The Driving Force Behind Helping Others

Prosocial behavior, the act of doing things for the benefit of others, is in many ways the glue that holds society together. But what drives people to help others?

That is the question David Schroeder, professor of psychological science and director of experimental training at the University of Arkansas, has been asking for much of his career as a social psychologist. He and co-editor William Graziano, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, offer a comprehensive look at prosocial behavior and its psychological driving forces in The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior, published this summer.

Prosocial behavior caught Schroeder’s attention while he was still an undergraduate.   Schroeder writes that kindness, generosity and cooperation through helping and volunteering are among the acts that smooth our social interactions and allow us to not just survive but flourish as a community.

Because prosocial behavior covers a broad spectrum of behavior rooted in evolution, biology, development, personality, and social relations, Schroeder and Graziano solicited contributions from international scholars from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives and with expertise across the full range of prosocial action.

“In the Handbook, we tried to categorize the different levels of prosociality,” Schroeder said. “The contributors reached outside the traditional domain of prosocial behavior to look at how it relates to other aspects of social interactions.” The subtleties of those relationships are what Schroeder and Graziano hoped to capture in this compilation of the various types, motivations, and societal outcomes of prosocial behavior by individuals.

The driving forces for prosocial behavior are often intertwined with one another, with one building on another. From an evolutionary standpoint, helping and cooperating are behaviors that promote propagation a species and may lead to “survival of the nicest.” Schroeder and Graziano note that biologically-driven predispositions are then built upon early in life by developmental processes such as temperament, socialization, and cognitive factors.   From there, personality characteristics and individual differences adjust the lenses through which adults view their world.

“Socialization provides individuals with the understanding that helping others can be an instrumental act that will lead to a variety of rewards in their social interactions,” the editors wrote.

In fact, actions benefiting others are often more egoistically motivated than selflessly altruistic. Helping others can bolster the helper’s mood or relieve the distress experienced when watching someone in need.   Questions about the motivations for helping others have a long history.   Schroeder and Graziano point out that the Bible addresses prosocial behavior in the book of Genesis, when the first question humans asked God was, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Schroeder said that his interest is in the scope of prosocial behavior and how broadly applicable it is in our lives. And he said the more we learn about it, the more we appreciate the importance of acting to benefit others and recognize the numerous opportunities to help one another as a mean to improve our society.

“Talking about prosociality will make people more sensitive to the conflict between an individual’s personal interests and the collective well-being of others,” he said. “People don’t always realize the implications that their individual behavior has for the greater society.”

“You can’t have only rampant individualism, because each person rushing toward his or her own best interest will bring ruin to all,” Schroeder said. “By talking more about prosociality, it makes people more cognizant of the inherent conflict between doing what is best for self and doing what is best for the common good. Hopefully they will come to recognize that there are also many personal benefits to be realized by doing good things for others.”

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