Limitations of Mainstream Social Psychological Theories of Prosocial Behaviour

Prosocial behaviour is broadly defined as behaviour that generally benefits other people (Penner et al., 2005; Dovidio & Penner, 2004) and covers a range of behaviours, such as helping, cooperating and donating to charity. Authors tend to consider altruism and helping as subcategories of prosocial behaviour. Studies on helping focus on intentional acts that have the outcome of benefiting another person, whilst research on altruism studies the motivation underlying the behaviour (Dovidio & Penner, 2004).

Some of the key theories of mainstream prosocial research carry no explanatory power when applied to humanitarian helping. Evolutionary theories of prosocial behaviour are a good example (e.g. Buss, 2004). The principle of kin selection as a motivator for prosocial behaviour is regularly contradicted by people willingly donating to total strangers. Similarly, reciprocity, another key aspect of evolutionary theories, is equally inapplicable as it is highly unlikely that, for example, victims of an earthquake in Nepal will ever be in a position to reciprocate the kindness of anonymous donors. Indeed, throwing doubts on the possibility that donors might be motivated by such expectations, the UK response has been overwhelmingly generous.1 Finally, the principle of group selection—for example, in a situation of competition between two groups, the one with more altruistic members willing to sacrifice themselves

DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) alone has raised ?83 million so far. ippeal/nepal-earthquake-appeal for the group stands a better chance of survival—is hardly relevant to helping distant strangers as it, by definition, benefits ‘the other’ to one’s genetic group.

Similarly inadequate is the cost-reward analysis of helping (Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner, & Clark, 1981). This theory takes an economic view of human behaviour. It assumes that people, primarily motivated by self-interest, tend to maximise their rewards and minimise their costs. Whilst this theory is a good predictor in some situations—for example, returning a stranded pet carries potentially more reward and less danger than intervening in a fight, thus making the former a more likely choice—it is not informative when it comes to deciding to volunteer or sign up for a standing order to a charity like Oxfam, even if we were to consider this action as a type of emergency helping. Helping distant others through donations has relatively little cost and arguably great psychological rewards (e.g. self-esteem), yet the number, scale and severity of humanitarian crises are outstripping resources (Stirk, 2015a) and the humanitarian financing gap is growing (Stirk, 2015b).

For similar reasons, the arguably most famous strand of research, which studies bystander passivity, also cannot be applied to humanitarian helping. Even though there have been attempts to apply the Latane and Darleys (Latane & Darley, 1970; Latane & Nida, 1981) five-step model of bystander intervention to non-emergency situations (e.g. Borgida, Conner, & Manteufel, 1992; Rabow, Newcomb, Monto, & Hernandez, 1990), overall this theory is fundamentally concerned with understanding how people respond in emergencies that require immediate assistance. Importantly for our purposes, studies of bystander phenomena tend to be carried out under controlled laboratory- based conditions with the purpose of isolating individual variables, rather than embracing the complexity of interactions.

Motivated by a widespread concern about audiences’ moral apathy and unresponsiveness (e.g. Geras, 1999; Singer, 2009), other theories of prosocial behaviour have been proposed to explain public responses to news of genocide or mass atrocities, or to charity and humanitarian appeals. Some have suggested that differences in responses are due to donors’ decision-making styles (Supphellen & Nelson, 2001), whilst others have argued that humanitarian appeals provoke ‘psychophysical numbing’, where the human ability to appreciate loss of life reduces as the loss becomes greater (Slovic, 2007b). Others have focused on the ‘identifiable victim effect’, that is, a higher likelihood of response when the appeal identifies an individual victim (Kogut & Ritov, 2005a) or specific family (Small & Loewenstein, 2003; Warren & Walker, 1991) and whether this could be attributed to smaller numbers evoking more compassion (Kogut & Ritov, 2005a) or because it enabled the respondents to feel more competent (Warren & Walker, 1991).

Mixed results have emerged from the application of the ‘theory of planned behaviour’ (Smith & McSweeney, 2007) or the ‘dual processing theory’ (Epstein, 1994) to audience apathy. Slovic (2007) and Epstein (1994) have blamed the failure of System 2 (rational, normative analysis) to inform and direct System 1 processing of information (experiential, intuitive and affect-based response). Loewestein and Small (2007) have focused on the interaction between ‘sympathy’ and ‘deliberation’ and how the two are affected by proximity, similarity, vividness and one’s past and vicarious experiences.

What emerges from this brief review is that, with few exceptions, the field is dominated by an experimental, deductive mode of research and the vast majority of studies are theory driven. As a result, not only are research findings contradictory and/or inconsistent, they also tend to primarily engage with a particular theory. Research efforts are therefore channelled into testing that theory under various conditions, rather than the complexity of the phenomenon under investigation. Researchers have expressed a need for expansion, integration and synthesis in prosocial research (Penner et al., 2005; Levine & Thompson, 2004) and have also criticised attempts to isolate individual or similar sets of emotions empirically or theoretically, arguing that audiences’ multiple emotional reactions to altruistic requests should be studied more holistically (Bartolini, 2005).

Arguably, the problem runs deeper than that and can be traced back to the very foundations of mainstream social psychology: its pseudo-scientific epistemological foundations, quantitative and deductive methods, and the individualistic and decontextualised conceptualisation of the ‘helping subject’ underpinning its enquiry. Mainstream social psychology appears to be trapped by its own self-defined epistemological and methodological rigid boundaries, thus foreclosing the exploration and understanding of crucial and exciting facets of human prosocial behaviour. The impact of these characteristics on the boundaries of current mainstream research and what can be understood of prosocial behaviour will be illustrated through a discussion of strategically selected individual studies. It is important to stress at this point that when focusing on specific studies the aim is to critique rather than criticise, in order to foreground and illustrate such trends.

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