Prosocial behavior stands for everything we do for others without expecting anything in return, like helping our neighbors with groceries or helping someone cross the street. As with almost everything, though, people have different opinions on why this happens.

All children are born with empathetic “powers” that allow them to bond emotionally with others¹. Also, Wilson et al have documented prosocial behavior in animals too², so that’s cool. So it’d make sense to think we do such actions because of empathy, our core values and a sense of responsibility towards other people we share the planet with (hi guys).

Sociobiologists say this is a genetic response we use to support our genes. However, sometimes, engaging in prosocial behavior can be financially costly, time-consuming, emotionally draining, you get the point…

According to social exchange theory, people help only when rewards (recognition, fame, etc.) surpass costs, so there’s no such thing as true altruism. Boo.

I hope by now you’re hooked to know whether we actually help only when helping doesn’t imply something we want being at stake. I know I was at the time, so I asked 80 people, ages 20 to 40 what would they do in the following scenario(s):

Today is a very important day for you, you have an interview for the job you really want. You just hopped on your car, when a friend comes and asks for your immediate help to take them to the ER. If you take them, you can/can’t get to the interview on time. You ask them if they can return the favor in the future, they say they can/can’t. Referring to the scale, to what extent would you help your friend?

So 4 scenarios, the verbs in bold are the interchanging ones. No, you can’t call to reschedule. Yes, you lose the job if you don’t show up. No, you can’t call them a cab, will you stop it with the hypothetical questions already? Participants had to pick a number from 1 to 7, 1 being I wouldn’t help them at all and 7 being I would so help them. They were encouraged to include a reason for their choice.

For the record, I know we don’t go around interrogating people, who just asked us to drive them to the hospital, whether they can return the favor. But, everything for science and an objectively better study, am I right?!

If we can get to the interview, help our friend and get the hypothetical reward (high reward, low cost), everyone said they would give maximum help.

Second case scenario, low cost, no reward, 20 people (both genders* equally represented btw) said they’d greatly help, a medium of 6.4 out of 7 was found. Some said they’d help regardless of reward, others said they wouldn’t help because of the lack of it.

Some said they’d help because friendship is more important than a job, others because a loyal friend can get you a good job. Not very selfless now, are we…

What when our friend promises to return the favor, but we can’t make it to the interview? 5.6 out of 7. Someone said they’d only help if the person was terribly sick, if not, they wouldn’t risk their (granted they get it) future job. Others said they believe everything happens for a reason, so if they miss the interview, something better is in store for them.

Someone said something I strongly agree with- if their friend was in a poor health state and they could help and the company wouldn’t give a shit about that, that’s a company they wouldn’t want to work at. Same.

Someone said they’d take their friend to the ER and miss the interview no doubt, but they’d call to let them know why they had to miss it, so they’d make a good impression. Hey, whatever floats your boat.

We don’t make it to the interview, lose our dream job and our friend says they can’t really return the favor, sorry, bro

6.5 out of 7! We’d rather help another human being than get that reward or job. Now, that’s good news. People are good, after all. Isn’t that realization exciting? Go out there and make someone’s day, not for any other reason other than, YOU CAN.

Thanks for reading.


Something strange: 2 people could give the exact same explanation and choose different numbers on the scale. People enjoy thinking of themselves as good people, so they answer as such even though their reasoning might be different. Not saying people who wouldn’t help are bad. No way. Just cuz you know what I’m talking about when I refer to things as good/bad. I dislike labeling actions as good or bad. You do you, boo.

*No one openly (even though anonymously) identifies as gender fluid/agender/genderqueer where the study was conducted. I probably should’ve included it as an option anyway. In other news, did you know asking students to confirm their gender before a test leads to lower scores for girls?

¹ Sagi & Hoffman, 1994

² Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: Variation and correlations at a city-wide scale. Evolution and human behavior, 30(3), 190-200.


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