What do you want for your kids, family, friends, or yourself? There are numerous potential responses to this question, but many of them boil down to two main goals: most people want to be happy and to make a positive contribution to the world. Prosocial behavior contributes to both of these aims.

Prosocial behavior refers to actions that people perform voluntarily to try to help other people. This includes a wide range of helpful behaviors such as comforting a friend, donating to a charitable organization, mentoring a less-experienced coworker, or caring for a neighbor’s pet when he or she is out of town.  

Prosocial behavior has many benefits. The most obvious extend to the recipients of help. For example, driving a friend to the airport could save them time and money. Interestingly, prosocial behavior also contributes to the well-being of the person giving the help. For one, helping others feels good: it often leads to a positive mood and reduced stress. Over time, prosocial behavior is associated with greater psychological well-being, better social relationships, and better physical health, including greater longevity. Thus, prosocial behavior is valuable for both those who receive help and those who do the helping.

Given the widespread benefits of prosocial behavior, many people are interested in promoting it. Researchers have identified several strategies for promoting prosocial behavior. but many benefits of prosocial behavior arise not from any single action, but rather from patterns of behavior. Thus, a critical question is how to cultivate prosocial habits.

One such intervention is service learning. Service learning involves asking students to volunteer for some form of service work within their community. This service is integrated with the learning goals of a course. Although service learning has been shown to encourage helping behavior, it is limited because it requires significant time and resources to implement. Further, it targets only one specific dimension of prosocial behavior: helping in a planned, continuous manner in formal volunteering contexts.

More recently, an intervention was developed to foster prosocial habits in people’s regular daily contexts—such as homes, schools, and workplaces. The intervention took 11 days and included six parts:

  • An introductory video explaining the value of prosocial behavior (to motivate people to engage in the subsequent activities)
  • A video showing an example of prosocial behavior (to inspire people to want to become more prosocial)
  • Writing about things that are meaningful, including identity, values, and one’s best possible future self (to lead people to choose prosocial behaviors and that are related to these things, which would make those behaviors more meaningful)
  • Writing about what they could do the next day to help others (to make people more likely to perform a prosocial behavior)
  • Performing prosocial behaviors each day for 10 days (to create the habit of helping others)
    • Participants could choose who and how to help (which increases motivation to perform the behavior)
    • At the end of each day, participants were asked to describe what they did, how the other person responded, and how they felt after helping (to encourage deeper reflection on the effects of prosocial behavior for oneself and others)
  • On the last day, participants were asked to think over all of their prosocial behaviors across the ten days and write about what, if anything surprised them, how their behaviors related to their values, identities, and goals for the future, and how they hoped to incorporate prosocial behavior into their lives going forward (to prompt further reflection of the effects of prosocial behavior, connecting prosocial behavior to one’s values and goals, and integration of prosocial concerns into one’s identity)

This prosocial intervention was tested in an experiment with 116 adolescents and young adults, ranging in age from 16 to 25. Participants completed questionnaires before and after completing the intervention. In comparison to a control group of participants—who completed activities such as watching videos about humor and describing daily humorous experiences—participants who completed the prosocial intervention exhibited higher rates of prosocial behavior and related constructs, such as empathy and social responsibility. These changes were still evident when participants were surveyed one month later. When asked to describe these changes, participants reported that completing the intervention led them to pay more attention to other people’s needs and made them realize that helping others tended to be easier than they expected. They also reported that helping others had a larger positive effect on both themselves and others than they expected.

These findings show that prosocial habits can be created and changed within a relatively brief time span (in this case, 11 days). They also suggest that prosocial behavior is largely self-reinforcing.  Many participants reported that engaging in the prosocial intervention inspired them to continue behaving prosocially in their daily lives. Thus, the key to cultivating prosocial habits is likely to provide a “push” to get people started. This intervention represents one viable “push.”

At the same time, policymakers should consider how to integrate the key elements of the intervention—such as learning about the benefits of prosocial behavior, reflecting on one’s values, and being encouraged to enact prosocial behavior in one’s daily life—into existing institutions such as classrooms, places of worship, and community programs.  These efforts show promise in moving us toward a happier and more helpful society.

For Further Reading:

Baumsteiger, R. (2019). What the world needs now: An intervention for promoting prosocial behavior. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 41, 215-229. doi: 10.1080/01973533.2019.1639507  Weblink: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01973533.2019.1639507

Rachel Baumsteiger is a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Her research focuses on moral development and well-being among adolescents and young adults.

Note: If you have any questions about this research, or if you would like to receive the intervention materials, please contact Rachel Baumsteiger at [email protected]