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 Muteness

Moral muteness occurs when people witness unethical behavior and choose not to say anything. It can also occur when people communicate in ways that obscure their moral beliefs and commitments.

When we see others acting unethically, often the easiest thing to do is look the other way. Studies show that less than half of those who witness organizational wrongdoing report it. To speak out risks conflict, and we tend to avoid conflict because we pay an emotional and social cost for it.

For example, in one study, psychologist Harold Takooshian planted fur coats, cameras, and TVs inside 310 locked cars in New York City. He sent a team of volunteers to break into the cars and steal the valuables, asking the “thieves” to act in an obviously suspicious manner. About 3,500 people witnessed the break-ins, but only 9 people took any kind of action. Of those who spoke up, five were policemen.

Indeed, only a relatively small percentage of people who see wrongdoing speak up. But, if we wish to be ethical people, we must strive to combat moral muteness in all areas of our lives.

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In-group/Out-group

An in-group is a group of people who identify with each other based on a variety of factors including gender, race, religion, or geography. Our tendency to distinguish between in-group and out-group members has moral implications.

People may harm those whom they perceive to be in an out-group in ways that they would not harm in-group members. For example, one study showed that when soccer fans viewed fans of their own team being harmed, they felt empathy. But when they viewed fans of a rival team being similarly harmed, they felt pleasure.

Likewise, people tend to make different moral judgments based on in-group and out-group distinctions. When someone in our in-group misbehaves, the natural reaction is often to dismiss the behavior as no big deal. But when someone in our out-group does the same thing, we will tend to judge the behavior much more harshly.

Indeed, when automatic in-group and out-group distinctions replace conscious and thoughtful reflection, we are more likely to harm one another and behave unethically.

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Groupthink

Groupthink occurs when people’s desire to maintain group loyalty becomes more important than making the best choices. People often find it hard to think and act independently in group situations. According to psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

Group members often suffer overconfidence and hold an unquestioned belief in the group’s competence and morality. Dissent by group members may be discouraged and even lead to expulsion from the group. Because people often want to avoid these punishments, they remain silent. This creates the illusion of agreement or unanimity in the group.

Groups may also reach decisions, including moral judgments, which are more extreme than any single member of the group originally supported. Unfortunately, if groupthink takes hold, group members may not even question ethically dubious decisions and actions. For example, some people say that the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq because of non-existent weapons of mass destruction was due to groupthink.

Indeed, groupthink can cause us to value harmony and consensus over independent judgment, and can lead to unethical behavior.

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Diffusion of Responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility occurs when people who need to make a decision wait for someone else to act instead. The more people involved, the more likely it is that each person will do nothing, believing someone else from the group will probably respond.

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané set up an experiment where a distress call made it appear that a person nearby had suffered an injury. When subjects heard the cry, and thought they were the only ones who heard it, 85% of them helped.  But if subjects thought there was another person who heard the call too, only 62% helped. And if subjects thought that four other people also heard the cry for help, just 31% took action.

Diffusion of responsibility makes people feel less pressure to act because they believe, correctly or incorrectly, that someone else will do so. And, when we don’t feel responsible for a situation, we feel less guilty when we do nothing to help.

So, in this way, diffusion of responsibility keeps us from paying attention to our own conscience.

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Conformity Bias

The conformity bias is the tendency people have to behave like those around them rather than using their own personal judgment.

People seem to be more comfortable mimicking others, even regarding ethical matters.

For example, studies show that people are more likely to act in a prosocial manner, such as contributing to charity or conserving water, if they see or hear that others are doing it too. Knowing that those around us are making an ethical choice indicates it’s the social norm, and makes it easier for us to follow suit.

Unfortunately, the flip side is also true. As psychologist Dan Ariely notes, “Cheating is contagious. When we see others succeed by cheating, it makes us more likely to cheat as well.”

Indeed, the conformity bias can cause people to simply follow the herd rather than use their own independent ethical judgment.

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