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Social psychologists disagree on why people help others. Two theories on the subject are social exchange theory and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. In this lesson, we’ll learn more about each of these theories.

Causes of Prosocial Behavior

Think about a time when someone asked for your help. Maybe a friend needed an ear after a bad break-up, or someone in class asked you to explain a concept that she didn’t understand when the professor taught it. Maybe you were asked to run an errand for someone or to volunteer your time for a good cause.

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Under what circumstances did you help out? When would you not help someone out?For years, social psychologists have studied the causes of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is any action that is meant to help others. Psychologists study prosocial behavior to try to understand why people help others.But there’s not a consensus on the answer; some psychologists believe that helping is essentially a selfish act, while others believe that sometimes people help out of the goodness of their hearts. This disagreement is often summarized as social exchange theory vs. the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

Let’s look closer at both sides.

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory is the belief that people will help others only when the benefits to themselves outweigh the costs of helping. The basic idea behind social exchange theory is that most of our behavior comes from a desire to maximize our rewards and minimize our costs.Let’s look at an example. Imagine that someone in your class asks you to help her by explaining a concept that she didn’t understand. The concept is pretty simple and will only take a couple of minutes after class to explain, and you know that you might need her to explain something else to you later in the semester.

Do you help her?Now consider this: The concept she needs help with is pretty complex and will take a while to explain. Not only that, but she asks you to explain it in the middle of the professor’s lecture. If you stop to help her, you might miss something important.

Do you still help her?In the example above, social exchange theory says that you’re more likely to help in the first scenario. The cost (of your time) is not high, and the reward (that she might help you later on) is pretty good. In the second scenario, the cost is higher (it will take more time and the time is valuable since you might miss something the professor says). So, according to social exchange theory, the first scenario is more likely to produce prosocial behavior.

Costs and Benefits of Helping

There are three major ways that helping is usually rewarded. First, it increases the chance that the helper will receive help in the future, such as when you decide you might need your classmate’s help on another concept.Second, helping can decrease the personal distress of the helper. If you see a homeless person begging for money and that makes you feel sad, you might give him a dollar to make yourself feel better.The third way that helping can be rewarded is through increased self-worth and/or social approval. Let’s say that you’re on a date, and you see a kid whose kite is stuck in a tree. You might help the kid with her kite in order to impress your date.

Likewise, helping can be costly in many different ways. Time, money and energy are just a few ways that prosocial behavior can be costly. But according to social exchange theory, if the benefits outweigh the costs, you are likely to offer help.

Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

You might have noticed that social exchange theory sounds a little cold. It assumes that people only help if they can get something in return.

Do people ever help just to help?According to C. Daniel Batson, the answer is yes. Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis states that social exchange theory only comes into play if we do not feel empathy for the person. If we do have empathy, or understanding, for a person and their situation, then we will help out of altruism. Altruism is the motivation to help based purely on helping and not on getting a reward.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis is one possible explanation for why people are more likely to help people who are similar to them. If someone belongs to the same group as me, say because they are the same gender or nationality or religion as me, I am more likely to help them. This is called in-group helping, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis could explain this phenomenon. After all, we’re more likely to feel empathy for someone if they are similar to us.Some psychologists have criticized Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis.

If you feel empathy for someone and do not help them, you might feel guilty. Your helping them then, might not be altruistic because you might be helping to alleviate your negative feelings. Some psychologists argue that the empathy-altruism hypothesis can therefore be explained by the social exchange theory.Whether you believe Batson or believe that empathy simply falls under the social exchange theory, there is plenty of evidence that the more empathy you feel for someone, the more likely you are to help them out.

Lesson Summary

Social psychologists disagree on what situations predict prosocial behavior. On one hand, social exchange theory posits that people will help only when the benefits of helping outweigh the costs. On the other hand, the empathy-altruism hypothesis says that people are altruistically motivated to help others for whom they feel empathy. Since there is evidence for both theories, the debate is still on-going.

Learning Outcome

This lesson should enable you to:

  • Define prosocial behavior, altruism and in-group helping
  • Compare and contrast social exchange theory and the empathy-altruism hypothesis
  • List the three major ways helping can be rewarded, as well as some ways helping can be costly
  • Explain why some people believe that the empathy-altruism hypothesis can be explained by social exchange theory

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