Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behavior occurs when people act to benefit others rather than themselves. Altruism, cooperation, and caregiving are a few examples of prosocial behavior.

Prosocial behavior is a central part of morality. As social psychologist Daniel Batson notes, much of interpersonal morality involves “giving weight to the interests and desires of others in situations in which our interests and theirs conflict.”

Research reveals that those who act prosocially tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. Those who don’t act prosocially tend to suffer the psychological cost that comes with guilt.

Prosocial behavior is contagious. Studies show that people who see others act prosocially are more likely to do so themselves.

People also seem to have an innate preference for prosocial behavior. For example, in one study, even babies preferred to play with a doll that they saw act in a helpful way over another doll that they saw act in a selfish way.

Law professor Lynn Stout observes, “unselfish prosocial behavior is so omnipresent in American society that it often goes unnoticed.” Indeed, consider how frequently people help each other, donate to charity, and volunteer. For example, in 2014 charitable giving reached an all time high with more than $358 billion in donations. And overall, 45% of Americans volunteer, making the United States third in the world for offering time and talents to help others.

So, while prosocial behavior may often go unnoticed, it can be argued that it is the cornerstone of a just and decent society.

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Moral Emotions

Emotions – that is to say feelings and intuitions – play a major role in most of the ethical decisions people make. Most people do not realize how much their emotions direct their moral choices. But experts think it is impossible to make any important moral judgments without emotions.

Inner-directed negative emotions like guilt, embarrassment, and shame often motivate people to act ethically.

Outer-directed negative emotions, on the other hand, aim to discipline or punish. For example, people often direct anger, disgust, or contempt at those who have acted unethically. This discourages others from behaving the same way.

Positive emotions like gratitude and admiration, which people may feel when they see another acting with compassion or kindness, can prompt people to help others.

Emotions evoked by suffering, such as sympathy and empathy, often lead people to act ethically toward others. Indeed, empathy is the central moral emotion that most commonly motivates prosocial activity such as altruism, cooperation, and generosity.

So, while we may believe that our moral decisions are influenced most by our philosophy or religious values, in truth our emotions play a significant role in our ethical decision-making.

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Altruism

Altruism means acting in the best interest of others rather than in one’s own self-interest. Some people believe altruism constitutes the essence of morality.

Although we often act selfishly, we also seem to be wired to cooperate with others. For example, studies show that when people look for mates, they tend to look for kindness more than any other quality.

People’s moral judgments are often driven by emotion. And empathy for others seems to encourage altruism. Another emotion, called “elevation,” appears to inspire altruistic behavior, too. We feel elevation when we see another person act virtuously, such as by helping someone in need.

Altruism also builds social connections. For example, studies show that people who are altruistic tend to be happier, to be healthier, and to live longer.

So, while altruism leads us to do what’s best for others, it also makes us feel good in the process.

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