Pondering Prosocial Behavior

Looking at prosocial behavior this week, I found all the different explanations and perspectives very interesting. I find myself pulled to a few of the different facets of prosocial behavior, including the evolutionary perspective of kin selection, Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, and the connection between personal qualities and prosocial behavior.

For some reason, I have always been quite fascinated with the evolutionary branch of psychology. I guess it is just interesting to learn how certain aspects of our social behavior may have formed because natural selection favors genes that promote our survival. From this chapter, I am specifically intrigued by the idea of kin selection, the idea that behaviors that help a genetic relative are favored by natural selection. The theory that kin selection is ingrained in human behavior might sound obvious to a lot of people, for it might seem undoubtedly clear that one would save a family member over a friend or a stranger (I am sure hindsight bias may play a role in this); but I think there are a lot of modern-day scenarios that make me question how they fit into the idea of kin selection. In a typical hypothetical survival scenario, I certainly think it is ingrained within us, whether it is a conscious preference or not, to save a family member over a friend. But what about a more distant relative versus a close friend that is practically family, perhaps more “family” than that distant relative you met once? Our textbook did mention that we  would be more likely to save a direct relative over a more distant one; that is why I find these hypotheticals interesting to consider.

Or the scenario that first popped into my head when I read about kin selection–what about families with adopted members? I understand that the theory of kin selection posits its ideas on families and communities long ago, when survival was truly an urgent concern, but looking at it from a modern perspective, it makes me wonder. One of my closest friends is Chinese-American, and is the biological daughter of her two Chinese-American parents. Her parents adopted a son from China and brought him to America thirteen years ago; my friend and her younger brother were raised together in the Bay Area, California. I am sure that at one glance at their family, almost everyone would not be able to tell they have an adopted son. Looking at their family and many others in America and all over the world with adopted children and foster children, whether they are like my friend’s family or they more clearly consist of a variety of different genes and ethnicities–how does the theory of kin selection come into play not only in terms of survival/life-and-death situations but also just in terms of helping behavior? Many mothers with adopted and foster children view their children as their own, as if they were of flesh and blood. But that would mean that their actions, their helping and prosocial behavior would not depend on an instincts and genes as evolutionary psychology posits.

I also found Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis interesting and quite brilliant. To me, it seems simple but effective. The empathy-altruism hypothesis is the idea that when we feel empathy for a person, we will attempt to help that person for purely altruistic reasons, regardless of what we have to gain. If you do not feel empathy, social exchange concerns come into play. I do think that the more cynical perspective of prosocial behavior has merit–that no one ever acts out of purely altruistic reasons; even if someone helps another out of seemingly selfless reasons, perhaps they only acted so they did not have to feel the guilt of not helping. However, this idea of connecting empathy with altruism does make sense to me as well. After reading Chapter 11 and listening to both lectures on prosocial behavior, my thoughts turned towards a more unconventional classification of helping behavior–my vegan lifestyle. I live a vegan lifestyle, meaning that I do not consume any animal products: meat, dairy, eggs, honey, even things like carmine (a red dye made up of crushed insects). I also do my best to not use any animal products, including leather, suede, beeswax, and to stick to cruelty-free products. I first went vegetarian for ethical reasons—after watching a documentary that detailed the injustices of the meat industry and realizing that the vegetarianism my Buddhist youth group proclaimed my whole life might actually hold some merit, I cut meat out of my life immediately. But as I did more research and became immersed into a plant-based lifestyle, I soon learned about how going vegetarian wasn’t enough. The dairy industry holds just as many injustices as the meat industry does, and beyond that, being plant-based is more than just a diet. Veganism has many different facets, extending into the environment, health, and even social justice, which is why so many people emphasize veganism as a lifestyle.

From a social psychological lens, I first went vegetarian for what I hope was purely altruistic reasons. I truly felt and feel empathy for these animals, and the centerpoint for my decision was compassion. But turning it on its head, what if what really catapulted me to go vegetarian was because I would have been faced with guilt if I had not? And even extending this analysis into my current vegan lifestyle—altruism is helping others regardless of what we have to gain. What if veganism isn’t the positive something-for-all lifestyle that it is? What if instead of being the healthiest lifestyle, the most environmentally sustainable lifestyle (in addition to being cruelty free), veganism actually had negative benefits to me? Instead of being healthier, I was faced with health challenges. Instead of helping the environment, I was playing a part in the destruction of our earth for future generations of animals and humans alike. Would I still be vegan if, not only the only benefit was not contributing to the harm of animals, but I actually faced harm because of my “selfless” decision?

I always say that I first went vegan for the animals—the environment and health are just incredibly amazing advantages that come with the deed. From the perspective of the empathy-altruism hypothesis, if I do not feel empathy, social exchange concerns come into play. I will undoubtedly say that I do feel empathy for animals harmed by these industries, but I do still see the perspective of social exchange coming into play. Setting aside the compassion and empathy, being vegan benefits me. Physically, my health is far better off sticking to carbs, fruits, and vegetables over meat, milk, cheese, and butter. Mentally, I know I am doing everything I can to not contribute to the detriment of the world and its beings, and no matter how enraged or frustrated I can be at what happens, it must give me some peace of mind knowing I try my best. Perhaps helping the environment and being healthier are two personal gains in the game of social exchange. So, am I being selfless, “purely altruistic” as our textbook would say, or is the most compassionate lifestyle I know actually a front for my own selfish gains? I do not have an answer, but I do find it interesting to ponder one of the pillars of my life from a social psychological lens.

Another topic in this chapter that made me ponder my vegan lifestyle as a “helping behavior” was the section on personal qualities and prosocial behavior and explored the question of why some people help more than others. On gender differences in prosocial behavior, the textbook stated that men are more likely to perform chivalrous and heroic acts, whereas women are more likely to be helpful in long-term relationships that involve greater commitment. It is common knowledge in the vegan community that there are a lot more vegan women in the world than there are men. There are a lot of possible reasons for this phenomenon—I have even read an article that discusses the connection between masculinity and meat and how that plays a role in exactly how the vegan movement is spreading worldwide. Regardless, if we view going meatless (and further, going without animal products completely) as a helping behavior of sorts, then from a social psychological perspective, veganism perfectly fits into what I learned from the textbook. Men may be more likely to perform short-term, heroic acts (perhaps saving an animal they see in distress), but when it comes to being helpful in a long-term way, women are far more likely to commit.

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