Although the majority of people value the idea of helping others, they often take no particular action. In two field studies we investigated the impact of differently justified requests for spontaneous charity donations and for antisocial behavior like stealing. In the experiments, unwatched stands with cookies and money jars were placed on a crowded city square with one of three different notes: (1) detailed prosocial justification, (2) general justification or (3) no justification. After testing almost 500 participants, we show that mere general arguments can both increase prosocial behavior and decrease antisocial behavior. Additionally, detailed prosocial justification augments generosity, causing people voluntarily to pay more than required. We conclude that prosocial (compliance with request) and antisocial (stealing) behavior is guided by automatic processes that track that there is any reason for the request, while generosity is guided by reflective assessment of the justification of the request.
This is both a review of previous research and a theoretical paper on altruism. It discusses one of the crucial theories of prosocial involvement: the distinction between endo- and exocentric prosocial motivation depending on the type of internal gratification for the involved individual: satisfaction of the Self vs. improving the circumstances of another person. The relevance and validity of this distinction finds support in early empirical studies. Contemporary findings suggest a more universal regulatory context of this idea, which transcends the domain of altruism and extends to the more general issues of the Self and social perception. In addition, it anticipates a number of cognitive biases consequential to the relationship between endocentric regulation and the Self. The findings support a reinterpretation of the original term “prosocial motivation” and the use of a broader interpretative construct “prosocial orientation”, understood as a complex syndrome of regulation that encompasses the processes of social perception, value judgements, and Self-regulation, both explicit and subliminal.