What is altruistic behavior in psychology

Prosocial behavior

The next motive that we take on has only recently been discovered by motivational psychology: the help motive, or more generally: prosocial behavior.
Does that even exist? Doesn't every charitable act also have a self-interest? Don't you just help others because you promise yourself something in return - at least in the long term? Or does one not help the fallen old woman up again just to avoid having a guilty conscience - but not out of concern for the woman?

Yes and no. Unfortunately, the terms prosocial and altruistic are not used consistently. What motivational psychologists mean when they think of altruism speaking is: an act that serves the well-being of another, but not with the anticipation of one's own outer Benefit is connected. If I have only one inner benefit from the act - as in the above example, the reassurance of my conscience - it is altruism. So even if you "only" follow a general norm ("that's how you do it"), it is an altruistic act. If you will, you follow the altruistic norm.
If, on the other hand, the action takes place under social pressure, ie if my neighbor comes by when I am confronted with the fallen woman, then one can again speak of "external benefit", because then I expect an advantage in my relationship with the neighbor if I am committed to helping ... Of course, the boundaries are fluid here.

"Altruistic behavior" usually means this "intrinsically motivated" helping, helping for the sake of helping. (We want to call the motive for altruistic behavior the "help motive".) The term "prosocial behavior"does not make this distinction between subjective motives and external behavior. It only refers to the behavior, so sees everything, including the" self-serving assistance "as prosocial. The term is similarly general Assistance used itself. All right?

Influencing factors

So under what circumstances does assistance come, and under what circumstances it does not? In general it has been shown that the help of people can be achieved by means of Cost-benefit models can predict quite well. The greater the subjective expectation of one's own benefit from the assistance and the lower its costs, the more likely it is that assistance will be provided. If a millionaire's son is in need, more people will try to save him than if it is a homeless person. The person who helps the homeless at their own expense, i.e. who does not adhere to the cost-benefit model, is called altruistic according to our definition above. In this sense, the tendency towards altruism can also be called Personality disposition be understood.

Why - in general - do some people fail to adhere to the cost-benefit model in some situations? As indicated above, play Norms a crucial role here. This is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition of our society "Norm of Social Responsibility", the altruistic norm, so to speak. This states that socially disadvantaged people - poor, old, sick, etc. - should be helped. In particular, help should be provided if the person in need has been brought into this emergency situation by environmental influences that cannot be controlled by them ("external attribution"). In certain emergency situations it is even the legal duty of a person to provide help, i.e. failure to provide help is punished.

The existence of this norm in itself does not, of course, mean anything. However, the more a certain person internalizes this norm, i.e. the more he intends to adhere to it, the greater the likelihood of providing help even in unfavorable situations. (The objectively weak benefit side is quasi nurtured by avoiding a bad conscience, so that the "subjective cost-benefit calculation" is correct again.)

The second norm that is relevant to the provision of assistance is the - rather untrustical - Norm of justice (reciprocity). "Like you to me, so I to you" is an almost universal principle in behavior between people - in positive as well as negative. People help when they internalize this norm, mainly because they hope for something in return or because they have already received something in return. Whether it must be the same person is questionable: This is how it works quite well in Germany that the young generation of the older pays the pension ("generation contract"). So group C helps group B, expecting to get help from group D later (and because group B helped group A earlier).

The cost-benefit model is sometimes leveraged in the other direction, i.e. despite low costs and high benefits, no help is provided. Cases have become known in which rape has taken place in a fully occupied subway without the passengers intervening. In this case one speaks "Diffusion of responsibility". In an emergency, everyone thinks" why should just me intervene? ", so that as a result no one intervenes. When the passengers see that the others are not bothered by the violent events, they are more inclined to believe that it is just a game, or in general: it is not at all so bad ("pluralistic ignorance"). This can happen above all if the situation in question is not clear, so that no one wants to embarrass themselves by hastily intervening.

What other conditions determine whether a person provides assistance or not? So far we have mentioned the subjective cost-benefit calculation, a personality disposition or internalized norms as well as the number of responsible persons as influencing factors. Finally we want to mention here that the possibility of a person to empathy (Empathize) has an important influence on the situation of the person in need.
First of all, empathy is of course necessary in order to even assess a person's situation as in need of help. In our example (rape in the subway) we can assume that this is the case for every adult human being. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to assume that especially those will be willing to help who are familiar with the victim's situation or who can potentially also be victims, in this case primarily women.
In this example, two types of empathy are also quite good, namely Victim perception and Event perceptionto explain. When I see a woman crying or screaming, I can identify her as a victim and infer an underlying event - rape. If, on the other hand, I see a couple who are sexually active in the subway without having any clues about the psychological state of those involved, it is difficult for me to see how the - potential - victim is doing and thus hardly show any empathy.


After these general considerations, here are a few empirical findings - to relax.

What factors affect the amount of donate?
As expected, first of all the social pressure highlighted as an important factor. In concrete terms: In the church, more is donated to the open bell bag (which is passed around and is better socially "seen") than donated to an anonymous collection container at the exit.
Also are social comparison target important. If donor names with amounts of around 10,000 euros run across the screen in charitable television shows, hardly anyone will come up with the idea of ​​donating 100 euros. Everyday experience in many pedestrian zones should also be the request to voluntarily donate "any amount" for certain good causes: "Most of them give 5 euros", the representative of the good cause often says - and you are already in the (conscience) Cases...
Last but not least, the donation amount also increases if the person seeking help is as precise as possible information indicates the intended use. The donors are apparently motivated by the feeling that they are helping a very specific group of people in a very concrete way.

Other studies deal with the question of whether it is positive or negative Models influence the help behavior. Are motorists more inclined to help a broken-down road user if they were able to observe precisely such behavior on the side of the road shortly before? The study by Bryan & Test (1967) affirms this.

Another topic for empirical studies is the question of which Characteristics of the victim influence the help behavior. For example, it has been shown that men help more often than women. This is mostly attributed to the role expectation. However, this explanation is not satisfactory because women on the one hand play the role of the physically weak, passive sex, but on the other hand they are also seen as caring and helping.
Little help is given to those victims who appear competent to help themselves. On the other hand, totally passive victims are not helped much either; Help seems hopeless to the potential helpers here. The most likely victim is the Appears weak and helpless, but actively tries to help.
As noted above, victims also tend to receive little help if they see their misfortune in the eyes of those potentially helping self inflicted to have. Correspondingly, it is often argued in everyday life with alcohol addicts ("it's your own fault!"); Opinions are different for AIDS sufferers, for example, as well as for depressed people.

Heckhausen (1989), pp. 343-351

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