Prosocial Behaviour

Irene Bruna Seu

The literature on prosocial behaviour is vast (see Sturmer & Snyder, 2010; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005 and Schroeder, Penner, Dovidio, & Piliavin, 1995 for recent reviews) and nearly impossible to review comprehensively in one chapter. The critical review offered here does not claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive, but aims to highlight the constraints and limitations of current knowledge of prosocial behaviour resulting from the overall laboratory-based, quantitative and allegedly neutral experimental approach of mainstream social psychology.

I will focus on one particular aspect of prosocial behaviour, helping in response to humanitarian communications, including giving to charity, as a case study. This is because, first, research in this field has potential applicability to real-life situations. Although this is a very recent and new direction in prosocial research, the findings are potentially of great value to society’s well-being in general and humanitarian agencies’ communications with the public. Second, donating to charity presents a real challenge to current directions in prosocial research as many of its key theories, focusing on a conceptualisation of the individual as distinct from society, cannot be applied to this form of prosocial behaviour. Because humanitarianism is deeply ensconced in historical and geopolitical factors (Calhoun, 2010) and often involves or is reduced to monetary transactions, focusing on humanitarian and charitable behaviour is particularly useful in highlighting the constraints

I.B. Seu (*)

Dept. of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London, London, UK © The Author(s) 2017

B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_17

and limitations of mainstream social psychological theorisation of prosocial behaviour. In particular, I aim to show how social psychology’s conceptualisation of the individual as self-contained and separate from their socio-historical context, its neglect of ideological and societal factors, and the restrictive impact of cognitive-experimental methods lead to a problematic neglect of crucial aspects of complex, conflicted and ambivalent prosocial behaviour in humanitarian contexts. Arguably, these characteristics contribute to the lack of utility of research on helping behaviour (Manning et al., 2007; Latane & Nida, 1981) and the perception that current insights from mainstream social psychology are difficult to apply outside the laboratory (Meier, 2006). The chapter will conclude with the presentation of a critical psychological alternative based on several studies on public responses to humanitarian and human rights communications.

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