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Prosocial behavior covers a broad range of actions intended to benefit others. This includes, but is not limited to, cooperation, sharing, helping, charitable giving, and volunteering. As such, prosocial behavior usually entails some (small or even large) cost for the actor, such as spending resources, time, and effort or sometimes even incurring physical harm. For example, acts of kindness or charity (e.g., offering your seat in the bus or giving few coins to a beggar) but also self-sacrifice or heroism (e.g., donating a kidney to save others’ lives or intervening to help strangers in emergencies) are all prosocial behaviors. The question is why people do such nice things for others? Many explanations have been provided at many levels; in the present entry, we focus on the fundamental role of certain personality traits and incentives in promoting prosocial behavior. We look at who is more likely to behave prosocially and what circumstances motivate individuals to engage in benevolent, other-regarding acts.
Why would people behave in ways that benefit others, even when that is not directly in their own interest? Despite the abundance of everyday examples, prosocial behavior is still a major puzzle in several disciplines (e.g., psychology, economics, biology, and sociology) that has been analyzed across multiple levels. However, many of these approaches assign at least some importance to personality and individual differences. The goal of the present entry is thus to focus on the role of specific personality traits that are powerful in predicting prosocial behavior. Furthermore, we discuss the interplay between personality traits and incentives in predicting prosocial behavior.
Prosocial Personality Traits
Prosocial behavior has traditionally been paired with general personality traits like honesty-humility, agreeableness, empathy, and other-orientedness (Penner et al. 2005). Such personality constructs serve to enhance and maintain positive interpersonal interactions with others. For example, honesty-humility represents the inclination to be fair, sincere, and authentic in interactions with others, whereas agreeableness represents the inclination to be trusting, considerate, and sympathetic toward others. Scoring high on those personality traits can lead to various prosocial behaviors toward strangers and close others, such as helping, conflict-regulating, and constructive and accommodative behaviors (e.g., inclination to forgive). Furthermore, considering that they are morality-based aspects of personality, agreeableness and especially honesty-humility are related to responsible and ethical behaviors in various contexts.
Honesty-humility and agreeableness can be assessed using the HEXACO Personality Inventory-Revised (HEXACO-PI-R) in a self-report or observer report format. We will now focus on two more specific traits that have shown to be strongly associated with prosocial behavior (Manesi et al. 2017).
Social Value Orientation
A key factor predicting the extent to which somebody will engage in prosocial behavior is social value orientation (SVO). SVO is rooted in social decision-making and is formally defined as preferences for particular distribution of outcomes for self and others (Messick and McClintock 1968; Van Lange 1999). Often the broad distinction is made between prosocial and proself orientations. Prosocial orientation reflects tendencies to pursue outcomes for self and others, along with the tendency to value equality in outcomes. Proself orientation reflects tendencies to pursue outcomes for self with little regard for the outcomes of others.
SVO has been positively related to honesty-humility, agreeableness, and social mindfulness (Hilbig et al. 2014; Van Doesum et al. 2013). Typically, prosocials exhibit heightened prosocial tendencies across various situations (Balliet et al. 2009; Van Lange et al. 2011). For example, as compared to proselfs, prosocials tend to show greater giving behavior, as measured by donations to noble causes and generosity in social dilemmas. Furthermore, they show a greater inclination to save others’ lives and to help others in need through postmortem organ donations and volunteering. Prosocials show also heightened willingness to preserve public goods, like environmental quality: As compared to proselfs, prosocials show greater motivation to make sustainable choices and to actively support transportation pollution reduction plans.
The preeminent explanations of the link between SVO and prosocial behavior underline the importance of certain other-focused psychological processes, including mentalizing, empathic concern, sense of social responsibility, and concern for fairness and equality. More specifically, as compared to proselfs, prosocials show greater ability to attribute mental states to other people (i.e., identify how others are thinking and feeling) and to show heightened empathic concern (i.e., respond emotionally to the affective state of others). This ability to tune into what other people are thinking and feeling makes prosocials experience a heightened sense of social responsibility (i.e., concern for the welfare of others, especially when those others are in need or suffer) and reciprocity (i.e., concern for equality in outcomes). In turn, prosocials’ tendency to be concerned (not only about the self but also) about others makes them assign high value to norms of fairness or equity and experience negative affect when such norms are violated. Thus, the aforementioned cognitive and emotional other-focused processes serve a “social glue” function, drawing prosocials to act benevolently and to help others.
In general, literature suggests that the tendency to be prosocial (rather than proself) and to enact other-oriented behaviors increases with age. This can be explained by the fact that, with age, individuals encounter more diverse social interactions (e.g., greater experience with interdependent relationships) and/or they learn about the positive implications of acting prosocially (e.g., prosociality can be instrumental for belongingness and social success; see later). SVO can be assessed using various instruments, including the SVO slider measure, the SVO triple-dominance measure, and the SVO ring measure.
Social mindfulness (or SoMi) is a relatively new construct, which reflects an inclination to be open to the needs and wishes of others in the present moment (Van Doesum et al. 2013). SoMi measures the tendency to make prosocial choices that allow other people to have control over their own outcomes. More specifically, being socially mindful (versus socially unmindful) is expressed through simple other-regarding acts, such as leaving (versus limiting) choice for others in an interdependent situation. For instance, imagine a situation in which you can choose between a single piece of chocolate cake versus one of few pieces of cheesecake. If another individual is selecting after you, then your choice has implications for the options available to the other individual. Taking the unique option (i.e., choosing for the chocolate cake) would limit options for the other person and indicate social unmindfulness. In contrast, taking the nonunique option (i.e., choosing for one of few pieces of cheesecake) would leave options to the other and grant him/her control over outcomes, indicating social mindfulness.
As with SVO, SoMi positively correlates with empathic concern and mentalizing. To date, SoMi has been used as a measure of prosociality, but preliminary evidence suggests it can also be a powerful predictor of prosocial behavior, as expressed by helping behavior and donations to noble causes (Manesi et al. 2017). SoMi can be assessed using the SoMi paradigm.
The Role of Incentives in Prosocial Behavior
In the previous section, we discussed how individuals scoring high on prosocial personality traits are concerned about the well-being of others and how they show an increased inclination to engage in prosocial behavior. However, this does not necessarily imply that individuals scoring low on prosocial personality traits always act according to pure self-interest.
One important condition for prosocial behavior among self-interested individuals is the existence of incentives that serve to align the goal of pursuing one’s own interest with the goal of benefiting others. For example, research on SVO suggests that simply enhancing a proself’s sense of collective identity can increase their inclination to act prosocially and to contribute to the common good (e.g., share one’s own resources with other ingroup members in economic games). A possible explanation is that identification with one’s own ingroup can eliminate the psychological distance between oneself and other group members. This, in turn, can obscure the distinction between one’s own welfare and the common welfare, leading proselfs to attain positive outcomes for their group rather than for themselves. Thus, salience of group memberships can serve as a powerful incentive for prosocial behavior among self-interested individuals.
Likewise, other situations in which proselfs are encouraged to shift their attention from own concern to joint concern can promote prosocial behavior. For instance, high commitment to a close relationship (and, thus, strong concern about the well-being and maintenance of the relationship) can lead proselfs to engage in prosocial acts, such as self-sacrificial behavior. Also, reminders about how detrimental one’s behavior can be to the common good (e.g., excessive car use can harm the environment) can make proselfs give increased weight to the collective outcomes and behave prosocially (e.g., show an enhanced preference for public transportation).
Another important condition for prosocial behavior among self-interested individuals is the existence of incentives to acquire a positive reputation. More specifically, acting prosocially can yield reputational benefits and social rewards: Offering help can improve one’s own reputation in the eyes of others and indirectly increase the likelihood that an individual will receive help if needed on later occasions (Milinski 2016). Furthermore, failing to act prosocially may incur reputational losses and social sanctions: Withholding help can damage one’s reputation and increase the likelihood that others will refuse to help the individual in the future. Literature in SVO suggests that proselfs tend to respond strategically to reputational incentives: When anonymity is removed and others can thus judge and evaluate one’s behavior, proselfs tend to engage in prosocial reputation management. For instance, when others can gossip to one’s potential future interaction partners, proselfs show an enhanced tendency to behave generously (Wu et al. 2015).
Hence, the lure of future indirect benefits associated with a prosocial reputation can serve as a powerful incentive to enhance concern for the common good and prosocial behavior among individuals who primarily care about their interests. It needs to be noted that reputation management does not necessarily involve conscious calculation of the benefits one could accrue from acting prosocially. For instance, findings from Wu et al. (2015) suggest that expected indirect benefits do not explain the observed effects of gossip and reputation on prosociality.
Prosocial behavior is a fundamental puzzle in social and behavioral sciences. In attempting to understand the puzzle of prosociality, two major research questions arise: Which individuals are more likely to behave prosocially? And under which circumstances do self-interested individuals engage in benevolent, other-regarding acts? In this entry, we draw attention to certain prosocial personality constructs that can be powerful elicitors of prosociality, such as SVO and SoMi. Furthermore, we underline the potency of external incentives to effectively promote prosocial behavior among self-interested individuals, like proselfs. Such incentives can either increase the importance of collective outcomes (e.g., through a salient collective identity) or signal indirect benefits of prosociality (e.g., through reputational cues). Taken together, prosocial personality traits serve as a compass by which individuals navigate the social world, and they determine whether and under which circumstances prosocial behavior will occur.
- Manesi, Z., Van Lange, P.A.M., Van Doesum, N.J., & Pollet, T.V. (2017). What are the most powerful predictors of charitable giving to victims of typhoon Haiyan: Prosocial traits, socio-demographic variables, or eye cues? Manuscript under review.Google Scholar