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Table of Contents


Volume 5, Issue 4, 2021


Volume 5, Issue 4, July 2021


Manuela Callari PhD, Science Writer

In 1954, a group of 11 boys aged 12 were invited to a special summer camp at a place called Robber’s Cave State Park in the deep woods of southeastern Oklahoma in the US. The boys didn’t know each other, but all came from similar backgrounds. The group spent days bonding over things like games and treasure hunts, and very soon, they formed a tight friendly group.

They even came up with a name for themselves: the Rattlers.

After a few days, they noticed another group of boys the same age staying at the other end of the park. The 11 kids in the second group had also been spending time bonding over games, and they had called themselves the Eagles. 

The Rattlers didn’t like the Eagles. Mutually, the Eagles didn’t appreciate the Rattlers presence. It didn’t take long for each group to start complaining to the camp’s counsellors about the other gang. Eventually, they both said that they wanted to set up a contest to determine once and for all which group was better. 

The counsellors, who in reality were researchers, were happy to organise the contest. The American social psychologist who set up the Robber’s Cave Experiment was Muzafer Sherif. He wanted to understand what it would take for rivals to overcome their differences and resolve their conflicts. 

Sherif hypothesised that conflict happens when you combine negative prejudices with competition over resources, and the boys at Robber’s Cave were well on their way to proving him right.

Over the following couple of days, the Rattlers and the Eagles competed against each other for prizes in a series of games, such as tug-of-war and foot races. Soon, they started taunting and name-calling. They began to raid and steal from each others’ cabins. 

After the contest was over, the researchers changed the groups’ dynamics. The two groups were integrated, and all the 22 children were given shared goals that they could only achieve through cooperation. The tide quickly turned, and the boys began to work together towards their goals.

While isolation and competition made them enemies, shared goals and cooperation turned them into friends. Both conflict and cooperation are part of human nature.

In this piece, we will look at the science of helping others or prosocial behaviour.

Figure 1: Shared goals and cooperation can foster prosocial behaviour.

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What is prosocial behaviour?

American social psychologist Daniel Batson defines prosocial behaviour as “giving weight to the interests and desires of others in situations in which our interests and theirs conflict.”

Altruism, caring for others, and cooperation are all forms of prosocial behaviour. An act of prosocial behaviour could be as simple as helping an elderly stranger cross the road or as heroic as running into a burning building to save someone.

Interestingly, prosocial behaviour is contagious. Research has shown that people who see others act prosocially are more likely to do so themselves.

Figure 2: Caring for and helping others is an example of prosocial behaviour.

Prosocial behaviour is innate

In 2011, Canadian psychologists put on a puppet show for 5-month-old infants. The infants watched a puppet bouncing a ball while two other puppets stood at the back of the stage. After a few bounces, the ball gets away from the bouncer puppet and rolls to toward one of the other puppets. The first puppet turns toward the ball and opens its arms as if asking for the ball back.

Figure 3: Even infants prefer to play with others who show prosocial behaviour suggesting it is innate.

The action repeats two times. One of the puppets at the back of the stage gives the ball back. The other one keeps it. Although the giver and taker puppets are two copies of the same doll, they are easily distinguished because they wear different coloured shirts, a quality that infants easily distinguish and remember.

At the end of the show, a researcher, who did not watch the show so didn’t know which puppet was the giver and which was the taker, sat in front of the infants and with the two puppets and let the children reach for a puppet.

Over 80% of children preferred to play with the giver rather than the taker.

Why aren't we all prosocial all the time?

Social science research and psychologists have long been interested in understanding why some people are more prone to help others and in what circumstances we are more likely to help others. 

In one experiment, social psychologists placed a participant in a room, either alone, with two other participants, or two actors posing as participants. Then, they simulated an emergency by filling the room with smoke and waited to see if the participant would do anything to alert the others or help themselves.

The researchers found that when the participant was alone, they’d report the smoke 75% of the time but only spoke up 38% when in the room with other participants and only 10% of the times when with obvious actors.

The psychologists concluded that people typically helped others only if 

  1. they noticed the incident, 
  2. they interpreted it as an emergency, 
  3. they assumed responsibility.
Figure 4: When other people are around and not helping someone in need, bystanders are less likely to help.

All of these things were much more likely to occur if a person was alone. In contrast, the presence of others deterred the person from helping.

This kind of diffusion of responsibility is referred to as the bystander effect.

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The bystander effect

If you’re around other people, it’s easier to think that someone else is going to come to the rescue.

In 2010, a 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who lived at city shelters in Brooklyn called Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was stabbed when he tried to intervene in an argument between a man and woman. A selfless act that cost him his life.

People walking by glanced at the man as he lay dying and continued on their way. No one came to the rescue.

The bystander effect refers to the tendency for people to become less likely to assist a person in need when there are other people present.

Research on the bystander effect has led psychologists better understand why people help in some situations but not in others. Researchers have discovered many different situations that can contribute to or interfere with prosocial behaviours.

  • Fear of judgment or embarrassment: People sometimes fear what those around them would think if they came forward to help someone, for example, when helping a stranger in the street. Other times people might think that their help might not be welcomed. To avoid being judged by other bystanders, people simply take no action.
  • How other people respond: Prosocial behaviour is contagious, but bystander behaviour is as infectious. People tend to look at others – if no one else seems to be reacting, then people are less likely to respond as well.
  • The number of people present: The more people are around, the less personal responsibility people feel in a situation. This is the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon mentioned above.

Benefits of acting prosocially

Research has shown that helping others has several benefits.

  • Mood booster: Research has shown that people who engage in prosocial behaviours tend to be happier.
  • Social support: People who are prone to help others often receive help and support from others. Having social support can have a powerful impact on wellness, including reducing the risk of loneliness, alcohol use, and depression.
  • Stress reduction: Research has also shown that engaging in prosocial behaviours helps mitigate stress in our life.


Figure 5: Research has shown that people who engage in prosocial behaviours tend to be happier.

Overcome the bystander effect and take action

As seen in previous sections, many factors contribute to the choice to help others rather than be a bystander. There are also things that you can do to develop prosocial behaviour in yourself and others.

  • Skill development: One of the reasons people refrain from helping in an emergency is because they feel like they don’t have the skills needed to offer assistance. Attending a first aid course will teach the basics necessary to help someone in an emergency. You won’t need to gain any unachievable skill, but even a short course could provide the confidence to call the emergency number and follow their instructions until an ambulance arrives at the scene.
  • Model prosocial actions: Offer good examples to your friends and family and see that you engage in helpful acts without showing off. Your prosocial behaviour can inspire others to take action. You can also volunteer in your community or look for other ways to help people around you.
  • Praise acts of kindness: When you see others engaging in prosocial behaviour, let them know you appreciate it.

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Student activities

1. What was the aim of the Robber’s experiment and what did the researchers found?

2. What does prosocial behaviour mean? Can you come up with your own definition? Share your thoughts with the rest of the class.

3. Is prosocial behaviour innate? Or can it be acquired by watching others do helpful acts?

4. Why do people sometimes chose not to help others?

5. In groups, describe a time when you were in a situation where someone needed help but you chose not to help. What stopped you from acting? What could you have done differently?

6. In groups, discuss a time when you were in need and received help from a stranger. How did that make you feel?

7. What are the benefits of helping others?

8. What do you think are the risks of not engaging in prosocial behaviour?


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