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Prosocial behaviour is primarily linked to theories and ideas of helping. It is described as the interaction between helpers and recipients (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). Prosocial behaviour can be understood as behaviour that has social consequences that can contribute positively to the well being of another person (Wispe, 1972 cited by Malim & Birch, 1998). The consequence of prosocial behaviour is of benefit to others, therefore, this essay will examine the role of sympathy and empathy in the study of behaviour in helping situations. The value and success – of helping – to the individual will be assessed, as well as positive and negative regards to empathy and sympathy. This essay will begin by expanding on the definition of prosocial behaviour already given, before discussing sympathy and empathy in-depth. The essay will also discuss social explanations for helping and show how empathy is related. It will then discuss a theory of empathy and prosocial behaviour, aspects of which should have been touched on throughout. The conclusion will sum up the author’s argument, and there will be evidence and examples throughout the essay.
As previously stated, prosocial behaviour is connected to helping. It is encouraged in cultures where extended families are standard – e.g. India – and where there are greater responsibilities but a simpler social structure (Eisenberg & Musen, 1989 cited by Kaplan, 1998). These are generally collectivist societies – which make up about seventy percent of the world’s population. Cultures emphasising community rather than individualism are more likely to produce people of a prosocial and conformist nature (Stevenson, 1991 cited by Kaplan, 1998). Those who grow up in rural areas are also more likely to be prosocial than those from urban areas (Eisenberg & Musen, 1989 cited by Kaplan, 1998).
Prosocial behaviour is also voluntary but can be egotistically motivated – ultimately benefiting oneself- or altruistically motivated – benefiting another person (Brehm et al, 1999; Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). Altruistic behaviour: a refined form of prosocial behaviour: is characterised by empathy and perspective-taking (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). Prosocial behaviour will increase with age (Durkin, 1995 & Peterson, 1983 cited by Kaplan, 1998), as people become better at considering others’ perspectives (Kaplan, 1998) – empathising more (Eisenberg et al, 1996 cited by Kaplan, 1998). This shows that the role of empathy in studying prosocial behaviour is key.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another (Soanes, 2001; www.infoplease.com). Sympathy is feelings of sorrow and pity for another’s misfortune, but it is also an understanding of that (Soanes, 2001; www.infoplease.com). The author has decided to largely ignore the phrase sympathy throughout the rest of this essay, concentrating instead on empathy, for two reasons. The first is that both words have a closely related meaning, and the second is that the literature reviewed on the subject has little to say on sympathy – concentrating more on the term empathy.
Empathy is triggered when an individual witnesses the emotional state of another person (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001; Kaplan, 1998). This is a result of adopting the perspective of the other person and understanding his/her emotions (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). For example, a friend may come to you with a problem and you imagine yourself in that position to get a better understanding of them.
Empathy can be experienced through moral reasoning (Eisenberg et al, 1996 cited by Kaplan, 1998) and the ability to empathise is a good predictor of prosocial behaviour (Roberts & Strayer, 1996 cited by Kaplan, 1998). People who focus on themselves are less likely to be helpful than those concerned with others (Kaplan, 1998). There appears to be a biological link in behaving altruistically towards others because of genetic similarity – this is reinforced by a variety of cultures (Krebs & Miller, 1985 cited by Lord, 1997). However, the author feels that this may not always be the case. Choosing to ‘bail out’ a friend or family member may well depend on previous experiences, of which the friend may have faired considerably better.
Empathy has both cognitive and emotional components (Eisenberg et al, 1996 cited by Kaplan, 1998). A major cognitive component is that of perspective-taking: using imagination to see the world through another’s eyes. By perceiving a person in need, and imagining their feelings, you may experience feelings of empathic concern. The result is that you have an altruistic motive for helping. This can be identified in large-scale tragedy. One of the most recent examples of this would be the events of September 11th 2001. After witnessing the horror of the two planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre – some of which was broadcast live on TV – people were overcome with feelings of grief and sympathy. Many fire-fighters and other rescue workers rushed to the site to save as many people as they could – an example of altruistic helping – only to loss their own lives in the process as the towers collapsed. The example also shows that people are willing to help when the cost to them is great, however, this is not usually the case. People – in western societies – are more likely to help when the cost to them is low, but the benefit is high.
This can be shown by one of four types of social relationship in society: market pricing. Market pricing involves minimum cost with maximum gain (Lord, 1997). Everything, including help, has a price (Fiske, 1991 cited by Lord, 1997). People help each other in proportion to their own costs and other’s needs: the ‘norm of equity’ (Greenberg & Cohen, 1982, & Krebs, 1982 cited by Lord, 1997). For example, a friend asks you to buy some groceries for her because she can’t make it to the shop until tomorrow. You weigh up the cost of travelling to the shop with her need for the food before deciding whether or not to comply with her request – if the cost is too high (e.g. you need to buy petrol) you will probably refuse or bargain before helping. Market pricing appears to be a very egoistic way of helping. A negative aspect of market pricing is that it opens opportunities to things such as slavery (Lord, 1997).
A second social relationship is that of equality matching. This involves matching favours equally (Lord, 1997). People want to keep on an equal status (Fiske, 1991 cited by Lord, 1997). Nevertheless, there is scope for revenge as people feel others have contributed more or less (Lord, 1997).
The third is that of authority ranking – the idea of helping others of a different (higher or lower) status because of a responsibility to do so (Lord, 1997). People are willing to protect each other because there is no personal gain and they are not trying to ‘beat the system’. However, those in power can abuse this social relationship.
The fourth social relationship is that of communal sharing. Communal sharing involves freely sharing favours and resources with those who need help (Lord, 1997). In this instance, people do not expect favours to be reciprocated (Fiske, 1990, 1992 cited by Lord, 1997). These four social relationships differ in motives but are neither inherently ‘good’ nor ‘evil’ (Lord, 1997). Yet, this leads on to the question of whether prosocial behaviour is altruistic or egotistic.
Bernstein et al (1997), describes an experiment testing the egotistic or altruistic nature of people. In the experiment, people thought they were witnessing a woman being given electric shocks – in actual fact they were watching a video recording of an actress. Halfway through they were told they could swap places with the woman for the rest of the duration. Half were told that if they did not then they would have to continue watching her suffer. The other half had the option to leave. Of the group with the option to leave, those who left were egotistical and had chosen to reduce the negative arousal being experienced by escaping. Those who stayed and swapped places were altruistic and had chosen to relieve some of the negative arousal by helping the woman.
The empathy-altruism hypothesis is based on two distinct emotional states. The first is situational distress, which is self-orientated (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). Feelings are often unpleasant and a person can have feelings of alarm. There is a pre-occupation with a person’s own anxiety, and this appears to be a spontaneous reaction when witnessing another’s pain. The greater the negative arousal, the greater the need is to reduce arousal. Over arousal is a primary reason for helping.
The second state is situational empathy – where the witness is sympathetic and compassionate (Batson, 1991 cited by Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). This is a result of adopting the perspective of the victim (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001; Malim & Birch, 1998). Situational empathy is usually facilitated by attachment – family or friends (Batson et al, 1986 cited by Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). Empathic concern is orientated by sympathy, compassion and tenderness and is contrasted to empathic distress in that emotional reactions can be controlled (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2001). This control is taken in the form of perspective-taking as well as sympathy.
There have been several other theories regarding whether or not helping is altruistic, as is suggested by Batson. But the author has not been able to cover these because of word limit constraints.
To conclude, this essay began by discussing prosocial behaviour. It looked a different cultural aspects and how these relate to two types of prosocial behaviour: egotism and altruism. The author is of the opinion that our environment does affect our prosocial behaviour, and that it also affects the level of sympathy and empathy we feel, and are willing to show.
Empathy was discussed in-depth and the author believes that empathy can be felt towards complete strangers, not just family and friends as Batson suggests. Batson’s theory of `empathy-altruism cannot explain all aspects of why people help and it is regrettable that opposing theories could not be discussed. The look at the four different social relationships was interesting in that it showed how different cultures perceive helping and that empathic, altruistic behaviour is not always at the forefront of helping behaviour.
As this essay has shown, empathy has a major importance in one aspect of prosocial behaviour – altruism. Sympathy has been found to be just a branch of empathy but it is important in understanding situational empathy in the context of the empathy-altruism hypothesis.
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