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.
According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, we are most likely to help if we feel a strong amount of empathy and the situation is hard to forget. If, for example, I can easily forget that you're stuck in the rain with a flat tire, then I'm more likely to drive on. But, if I feel a lot of empathy and your plight is hard to forget, then I'm more likely to stop and help.
There is a final theory for what predicts whether people will help others or not, and that is the idea that there is a specific personality type that is most likely to result in altruistically motivated behavior. This altruistic personality type is often measured by having people take a questionnaire about how often they have helped other people. The results of the questionnaire are meant to determine how much of an altruistic personality they have, and therefore, how likely they are to engage in prosocial behavior.
There is some criticism of the altruistic personality scale, though. It involves people answering questions about their behavior, and who's to say that people always tell the truth? I might lie on the questionnaire to make myself look better, and therefore, I might end up with a higher score than I really deserve. But in general, it is believed that altruism is a personality trait, whether it can accurately be measured or not.
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. Psychologists have several theories to predict prosocial behavior: the evolutionary theory of kin selection; the idea that if I help you, you'll help me, which is called the reciprocity norm; the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which states that people are more likely to help if they feel empathy; and the idea that some people have an altruistic personality type.
After this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Define prosocial behavior and altruism
- Describe four theories that social psychologists use to predict prosocial behavior