Social Justice Research

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 53–97 | Cite as

Altruism Born of Suffering and Prosocial Behavior Following Adverse Life Events: A Review and Conceptualization

  • Johanna Ray VollhardtEmail author


This paper introduces the concept of “altruism born of suffering,” and provides a review and integration of relevant research and theories from various disciplines. In contrast to the well-supported notion that prosocial behavior is rooted in positive experiences, whereas violence and adversity often contribute to further violence and antisocial behavior, it is proposed that suffering may actually enhance the motivation to help other disadvantaged members of society, including outgroups. A motivational process model is presented that includes a typology of altruism born of suffering, integrates clinical and social psychological perspectives on underlying processes, and proposes potential mediators and moderators. Relevant empirical studies are reviewed that provide initial support for this model. A particular emphasis is placed on victims of group-based violence, and implications for intergroup relations and social justice.


Altruism Prosocial behavior Suffering Collective violence Intergroup relations 



The author is indebted to Ervin Staub for initiating the idea for this paper and for many stimulating discussions about the topic. A special thanks also goes to Linda Tropp for her many helpful suggestions and comments on earlier drafts. I would also like to thank Icek Aizen, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Paula Pietromonaco, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Massachusetts, AmherstAmherstUSA

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