Psychology Magazine

Regulators of Prosocial and Empathetic Behavior.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

Two pieces in the September issue of Psychological Science deal with empathetic or prosocial behavior. Grant and Dutton make observations showing that prosocial behavior is boosted more by reflecting on giving than on receiving; and Lewis et al.'s experiments give a example of how stereotypes enhance empathetic accuracy.

Grant and Dutton:
Research shows that reflecting on benefits received can make people happier, but it is unclear whether or not such reflection makes them more helpful. Receiving benefits can promote prosocial behavior through reciprocity and positive affect, but these effects are often relationship-specific, short-lived, and complicated by ambivalent reactions. We propose that prosocial behavior is more likely when people reflect on being a benefactor to others, rather than a beneficiary. The experience of giving benefits may encourage prosocial behavior by increasing the salience and strength of one’s identity as a capable, caring contributor. In field and laboratory experiments, we found that participants who reflected about giving benefits voluntarily contributed more time to their university, and were more likely to donate money to natural-disaster victims, than were participants who reflected about receiving benefits. When it comes to reflection, giving may be more powerful than receiving as a driver of prosocial behavior.
Lewis et al.:
An ideal empathizer may attend to another person’s behavior in order to understand that person, but it is also possible that accurately understanding other people involves top-down strategies. We hypothesized that perceivers draw on stereotypes to infer other people’s thoughts and that stereotype use increases perceivers’ accuracy. In this study, perceivers (N = 161) inferred the thoughts of multiple targets. Inferences consistent with stereotypes for the targets’ group (new mothers) more accurately captured targets’ thoughts, particularly when actual thought content was also stereotypic. We also decomposed variance in empathic accuracy into thought, target, and perceiver variance. Although past research has frequently focused on variance between perceivers or targets (which assumes individual differences in the ability to understand other people or be understood, respectively), the current study showed that the most substantial variance was found within targets because of differences among thoughts.

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