Prosocial behavior and Empathy

Prosocial behaviors are those intended to help other people. Behaviors that can be described as Prosocial include feeling empathy and concern for others and behaving in ways to help or benefit other people. Daniel Batson explains that pro-social behaviors refer to “a broad range of actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself- behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing and cooperation.” Pro-social behavior is characterized by a concern for the rights, feelings and welfare of other people.
Empathy a basic human requirement is responding with distress to the distress of others and indicating concern can be observed in other primates and perhaps in a few other mammals like dogs and dolphins’ .Empathy foster kindness and compassion. Empathy involves two components affective and cognitive. Affectively an empathic person feels what another person is feeling. Cognitively an empathic person understands what another person is feeling. Thus empathy means not only that “I feel your pain” but also, “I understand your pain.”
The affective component is essential to empathy and children as young as twelve months infant seems clearly to feel distress in response to the distress of others. Humans even show empathy by blushing when another person engages in an embarrassing or risky act. Helping others or being helped by others clearly enhances the chances of a person in need being able to survive and thrive. The affective component of empathy also includes feeling sympathetic- not only feeling another’s pain but also expressing concerns and attempting to do something to relieve the pain.
The cognitive component of empathy seems to be a uniquely human quality that develops only as we progress beyond infancy. Relevant cognition includes the ability to consider the viewpoint of another person, sometimes referred to as perspective taking—being able to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” There are three types of perspective taking.
Taking the “imagine other” perspective in which a person perceives an event and feels how the other person is feeling as a result of that happening. Those take the “imagine other” perspective experience relatively pure empathy that motivates altruistic behavior.
In this perspective you can imagine how you would feel if you were in that situation- taking the “imagine self” perspective. Those who take “imagine self” perspective also experience empathy, in addition, the feeling of distress arouse egoistic or self- interest motives that can interfere with altruism. Each of these two types of perspective taking result in an emotional response to the person in need, but the emotions are specific to each type.
The third type of perspective taking involve fantasy- feeling empathy for a fictional character. As a result, there is an emotional reaction to the joys, sorrows, and a fear of
a person –or an animal- in a book, movie, TV serial etc. For example it is not unusual for children to cry when Bambi discovered that his mother has been killed.
Barrack Obama, who declared in 2007 (while still a senator) that “the biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathic deficit.”
Dispositional factors associated with Prosocial Behavior People high in interpersonal trust engage in more prosocial acts than do people who tend to distrust others. People having egocentricity, cynicism and a tendency to manipulate others are least likely to show prosocial tendencies.
A combination of dispositional variables associated with Prosocial behavior are empathy, belief in a just world, acceptance of social responsibility and having an internal locus of control. Let us discuss them in detail:
Empathy is the ability to accurately put yourself “in someone else’s shoes” to understand the other’s situation, perceptions and feelings from their point of view- and to be able to communicate that understanding back to the other person. It makes an individual responsible, socialized, conforming, tolerant, self controlled and motivated to make a good impression. Empathy and altruistic motivation are associated with other positive characteristics, such as a sense of well being, achievement motivation, sociability, and positive emotional state.
Belief in a just world
Helpful people perceive the world as affair and predictable place in which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. This belief leads to the conclusion that helping those in need is the right thing to do and to the expectation that the person who helps will actually benefit from doing a good deed.
Social Responsibility
Those who are more helpful express the belief that each person is responsible for doing his or her best to help those in need.
Internal locus of control
This is an individual’s belief that he or she can choose to behave in ways that maximize good outcomes and minimize bad ones. Those who do not help in contrast, tend to have an external locus of control and believe that what they do is irrelevant, because what happens is controlled by luck, fate, powerful people, and other uncontrollable factors.
Low egocentrism
Those who help do not be egocentric, self absorbed, and competitive. High egocentric people are unable to understand the needs of others.
In human being empathy is observed in infants even. Highest type of empathy is an adult’s concern for and commitment to the well being of future generations. This is known as generativity. People high in generativity show this interest and commitment by becoming parents, by teaching what they know to young people, and by engaging in acts that will have positive effects beyond their own lifetimes.
Generative adults believe that people need to care for one another. They possess enduring moral values that give purpose and meaning to their lives, perceive bad events as opportunities to create good outcomes and make an effort to contribute to the progressive development of a better society. We all need each other and cannot get anywhere without each other’s help. Our purpose as a as a human being is to graciously accept help when it is offered and extend it generously when it is asked for.
Helping a needy person and doing of all good deeds should be done because of the prospect of being rewarded by God for the life here after. It is like spending all eternity in heaven. God has put us on the earth to examine us how we will deal with each other and help each other.
Cultivating Empathy in children
The key to teach children empathy is to teach children to be “good” or “kind” and to think about other people rather than just about themselves. Good children who are not self- centered are more likely to respond to the needs of others. This kind of moral intelligence is not based on memorizing rules and regulations or on learning abstract definition. Instead children learn by observing what their parents do and say in their everyday lives.
Such experiences are important at any age but crucial at elementary school time during which a child develops or fails to develop a conscience. Without appropriate models and appropriate experiences children can easily grow into selfish and rude adolescents and then into equally unpleasant adults. Those who learn to be kind have a strong commitment to helping others rather than hurting others.
(The author is ex-counsellor Psychiatric Disease Hospital GMC, Jammu)