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Abstract Prosocial behavior covers the broad range of actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself—actions such as helping, comforting, sharing, and cooperation. Altruism is motivation to increase another person's welfare; it is contrasted to egoism, the motivation to increase one's own welfare. There is no one-to-one correspondence between prosocial behavior and altruism. Prosocial behavior need not be motivated by altruism; altruistic motivation need not produce prosocial behavior. Over the past 30 years, the practical concern to promote prosocial behavior has led to both a variance-accounted-for empirical approach, which focuses on identifying situational and dispositional determinants of helping, and the application of existing psychological theories. Theories invoked to explain prosocial behavior include social learning, tension reduction, norm, exchange or equity, attribution, esteem-enhancement, and moral reasoning theories. In addition, new theoretical perspectives have been developed by researchers focused on anomalous aspects of why people do—and don't—act prosocially. Their research has raised the possibility of a multiplicity of social motives—altruism, collectivism, and principlism, as well as egoism. It has also raised questions—as yet unanswered—about how these motives might be most effectively orchestrated to increase prosocial behavior.

As real and undeniable as our callousness is, also real and undeniable is our ability to care for and help family, friends, even total strangers. Indeed, most observers find it easier to explain our callousness than our compassion. . . . The latter seems to challenge the truism of self-interest, forcing us to ask: Could it be that we are capable of having another person's welfare as an ultimate goal, that not all of our efforts are directed toward looking out for Number One? This is the altruism question. It is the question that this book attempts to answer.Traditionally, philosophers are the ones who have offered answers to the altruism question. . . . But my [the author's] approach is social psychological, because I think social psychology is the scientific subdiscipline best suited to provide an answer to the altruism question. At the same time, I have tried to write not only for social psychologists but also for other psychologists, philosophers, and biologists. I have also tried to write for students, both undergraduate and graduate—indeed, for anyone interested in the question of why we help one another.

Whether observation of distress in others leads to empathic concern and altruistic motivation, or to personal distress and egoistic motivation, seems to depend upon the capacity for self-other differentiation and cognitive appraisal. In this experiment, behavioral measures and event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging were used to investigate the effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal while participants observed the facial expression of pain resulting from medical treatment. Video clips showing the faces of patients were presented either with the instruction to imagine the feelings of the patient (“imagine other”) or to imagine oneself to be in the patient's situation (“imagine self”). Cognitive appraisal was manipulated by providing information that the medical treatment had or had not been successful. Behavioral measures demonstrated that perspective-taking and treatment effectiveness instructions affected participants' affective responses to the observed pain. Hemodynamic changes were detected in the insular cortices, anterior medial cingulate cortex (aMCC), amygdala, and in visual areas including the fusiform gyrus. Graded responses related to the perspective-taking instructions were observed in middle insula, aMCC, medial and lateral premotor areas, and selectively in left and right parietal cortices. Treatment effectiveness resulted in signal changes in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, in the ventromedial orbito-frontal cortex, in the right lateral middle frontal gyrus, and in the cerebellum. These findings support the view that humans' responses to the pain of others can be modulated by cognitive and motivational processes, which influence whether observing a conspecific in need of help will result in empathic concern, an important instigator for helping behavior.