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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. A major debate in the literature has been whether certain acts can be defined as altruistic or not. In this paper, Batson’s position that altruism applies to all acts that are primarily motivated by the desire to improve others’ well-being will be followed. This does not exclude internal or external rewards, as long as the “ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare” (Batson, 1991, p. 6) is given. However, since it is difficult to measure or observe a person’s motivational state, it is impossible to say for many studies whether the reported prosocial act was altruistic or not (see Schroeder et al., 1995, p. 19). Moreover, in many studies reviewed in this paper, this conceptual distinction is not made, and some examples will be referred to as altruistic, although other scholars could dispute such an interpretation (see, e.g., Cialdini et al., 1987).

  2. A search in PsycInfo (in June 2008) with “post-traumatic growth”, “stress-related growth”, “adversarial growth”, “benefit-finding”, and “thriving” as keywords returned in total only two entries for the following search terms: helping, prosocial, altruism, altruistic, and compassion. One of these sources is a review article (Vazquez et al., 2008) and the other an exploratory, qualitative study with a small sample size (Shakespeare-Finch & Copping, 2006).

  3. However, as one reviewer pointed out, in some cases the desire for revenge also occurs after industrial accidents and even natural disasters, where no human intention or perpetrator is involved (see, e.g., Goenjian et al., 2001, for revenge thoughts after Hurricane Mitch).

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Acknowledgments

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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Vollhardt, J.R. Altruism Born of Suffering and Prosocial Behavior Following Adverse Life Events: A Review and Conceptualization. Soc Just Res 22, 53–97 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-009-0088-1

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