Social Exchange Theory vs. Empathy-Altruism

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  • 0:07 Causes of Prosocial Behavior
  • 1:09 Social Exchange Theory
  • 2:34 Costs & Benefits of Helping
  • 3:31 Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
  • 5:15 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.

Social psychologists disagree on why people help others. Two theories on the subject are social exchange theory and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. In this lesson, we'll learn more about each of these theories.

Causes of Prosocial Behavior

Think about a time when someone asked for your help. Maybe a friend needed an ear after a bad break-up, or someone in class asked you to explain a concept that she didn't understand when the professor taught it. Maybe you were asked to run an errand for someone or to volunteer your time for a good cause. Under what circumstances did you help out? When would you not help someone out?

For years, social psychologists have studied the causes of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is any action that is meant to help others. Psychologists study prosocial behavior to try to understand why people help others.

But there's not a consensus on the answer; some psychologists believe that helping is essentially a selfish act, while others believe that sometimes people help out of the goodness of their hearts. This disagreement is often summarized as social exchange theory vs. the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Let's look closer at both sides.

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory is the belief that people will help others only when the benefits to themselves outweigh the costs of helping. The basic idea behind social exchange theory is that most of our behavior comes from a desire to maximize our rewards and minimize our costs.

Let's look at an example. Imagine that someone in your class asks you to help her by explaining a concept that she didn't understand. The concept is pretty simple and will only take a couple of minutes after class to explain, and you know that you might need her to explain something else to you later in the semester. Do you help her?

Now consider this: The concept she needs help with is pretty complex and will take a while to explain. Not only that, but she asks you to explain it in the middle of the professor's lecture. If you stop to help her, you might miss something important. Do you still help her?

In the example above, social exchange theory says that you're more likely to help in the first scenario. The cost (of your time) is not high, and the reward (that she might help you later on) is pretty good. In the second scenario, the cost is higher (it will take more time and the time is valuable since you might miss something the professor says). So, according to social exchange theory, the first scenario is more likely to produce prosocial behavior.

Costs and Benefits of Helping

There are three major ways that helping is usually rewarded. First, it increases the chance that the helper will receive help in the future, such as when you decide you might need your classmate's help on another concept.

Second, helping can decrease the personal distress of the helper. If you see a homeless person begging for money and that makes you feel sad, you might give him a dollar to make yourself feel better.

The third way that helping can be rewarded is through increased self-worth and/or social approval. Let's say that you're on a date, and you see a kid whose kite is stuck in a tree. You might help the kid with her kite in order to impress your date.

Likewise, helping can be costly in many different ways. Time, money and energy are just a few ways that prosocial behavior can be costly. But according to social exchange theory, if the benefits outweigh the costs, you are likely to offer help.

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