What is Prosociality?
More than doing the right thing
Put simply, prosocial behaviours are those that benefit others. Things like donating time, money or even blood to people we don’t know are not just important for our sense of wellbeing, they are critical to a functioning and fair society.
The behavioural economics and ‘nudge’ movement often focuses on helping people make better choices for themselves, but what about behaving in the interests of others? Studies by Kun Zhao, a BehaviourWorks researcher, show that traditional economic assumptions about humans as rational beings driven by selfish motives are wrong on two counts: not only do people not behave selfishly, but they behave differently according to their personalities. Understanding where we lie between narrow self-interest and regard for others, and what drives this variation, may provide insights into how we can increase prosocial behaviours in society.
Prosociality can be measured a few different ways, like getting people to take part in ‘economic games’, lab-based tasks where people’s decisions reveal their trust, fairness and reciprocity (or lack of). Another method is simply asking people the extent to which they carry out prosocial behaviours in the real world, such as charitable giving, volunteering, and blood donation.
One important finding is that people’s prosocial personality traits can be broken down into two distinct but related characteristics. Politeness refers to our tendency to be respectful of others (versus aggressive). Compassion, on the other hand, refers to how emotionally concerned we are about others (versus cold-hearted).
In laboratory tasks, politeness – not compassion – is associated with fair and rule-abiding behaviours, such as dividing money up equally with a stranger. On the other hand, compassion – not politeness – is associated with helping behaviours, such as giving up some of your own money to a victim who was treated poorly. Etiquette is not quite the same as empathy.
It’s not ‘Us and Them’, it’s us.
Prosociality is not just about kindness towards people we know; often we need to help and cooperate across social groups. Again, the extent to which people engage in insular, ‘tribal’ behaviours or socially inclusive behaviours depends on our personalities.
Researchers have identified traits and attitudes that drive our prejudice towards people from marginalised groups. Their work suggests one pathway to social inclusion is through agreeableness, or our tendency to be kind and cooperative towards others. Not surprisingly, it motivates us to engage in behaviours such as listening to the stories of marginalised groups and volunteering to help the disadvantaged.
However, another pathway is through our curiosity and openness to new ideas, which can motivate us to challenge authority and traditional norms. It is associated with a willingness to engage in behaviours such as political advocacy to improve the rights of marginalised people.
Different strokes for different folks
Understanding prosocial behaviours is important for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals such as reducing inequality and promoting peace, justice and strong institutions.
The importance of this research isn’t just to show that people differ in their motivations and willingness to engage in different behaviours. It also helps us understand the factors that drive prosociality, which can be incorporated into more effective interventions to overcome social challenges.