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What is prosocial behavior and how does it develop?

What is prosocial behavior and how does it develop?

July 23, 2024

If the human being has become such a particular species, it is, in part, because he has been able to create great social tissues of mutual care and knowledge transmission. That is to say, we are very given to relate to each other in many different ways, a tendency that can be summarized in one concept: prosocial behavior .

Next we will see what exactly prosocial behavior is, in what ways it is expressed and what relationship does it have with the phenomena of empathy and cooperation? .

What is prosocial behavior?

Although there is no universal definition of the concept of prosocial behavior, there is a high consensus to define it as a repertoire of social and positive behaviors.

Due to the differences of criteria on whether to include the motivational factor in the definition, the authors consider that there are two types of positive social behaviors: behaviors that report a benefit for both parties involved and behaviors that only benefit one of the parties.

A definition proposal that integrates both behavioral and motivational aspects, affirms that all positive social behavior is done to benefit another in the presence (or not) of altruistic motivation, such as giving, helping, cooperating, sharing, comforting, etc. . For his part, Strayer proposes a classification of four types of activities to clarify the phenomenon of prosocial behavior:

  1. Activities to give, share, exchange or change objects with other individuals.
  2. Cooperative activities .
  3. Tasks and help games .
  4. Empathic activities towards the other.

Attending to this proposal, in prosocial behavior the benefit falls on the other person, while in the cooperative behavior both parties coordinate to obtain a mutual benefit. Now, determining how much each of the parties wins is in itself a challenge for psychology and behavioral sciences in general. After all, the will to help someone and the satisfaction of having done it are in themselves factors that tell us about a reward for the altruistic individual.

Research conducted on the subject

Prosocial behavior is an absolutely new concept in the field of psychopedagogy . However, the greatest increase in research in this field of knowledge corresponds to the final stage of the last century. From this point, it has been studied more extensively how this phenomenon influences the emotional wellbeing of the individual (obtaining an intensely positive correlation between both) and what methodology should be followed to implement programs that promote this type of beneficial functioning in the child population .

Thus, it seems that during the socio-emotional development of the human being is when more incidence can produce the promotion of prosocial behavior, that is, the internalization of a set of values ​​such as dialogue, tolerance, equality or solidarity that are reflected behaviorally from acts such as helping the other, respect and acceptance of the other, cooperation, consolation or generosity to share a particular object.

Prosocial behavior from the theories of learning

One of the main explanations of the concept of prosocial behavior has been proposed by the theories of learning, although there are also other theoretical models such as the ethological and sociobiological perspective, the cognitive-evolutionary approach or the psychoanalytic perspective.

The theories of learning, of high empirical consideration, defend that prosocial behavior derives from the influence of external or environmental factors . Thus, this type of behavior is learned through procedures such as classical and operant conditioning, from which the actions issued are associated with stimuli and pleasant consequences for the individual (positive reinforcement) and, therefore, tend to recur in the future . More often, the type of reinforcement provided is of a social nature (a gesture, a smile, a show of affection), rather than material.

The fact of receiving an affective reward, according to the research carried out, seems to encourage in the individual the desire to emit a behavior of help to the other. That is, there is an internal motivation to perform such behavior, unlike what happens when the reward is material, where the behavior is performed to get that particular reward.

On the other hand, other studies propose the relevance of observational learning by imitation of prosocial models. Some authors highlight a greater influence of internal factors such as cognitive styles used in moral reasoning, while others emphasize that external factors (socializing agents -family and school- and environment) are modified until they become internal controls through the internalization of the regulation of own behavior (Bandura, 1977 and 1987).

These contributions are classified within the interactionist perspectives, since contemplate the interaction of the individual with the situation as a determinant of behavior .

Empathy, an essential component

The capacity for empathy is one of the factors causing prosocial behavior, although research should shed more light on the concrete relationship between the two phenomena.

Some proposals advocate defining empathy as an interactive process between affective, motivational and cognitive aspects that take place during the different stages of development. Empathy presents a character mostly learned through modeling processes and it is defined as an affective response that is emitted after the awareness of understanding the experience of the situation and the feelings or perceptions that the other is receiving. This ability can be learned from the understanding of the meaning of certain nonverbal cues such as facial expression that indicate the emotional state of the subject in question.

Some authors have focused their studies on differentiating situational empathy from dispositional empathy, which refers to the tendency of some personality types more sensitive to empathic manifestations. This last distinction has been taken as a key aspect to study the nature of prosocial behavior, finding a high correlation between a high empathic predisposition and a greater emission of prosocial behavior.

The facets of empathy

Empathic capacity can be understood from three different perspectives . Attending to each of them, the mediating role of this phenomenon can be seen in terms of prosocial behavior: empathy as affect, as a cognitive process or as the result of the interaction between the first two.

The findings show that the first case is more closely related to the behavior of helping the other, although it has not been concluded that it is a causative factor but mediator. Thus, the level of dispositional empathy, the link established with the mother figure, the type of concrete situation in which empathic behavior occurs, the age of the children (in preschools the association between empathy and behavior) also play an important role. prosocial is weaker than in older children), the intensity and nature of the emotion aroused, etc.

Even so, it seems clear that the implementation of programs to foster the capacity for empathy during child and youth development can be a factor in protecting personal and social well-being in the future.

Cooperation vs. Competition in socio-emotional development

It is also the theories of learning that in the last century have placed more emphasis on delimiting the relationship between the manifestation of cooperative behavior. competitive with respect to the type of psychological and social development experienced by people exposed to one or the other model.

By cooperative behavior it is understood the set of behaviors that are expressed in a given situation when those involved in it work to achieve as a priority the shared group objectives, acting this point as a requirement to achieve the individual objective. On the contrary, in the competitive situation each individual is oriented to achieve their own goals and prevents others from having the possibility of achieving them.

The research carried out by Deutsch at MIT They found a greater communicative effectiveness, more communicative interactions in terms of proposing their own ideas and accepting other people's ideas , greater level of effort and coordination in the tasks to be performed, greater productivity and greater confidence in the contributions of the members of the group in the cooperative collectives than in the competitive ones.

In other subsequent works, although without a sufficiently empirically validated validation that allows a generalization of the results, individuals have been associated with cooperative behaviors characteristic as a greater interdependence for the achievement of goals, there are more supportive behaviors between the different subjects , a higher frequency in the satisfaction of mutual needs and a greater proportion of positive evaluations of the other and a greater promotion of the behaviors of others.

Cooperation and social cohesion

On the other hand, Grossack concluded that cooperation is positively related to greater group cohesion , greater uniformity and the quality of the communications between the members, in a similar way to what Deutsch pointed out.

Sherif confirmed that the communicative guidelines are more honest in cooperative groups, that there is an increase in mutual trust and favorable disposition among the different members of the group, as well as a greater probability of normative organization. Finally, a greater power of cooperative situations to reduce situations of intergroup conflict was observed. Subsequently, other authors have associated the appearance of feelings of counter-empathy, higher rates of anxiety and a lower level of tolerant behaviors in competitive groups of schoolchildren.

Cooperation in education

In the educational field, the multiple positive effects derived from the use of methodologies that encourage cooperative work have been evidenced, promoting at the same time a higher academic performance (in skills such as assimilation of concepts, problem solving or elaboration of cognitive products, mathematics and linguistic), higher self-esteem, better predisposition to learning, greater intrinsic motivation and more effective performance of certain social skills (understanding of the other, helping behavior, sharing, respect, tolerance and concern among peers or the tendency to cooperate outside of learning situations).

In conclusion

Throughout the text, the benefits obtained in the personal psychological state have been proven when the learning of prosocial behavior is enhanced during the development stage.These skills are fundamental, since they help to connect with the rest of society and benefit from the advantages of being an active member of it.

Thus, the advantages not only impact optimizing the emotional state of the individual but that cooperative behavior is associated with greater academic competence, which facilitates the assumption of cognitive abilities such as reasoning and the mastery of instrumental knowledge addressed during school time.

It could be said, therefore, that the promotion of prosocial behavior becomes a great psychological protective factor for the subject in the future , making it individually and socially more competent, as it matures into adulthood. Although it may seem paradoxical, growing up, maturing and gaining autonomy depends on knowing how to fit in with the rest and enjoying its protection in some aspects.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy towards a unifying theory of behavioral change. Review of Psychology, 84, 191-215.
  • Calvo, A.J., González, R., and Martorell, M.C. (2001). Variables related to prosocial behavior in childhood and adolescence: personality, self-concept and gender. Childhood and Learning, 24 (1), 95-111.
  • Ortega, P., Minguez, R., and Gil, R. (1997). Cooperative learning and moral development. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy, 206, 33-51.
  • Ortiz, M.J., Apodaka, P., Etxeberrria, I., et al. (1993). Some predictors of prosocialaltrutrist behavior in childhood: empathy, perspective, attachment, parental models, family discipline and the image of the human being. Journal of Social Psychology, 8 (1), 83-98.
  • Roberts, W., and Strayer, J. (1996). Empathy, emotional expressiveness, and prosocial behavior. Child Development, 67 (2), 449-470.
  • Roche, R., and Sol, N. (1998). Prosocial education of emotions, values ​​and attitudes. Barcelona: Art Blume.


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