger individuals are more likely to receive aid (suggesting an evolved sensitivity to those displaying characteristics typical of offspring) unless essential resources are scarce, in which case only those capable of reproduction are likely to be helped.
- Batson, C. Daniel. 1998. Altruism and Prosocial Behavior. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, ed. Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, 4th ed., 282–316. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Latané, Bib, and John M. Darley. 1970. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? New York: AppletonCentury Crofts.
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