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How Positive Moods and Negative State Relief Affect Prosocial Behavior

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  • 0:07 Why Do People Help Others?
  • 0:57 Good Moods and Helping
  • 2:31 Bad Moods and Helping
  • 4:33 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.

Your mood, good or bad, affects whether you are willing to engage in prosocial behavior. In this lesson, we look at how and why mood can determine whether people help others.

Why Do People Help Others?

Imagine this: You've just had a terrible day. You failed a test, your boss yelled at you and you got in a fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend. As you are heading home, a woman approaches you and asks you to help her change a flat tire on her car. Do you help her?

What if the situation was changed: You aced that test, your boss gave you a promotion and your special someone just said, 'I love you.' Are you more or less likely to help out with the flat tire?

Social psychologists have spent years studying prosocial behavior, or behavior that helps other people. One of the things they've found is that a person's current mood affects whether or not they'll help others. But, the findings aren't as clear-cut as you might believe. Let's take a look at how mood impacts prosocial behavior.

Good Moods and Helping

In the scenarios above, you probably said that when you're in a good mood you'll be more likely to help someone else, and psychologists have found that's true.

In one famous study, Isen and Levin set up a situation in a shopping mall. This was in 1972, before cell phones, and people commonly used pay phones. Isen and Levin set up a study where some people found a dime in the change compartment of a pay phone, and some people didn't. As they left the phone booth, a person walked by and dropped a bunch of papers. The results: 84% of the people who found a dime helped pick up the papers, while only 4% of those who didn't find a dime helped.

Why does a good mood make people more likely to help others? There are three possible reasons:

  1. Good moods make us interpret situations in a sympathetic way. If I see that you need help, and I feel sympathy for you, I'm more likely to help you out.
  2. Helping will prolong the good mood, while not helping will deflate it. If I'm in a good mood, I want that to last a long time, and helping you out will make it last longer. Meanwhile, if I don't help you out, I might feel guilty, which would put a damper on my good mood.
  3. Good moods make us aware of ourselves more, and as a result, we are more likely to act in accordance with our values. Normally, people's values include prosocial behavior. As a result, I'm more likely to engage in prosocial behavior when I'm aware of myself and my values.

Bad Moods and Helping

So, good moods make people more likely to help others. That's it, end of story, right? Well, not exactly. See, some psychologists have found that certain types of bad moods also increase helping.

One type of bad mood that increases helping is guilt. When people feel guilty, they are more likely to help others out to alleviate that guilt. Studies have shown that churchgoers are more likely to donate money before they go through confession versus afterwards. The idea is that beforehand, they're still feeling guilty and will donate money to make themselves feel less guilty. After confession, they've had their guilt absolved by the priest, and therefore, they have less incentive to donate.

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