In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prosocial Behavior

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Types of Prosocial Behavior and Research Methods
  • The Evolutionary Origin of Prosocial Behavior
  • Prosocial Dispositions
  • The Development of Prosocial Behavior
  • The Prosocial Brain

Psychology Prosocial Behavior
Gilad Hirschberger, Uri Lifshin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0104


The elaborate nature of human societies requires high levels of cooperation, and our social system benefits from reciprocal benevolence and goodwill. Yet, it is not entirely clear why each individual in this elaborate system is willing to expend his or her time and resources on the well-being of others. Is there a hidden benefit to our prosociality or are we hardwired to be good? What are the forces that operate on our decision to behave prosocially? Do genetic and evolutionary forces determine the extent of prosocial behavior? Is there a prosocial personality, with some people more dispositionally inclined to help than others? Or perhaps prosocial behavior is primarily determined by situational and environmental forces? These questions and others have guided the study of prosocial behavior for more than fifty years. During this period, the psychological interest in prosocial behavior has ebbed and flowed from the glory days of the late 1960s and 1970s through the 1990s and early 2000s, which mark the lowest point in prosocial research, up to the last few years during which prosocial research has experienced a renaissance with new ideas stimulating the revival of the field and the growth in the volume of research. The current article will review the state-of-the-art research on the psychology of prosocial behavior to provide a comprehensive overview of the field for scientists and students alike. This review will highlight the classic studies that constitute the foundations of the field, will illuminate questions and controversies that have come about as the field has progressed, and will discuss new and exciting directions in prosocial research that break new ground and open new paths for the future development of this discipline. But, what exactly is prosocial behavior? Some definitions place more emphasis on consequences and view prosocial behavior as a broad category of actions that are beneficial to other people. Others stress the importance of motivations and intents underlying prosocial behavior.

General Overviews

Prosocial behavior has been studied from many different angles and from the perspective of almost every subdiscipline in psychology. As such, no single chapter or article can justifiably treat this vast field of scholarship. However, several sources provide comprehensive overviews capturing key developments that have made the study of prosocial behavior what it is today. Dovidio, et al. 2006 provides the most comprehensive and detailed text overviewing this field. This book offers an extensive review of the research, and it is interspersed with stories and illustrations that bring the research to life and make this an interesting read for scholars, students, and laypersons alike. Mikulincer and Shaver 2010 is the most up-to-date text on the state-of-the-art of prosocial research and includes many new theories and directions that are absent from other texts (such as genetic and neuroscientific perspectives). The chapters in this volume feature contributions from the leaders in this field as well as from new and upcoming scholars. Stürmer and Snyder 2010 addresses a shortcoming in most reviews of prosocial behavior, and it emphasizes the context of social groups, large organizations, and real-world settings. Other important reviews can be found in chapters from books that do not focus specifically on prosociality. Dunning’s Frontiers of Social Psychology series provides contributing reviews on prosocial motivations (Batson 2011) and on helping and volunteering (Mannino, et al. 2011). Another indispensable source is Batson’s review of prosocial behavior in The Handbook of Social Psychology (4th ed.), which summarizes prosocial theories and research in clear detail (see Batson 1998). Undergraduate students or those who wish to get a clearly written bird’s-eye view of the field will find that Kassin, et al. 2011 provides the reader with a coherent and interesting review that is relatively short and not overwhelming in detail.

  • Batson, C. Daniel. 1998. Altruism and prosocial behavior. In The handbook of social psychology. 2 vols. 4th ed. Edited by Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, 282–316. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This classic review is still relevant today because it summarizes the most prominent theoretical approaches, findings, and controversies with much detail. It is a must read for scholars wishing to get an in-depth acquaintance with the field.

  • Batson, C. Daniel, Nadia Ahmad, and E. L. Stocks. 2011. Four forms of prosocial motivation: Egoism, altruism, collectivism, and principlism. In Social motivation. Edited by David Dunning, 103–126. Frontiers of Social Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

    This chapter efficiently summarizes the development of the field of prosocial motivations, which is at the heart of prosocial behavior research, through a useful categorization of theories and findings.

  • Dovidio, John F., Jane Allyn Piliavin, David A. Schroeder, and Louis Penner. 2006. The social psychology of prosocial behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Written by some of the most prominent scholars in the field, this book provides a thorough and comprehensive review of the origin and development of prosocial research and of the current state of the field.

  • Kassin, Saul, Steven Fein, and Markus Hazel Rose. 2011. Social psychology. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Cengage Wadsworth.

    This textbook covers all of the basic concepts, and it reviews the classic research on prosocial behavior while addressing interesting findings from nonmainstream research as well. Recommended for undergraduate students and for those who wish to get an introduction to the field.

  • Mannino, Clelia Anna, Mark Snyder, and Allen M. Omoto. 2011. Why do people get involved? Motivations for volunteerism and other forms of social action. In Social motivation. Edited by David Dunning, 127–146. Frontiers of Social Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

    This chapter thoroughly addresses an area of prosocial behavior that is drawing considerable interest in recent years. If past research focused on helping behavior that occurs only once, this chapter places the spotlight on long-term commitments to helping.

  • Mikulincer, Mario, and Phillip R. Shaver, eds. 2010. Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/12061-000

    This edited volume includes scholarship of researchers examining different aspects of prosocial behavior that is not always addressed in other texts, such as genetic and neuroscientific perspectives, prosocial behavior in close relationships, and prosocial behavior in the context of protracted intergroup conflict. This book is accessible online.

  • Stürmer, Stefan, and Snyder Mark, eds. 2010. The psychology of prosocial behavior: Group processes, intergroup relations, and helping. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This book addresses prosocial behavior while focusing more on helping and volunteering in the context of social groups and large organizations; provides current perspectives and promising directions for future research. This book is accessible online.

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