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

Next we will see what exactly is prosocial behavior, in what ways it is expressed and what relation it has with the phenomena of empathy and cooperation .

What is prosocial behaviour?

Although there is no universal definition of the concept of prosocial behaviour, there is a high consensus in defining it as a repertoire of behaviours of a social and positive nature.

Due to differences in 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 benefit both parties involved and behaviors that only benefit one of the parties.

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

  1. Activities of giving, sharing, exchanging or swapping objects with other individuals.
  2. Cooperative activities .
  3. .

  4. Tasks and help games .
  5. Empathic activities towards the other.

According to this proposal, in prosocial conduct the benefit lies with the other person, while in cooperative conduct both parties coordinate for mutual benefit. However, determining how much each party earns is in itself a challenge for psychology and behavioral science in general. In the end, the willingness to help someone and the satisfaction of having done so are themselves factors that speak to a reward for the altruistic individual.

The research conducted on the subject

Prosocial behaviour is a not at all recent concept in the field of psychopedagogy . However, the greatest boom in research in this field of knowledge corresponds to the end of the last century. From that point onwards, a more extensive study has been made of how this phenomenon influences the emotional well-being of the individual (obtaining an intensely positive correlation between the two) and what methodology should be followed to implement programmes that promote this type of beneficial functioning in the child population.

Thus, it seems that it is during the socio-emotional development of the human being when the promotion of prosocial behaviour can have the greatest impact, that is to say, the internalisation of a set of values such as dialogue, tolerance, equality or solidarity that are reflected behaviourally from acts such as helping the other, respect and acceptance of the other, cooperation, comfort or generosity in sharing some specific object.

Prosocial behaviour from learning theories

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

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

The fact of receiving an emotional reward, according to the research carried out, seems to encourage in the individual the desire to emit a helping conduct 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 achieve that particular prize.

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 by internalizing the regulation of one’s own behavior (Bandura, 1977 and 1987).

These contributions are classified within the interactionist perspectives, since they contemplate the interaction of the individual with the situation as a determining factor of the behaviour .

Empathy, an essential component

The capacity for empathy is one of the factors causing prosocial behaviour, 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 different stages of development. Empathy presents a character mostly learned through modelling processes and 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 capacity can be learned from the understanding of the meaning of certain non-verbal keys such as facial expression that indicate the emotional state of the subject in question.

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

The facets of empathy

Empathic capacity can be understood from three different perspectives . Taking into account each one of them, the mediating role of this phenomenon can be seen differentiated with regard to prosocial behaviour: empathy as an affection, 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 helping behaviour, although it has not been concluded that it is a causal factor but rather a mediating one. Thus, the level of dispositional empathy, the link established with the maternal figure, the type of concrete situation in which the empathic behaviour occurs, the age of the children (in preschoolers the association between empathy and prosocial behaviour is weaker than in older children), the intensity and nature of the emotion aroused, etc. also play an important role.

Even so, it seems clear that the implementation of empathy-building programmes during child and youth development can be a protective factor for 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 put more emphasis on delimiting the relationship between the manifestation of cooperative vs. competitive behavior with respect to the type of psychological and social development experienced by people exposed to one or another model.

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

The research carried out by Deutsch at MIT found greater communicative effectiveness, more communicative interactions in terms of proposing one’s own ideas and accepting others , a greater level of effort and coordination in the tasks to be carried out, greater productivity and greater confidence in the contributions of the members of the group in the cooperative groups than in the competitive ones.

In other subsequent works, although without a sufficiently empirically contrasted validation that would allow a generalization of the results, individuals have been associated with characteristic cooperative behaviors such as a greater interdependence for the achievement of goals, more helping behaviors among 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 communications between members, similar to what Deutsch pointed out.

Sherif confirmed that communication patterns are more honest in cooperative groups, that there is an increase in mutual trust and favorable disposition among the various group members, and a greater likelihood of normative organization. Finally, a greater power of cooperative situations to reduce inter-group conflict situations was observed. Subsequently, other authors have associated the appearance of feelings of counter-empathy, higher anxiety rates and lower levels of tolerant behaviour in competitive groups of schoolchildren.

Cooperation in education

In the educational field, there has been evidence of the many positive effects of using methodologies that encourage cooperative work, in turn promoting higher academic performance (in skills such as assimilation of concepts, problem solving or development of cognitive products, mathematics and language), higher self-esteem, better willingness to learn, higher intrinsic motivation and more effective performance of certain social skills (understanding of others, helpful behaviour, sharing, respect, tolerance and concern among peers or the tendency to cooperate outside learning situations).

By way of conclusion

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

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

It could therefore be said that the promotion of prosocial behaviour becomes a great psychological protective factor for the subject in the future , making him individually and socially more competent, as his maturation towards adulthood takes place. Although it may seem paradoxical, growing up, maturing and gaining autonomy involves knowing how to fit in with others and enjoying their protection in some aspects.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy toward 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 behaviour in childhood and adolescence: personality, self-concept and gender. Infancia y Aprendizaje, 24 (1), 95-111.
  • Ortega, P., Minguez, R., and Gil, R. (1997). Cooperative learning and moral development. Revista Española de Pedagogía, 206, 33-51.
  • Ortiz, M.J., Apodaka, P., Etxeberrria, I., et al. Some predictors of prosocial-altruistic behaviour in childhood: empathy, perspective taking, attachment, parental models, family discipline and 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.