Altruism and Prosocial Behavior: Definition & Predictors

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  • 0:06 Predicting Prosocial Behavior
  • 1:22 Kin Selection
  • 2:11 The Reciprocity Norm
  • 2:44 Empathy-Altruism
  • 3:31 Altruistic Personality
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Prosocial behavior is any action intended to help others. One motivation for prosocial behavior is altruism, or the desire to help others with no expectation of reward. In this lesson, we explore prosocial behavior and the elements that social psychologists have identified as predicting it.

Predicting Prosocial Behavior

In the story of the Good Samaritan, a man who is walking down a country road is robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Two religious men pass by, and both leave the man to die on the side of the road. Then, a man from a group who hates the beaten man's group passes by, and he stops to help.

What makes some people help and not others? Why would two good men pass by without helping, while a man who should hate the victim stops to help? Social psychologists seek answers to questions like these. They study, among other things, prosocial behavior, or any behavior that is meant to help other people.

When the motivation for prosocial behavior is to help others without any thought to what you might get in return, it is called altruism. Notice the difference in these two things: prosocial behavior is helping actions a person takes, while altruism is one possible motivation for those actions. There are many things that predict whether people will help others. Among the most common theories are kin selection, the reciprocity norm, empathy-altruism hypothesis and altruistic personality traits.

Kin Selection

Kin selection is an evolutionary concept that says that people will help others who are related to them, even at a cost to themselves. Several psychological studies have shown that people feel more protective of and connected to the people related to them - the closer the relation, the stronger the feeling. That is, you'll want to help your sibling more than you'll want to help your cousin, with all other things being equal.

But, why would people want to help the people related to them more than other people? According to the theory of evolution, this is because we want our genes to survive for future generations. You want to help your relatives because they have some of the same genes that you do, and therefore, your genes will be passed on through their children as well as through yours. And, you'll choose the people who are most closely related to you because they share more of your genes.

The Reciprocity Norm

Have you ever had someone give you a gift, and then you felt like you had to give them one back? The reciprocity norm is just a fancy way of saying that if you give me something, I'll give you something in return. How does this relate to prosocial behavior? That's easy. If I see that you need help, I might help you because I know that then you'll want to help me. I might get something from you immediately, or you might not pay me back for a long time, until I come to you and ask a favor. But either way, the reciprocity norm is one reason that people help others.


Another theory for why people help others is called the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which states that people are more likely to help others if they feel empathy for them. For example, if I see you struggling to fix a flat tire in the rain, I might imagine how it feels to be in that situation. By imagining what you're feeling, I want to help you out. Thus, empathy leads to altruism.

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