Prosocial Behavior: How Situational Factors Predict Helping

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Predicting whether or not a person will help another depends on many situational factors. In this lesson, you will learn about the situations that lead to prosocial behavior and how to increase helping behaviors in others.

Helping Behavior

Did you know that dolphins will risk their own lives to save a pod-mate? In some monkey species, one member of the tribe will stay behind to face oncoming danger in order to give the rest the chance to get away.

Altruism is the giving of one's self for the betterment of others. When found in the animal kingdom, it often leads to damage, harm or vulnerability of one member of a unit in order to support and assist others from its group.

It is obvious that humans help others, but why? Do we only help others in altruistic ways when the one being helped is considered 'in our group'?

This lesson reviews situational factors for when humans likely to show prosocial behavior: behaviors intended to help others at the expense of the doer.


It would be nice to think that all prosocial behavior is performed purely due to intrinsic altruism in humans; that we all have a desire to give ourselves for the good of all. However, this is not always the case. Reciprocity, the act of giving back or returning a favor to another out of a sense of obligation, is a common reason for prosocial behavior.

Interestingly, reciprocity does not always have to be directed back to the original person. Sometimes, when a favor is done for someone, the doer will suggest that it should be paid forward, meaning that instead of reciprocating the favor back the receiver of the favor should do something nice for another person. In this case, the secondary action may appear very close to altruistic in that there may appear to be no connection between the one performing the prosocial behavior and the person receiving the benefit of it, but the action stems from a desire of the doer to pay back, reciprocate, an earlier action.

For example, if you were a few dollars short when checking out at the grocery store, the person behind you might give you the extra money. This seems altruistic, but if the reason was because that person had also been given money in the same situation, it is actually an example of reciprocity. Still, it is prosocial behavior.


In the animal kingdom, most altruistic behavior is conducted to assist those of the same group. There is a bond of sameness between the animal helping and those being helped. It is similar in the human world. We are creatures of habit and we enjoy grouping ourselves with others like us. People are more likely to help others if they like them. To like someone, you must feel as if you share things in common. Thus, it is as if people are more likely to help when they can see themselves in the person needing help.

Outside of personally knowing someone, we are more likely to help others that appear similar to ourselves. This goes along with the concept of similarity. Since we cannot connect intimately with a stranger, the connection is made through appearance.

Ironically, this human instinct to help based on similarity can be used to elicit help through mimicry. When a person needing help imitates another's actions (or speech patterns), it increases the probability of that person helping. Again, this goes back to the idea that we are more willing to help those who are similar to us.

This may be caused by an internal, unconscious, voice saying that could be me and I would want help in that situation.


A cornerstone of adult life is personal responsibility. In our society, if someone in need of help is seen to be responsible for their unfortunate situation, others are less likely to help than if they are not responsible for it.

Take, for instance, a house fire. If the fire was started through uncontrollable sources (like an electrical fault), others will be more likely to help with donations. If, on the other hand, the fire was started by a cigarette dropped on the bed of a drunken person, others may be less inclined to offer assistance feeling as if the person did it to him/herself.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account