February is a difficult month for me. If you have read my more recent posts, you understand my grief, or at least, understand that I basically hate this month. There are, however, some things that have helped me this year. I have had friends, both old and new, that reached out to me and have given me their support and comfort. Although I am not one for sympathy sentiments, it reminded me that people can be altruistic and giving, even at the expense of something in their own life.
This brings me to today’s post on prosocial behaviors. I would like to believe that everyone is born with a strong moral compass; everyone is born with the ability and duty to be compassionate, giving and altruistic. Unfortunately, that clean slate we are born with becomes a canvas that our environment paints, helping to create our personalities, either good or bad.
Characteristics of Prosocial Behaviors
The main characteristics of prosocial behaviors are based on feelings of empathy and concern for the welfare of others. And it is in this concern that prosocial behaviors are exhibited in order to benefit one or more people other than yourself. These behaviors can still baffle social scientists, which is why we continue to seek understanding of how and why people engage is behaviors that do not help oneself. In some cases, people actually put themselves in harm’s way (figurate or literally) in the pursuit of helping someone else. This not only goes with people we love, but people we are just getting to know, or even complete strangers.
Learning Prosocial Behaviors
Prosocial behaviors are actions that are intended to help others. Prosocial behaviors are learned. In my last post on parenting styles, it is in the home where we first learn behaviors thereby learning positive behaviors if our household is surrounded by them. Of course, the opposite is true too; if our household is surrounded by negative or antisocial behaviors, then those are the actions that a child will learn. Some children, however, can learn to be self-serving and use prosocial behaviors to help themselves with the appearance of helping someone else. For example, a teenager helps a neighbor unload her groceries not to be helpful but rather with an expectation of a reward.
There are many different ways in which we ‘learn’ prosocial behaviors. We will talk about social learning, social/personal standards, and arousal and affect. Briefly explained, social learning is learning done by watching others. Prosocial behaviors are learned by one’s social circle and are encouraged by the same.
Social/personal standards is the way in which prosocial behaviors are molded and moderated. It’s our moral obligation to fall into a social norm which is generally to “be kind” and to share. This also helps to develop a social responsibility towards our fellow man and creates a sense of self-image; we feel good about what we do, then we feel good about ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes social and personal standards that are set can be set very low depending on a person’s social circle.
Arousal and affect is something like cause and effect. For example, we hear our kid scream in the kitchen and we run into the room to find a spider on the wall. We are aroused by the scream of our child and our emotions take over and we run towards the scream. Arousal and Affect. Now, we get rid of the spider and we become a hero. That is cause and effect. In talking about prosocial behaviors, if that scream was outside our office building made by an adult man, would it cause the same emotion for us to be helpful? Also, with arousal and affect (and cause and effect) if we had a bad experience helping someone then we are less likely to be helpful in the future.
Motivating Prosocial Behaviors
So, what motivates prosocial behaviors? First and foremost, we help those that are closely related and people we love. Of course, I would give my life to save that of my child. But would I do it to save a complete stranger? Prosocial behaviors are on a spectrum where people would risk their lives for those they love, to those they know, and to those they do not know. It’s interesting to discuss because you may believe what actions you would do in a given situation, but you really can’t say with certainty what you would do in real life. I would like to think that if a building was burning and children were inside that I would run in and try to save anyone I could. But what if my child was just rescued from that fire, would I still go inside? Would you?
There are many other ways to motivate prosocial behaviors. One we all know is money. If you work in retail, as a server, as a teacher, or many other occupations that require you to be “nice”, then your prosocial behaviors are, at least in part, due to getting paid. Even people who do not directly work with customers, they still have to exhibit helping behaviors to their coworkers or boss. I was lucky in that I like to teach and teaching at a college level allows me to be less nice and more myself in my teaching style since I am teaching to adults. I can tell them to leave my classroom if I don’t like their behavior and I don’t have to be sugary sweet in order to be a great professor. And there is no way I could be nice day in and day out with children. Digressing a bit, I had to do teaching in different grade levels when I was in my bachelor’s program. Here are some of the questions that went through my head, EVERYDAY, working with children: Do you act that way at home? Were you raised in a barn? If you throw something at me, can I throw it back at you? Can I cry when I don’t get my way, too? Can I put every student in the corner?
I give high praises to teachers and instructors of children. Thank you.
Then there’s sympathy. I had a teacher in high school that didn’t seem to like my spirited independence and the fact that I questioned everything and everyone. So, in my senior year he restricted me from taking four of the six classes I wanted. He basically ruined my senior year and I believe it was out of spite because I would argue with him. I tell people this story (in much more detail and colorful expressions) and I would get their agreement. Then, he died. Wow, did I feel like, well, really bad. When someone dies, people offer help, comfort, and personal services (bring food, offer to clean, babysit, etc.). That is normal sympathetic prosocial behaviors; however, in a situation like mine (acting poorly when the person was alive) people go way overboard in their prosocial behaviors as an act of sympathy and guilt.
Although I would love to think that people help other people just for the sake of human kindness, I know that there are many selfish reasons for prosocial behaviors. There’s money, which we talked about. There’s also avoidance of confrontation. You know, just smile and agree to your boss’ wife as she talks about how the planet is flat, or nod your head in agreement when your brother-in-law who insists that we never walked on the moon. This is self-gratifying because it keeps you sane.
People are also helpful to people that they can get something in return. A coworker who has a sister you want to ask out; you do some of their work, bring them coffee, have lunch with them, etc. There is also the pursuit of the bystander. This is where you do something helpful with the goal of impressing someone who is either watching or someone to whom you can brag to later about.
Many politicians and famous people will exhibit prosocial behaviors and are seen as being helpful through works of charity or helpfulness. There are production companies and managers specifically designed to ramp up a person’s “generous” side in order to gain the acclaim from us regular folk. Self-gratifying to the extreme.
Norm of Reciprocity
There is also the norm of reciprocity. This is basically our compulsion to be helpful to someone who had helped us in the past. It sounds a bit colder than it is but it’s one of the characteristics of friendships and love. True friendship, that is, where people help each other without needing to ask or wanting to impose. Like for me since the beginning of this month. Real friends have given me their support without my asking, and without the feelings of guilt or duty. The subconscious compels us to reciprocate feelings of warmth towards people who have given us warmth as well.
Unfortunately, the norm of reciprocity can have a powerful influence on our behaviors. Sometimes, not always in a beneficial way for us. For example, let’s say you got a flat tire, in the rain, and your neighbor stops and helps you out. Yea for the nice neighbor! Then two days later, your neighbor asks you to watch their four cats for a week while they go on vacation. And you’re allergic to cats. But now you feel obligated since they did you a favor, you now must do one for them. Mean people use the norm of reciprocity to manipulate others to do things for them.
Accidentally Behaving Badly
In my particular situation, many people don’t know what to say so they avoid me. I literally have “friends” who simply avoid me or limit their time with me during February. I’m not mean to people during this month (at least I don’t think I am) but I am off my game, sort of speak. I’m sad and it makes it more difficult to be the fullest that I can be. People accidentally behave badly when they don’t know how else to act. People can say the wrong thing like it’s been a year, shouldn’t you be over it by now? Or people can react poorly with anger or rejection to surprising news like when a child tells their conservative Catholic parents that he’s gay.
We are only human, and we are flawed. I get that. I think that’s why I no longer get mad when people accidentally behave badly towards me for these 28 days. Or any other time, really. We have to understand when people are purposely exhibiting negative behaviors towards us or if it’s accidental. I am thankful for the friends who stick around during this month. And for those friends I must say, this month is almost over.