Reinforcing Prosocial Behavior: Lead by Example

by Bill Blundell
The Antioch Group

Prosocial behavior may be on the decline, but it doesn’t have to be.

Voluntary behavior intended to benefit another is known as “prosocial behavior.” Does this still exist in our society today? Yes, it does—and it’s important. Could there be more of this type of behavior in society? The answer to that is also yes. Yet antisocial behavior often gets more air time, with television shows and movies sensationalizing it for entertainment. Indeed, the media supplies a steady diet of antisocial behavior in order to keep the attention of children and adults alike. Beyond the entertainment realm, both pro- and antisocial behaviors are present in our culture, and we are all affected by both.

One look around our workplaces, neighborhoods and schools is enough to convince anyone that prosocial behavior is in severe decline. Are we losing our ability to exhibit prosocial behavior? It’s likely we’re not, but bringing it to the forefront takes effort and should start early—so children are prepared to exhibit them as adults.

A multitude of studies have explored the portrayal of antisocial behavior in the media and its effect on children’s tendencies to exhibit the same behavior in the future. While a definite link between portrayal and behavior exists, it’s not just antisocial content that affects children. In fact, children who watch shows portraying prosocial behavior begin to exhibit that behavior as well.

Encouraging Altruism
One especially important prosocial behavior to teach children is altruism, the act of helping another person when doing so does not benefit you directly. Altruism is not simply reciprocity, as in “I owe you a favor because you did one for me,” but further extends that concept. Acts of true unselfishness have been shown to have a particular impact on children; in fact, altruism, when encouraged, seems to come so naturally for kids that some researchers believe it is genetically “wired into us.”

Picture yourself walking down a busy street in the middle of the day. The person in front of you is carrying a large box, too big to handle. In a quick moment, this person stumbles, dropping the box, and papers begin spilling out and flying away down the street. What do you do in this situation? Think to yourself a minute. Do you quickly drop your belongings and help? Do you keep walking, or do you make the matter worse and kick the box, spilling out more papers? The majority of people reading this will more than likely answer with one of the first two options, thinking, “Really, is there anyone out there who would actually kick the box?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes, there are—although by this point, they have probably stopped reading this article.

Help Those in Need
Within prosocial behaviors is the phenomenon of the bystander effect, which, simply stated, means that the more people present at a scene, the less likely each person is to willingly stop and help. On the flipside, if that person with the large box of papers were to drop it in an elevator and only one other person was present, he or she would be more likely to help. One variable of the bystander effect is the passing of responsibility—that is, if a large group of people sees an accident or crime, people tend to assume others around them are calling for help. This poses a problem because sometimes no one helps, and there are negative consequences.

Bottom line: it’s important to reinforce prosocial behaviors to help anyone who is in need. Lead by example, particularly in teaching children. It won’t do to simply blame the media for all the antisocial or negative behaviors that exist in our culture. Our culture is us: you and me acting responsibly and altruistically, one instance at a time, and teaching our children to do the same—particularly when they don’t benefit directly from the action.

Want to counter the media and impact our culture today? Take some time to help someone in need, even if they’re not asking for it. iBi