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Prosocial Behavior in Social Psychology

Updated on June 24, 2017

Prosocial Behavior: A Look at Influences on Helping Behavior

“Remember this… This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting meaning. This is why we're here. To make each other feel safe” (Agassi, 2015). Imagine walking down the street one night when you hear screams for help coming from behind you. Do you turn around? Do you call for help? The paper below analyzes influences on helping behaviors. Three of those influences are the bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility, and pluralistic influence.

Bystander Effect and Helping Behavior

The bystander effect refers to the fact that the more bystanders there are when an event occurs and someone needs help, the less likely those bystanders are to help that person in need (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). Various studies have been done, showing that the bystander effect is a realistic description of what typically occurs in an emergency (Aronson et al.). When less people witness an emergency, the person in needs has a greater chance of being helped (“Bystander Effect”, 2013). The bystander effect occurs as a result of diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance, which are described in detail below.

Bystander Effect

Diffusion of Responsibility

With more people present, and witnessing the situation, bystanders do not feel that they have much responsibility when it comes to helping the victim (“Bystander Effect”, 2013). The definition of diffusion of responsibility according to Aronson et al. (2010) is “the phenomenon wherein each bystander’s sense of responsibility to help decreases as the number of witnesses increases” (p. 318). Numerous studies have actually shown that the existence of others hinders helping (Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2015). This is because the bystander shifts his or her responsibility to other bystanders (Greitemeyer & Mügge). Diffusion of responsibility influences helping behavior in a negative way, as it decreases the chances of helping behavior.

Pluralistic Ignorance

Aronson et al. (2010) refers to pluralistic ignorance as “the case in which people think that everyone else is interpreting a situation in a certain way, when in fact they are not” (p. 317). When no one else is doing anything to help a person, the other individuals in the group assume that nothing needs to be done (“Bystander Effect”, 2013). For instance, imagine a crowded movie theater lobby with a middle-aged woman lying on the floor moaning. There are many moviegoers present, but no one does anything to help her. If an individual were in the lobby with her alone, she would have a better chance at being helped. This is because when individuals are alone, they have no one to rely on, but their selves (“Bystander Effect”). The responsibility to help the person in agony falls solely on them (“Bystander Effect”).

Victim Effects

Characteristics of the victim have an effect on helping behaviors, much like the factors mentioned above. These characteristic include but are not limited to race, gender, age, and class. A study done on prejudice and helping behaviors reported that white victims were helped quicker than black victims (Gaertner, Dovidio, & Johnson, 1982). When participants thought they were alone, however, they were more likely to help both the black and the white victim within the same amount of time (Gaertner et al., 1982).

Social and Cultural Pressure

The effects that social pressures have on helping behaviors were briefly discussed above. When people are passing by individuals in distress, the decision to help them will typically be based on others around them. If no one else is helping the individual, most people will pass by without offering help. On the other hand, when one person is seen helping, another may offer assistance as well, depending on the level of help needed.

When it comes to cultural pressure, people are willing to help both in-group and out-group members. Their reasons for helping each group differ, however. “People are more likely to feel empathy toward members of their in-groups who are in need, and the more empathy they feel, the more likely they are to help” (Aronson et al., 2010, p. 325). They are more likely to help members of their out-group if there is a reward in it for them (Aronson et al.).

To conclude, helping behaviors are influenced by many factors. The person needing help, the amount of people around, and the amount of help needed are just a few factors worth mentioning. In more technical terms, the bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility, and pluralistic ignorance influence helping behaviors. Above those influences were explained, as well as social and cultural pressure when it comes to helping others.


Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., and Akert, R. M. (2013). Social psychology (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice. ISBN-13: 9780205796625

Bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. (2013).

Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. F., & Johnson, G. (1982). Race of victim, nonresponsive bystanders, and helping behavior. Journal Of Social Psychology, 117(1), 69.

Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, D. O. (2015). When bystanders increase rather than decrease intentions to help. Social Psychology, 46(2), 116-119. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000215

What about you?

If you saw a person in need on the side of the road, would you help?

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    • misty103 profile image


      3 years ago

      If you are ever trying to get someone to do something like dial 911 in an emergency the best way to avoid the bystander effect is to single out a person for calling 911. For example "you in the blue shirt call 911, and you in the red shirt go wave the paramedics in when they arrive".

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 

      3 years ago from Sydney, Australia


      I experienced that when I was visiting California. There was an accident and several cars had stopped. I figured that the victims where being taken care of so I just drove past.

      I thought about it as I went down the road. Back home, I would have stopped--along the rural roads I usually travel. In fact, I always stop. I had not realized I stopped because there would be just, maybe, one other car that had showed up on the scene.

      I guess I'm "normal".


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