Prosocial behavior in the media
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Prosocial behavior in the media. What do we mean by “prosocial”. Not as easy to define as one might think Which is more important, the intent or the effect? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” “Enlightened self-interest”

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Prosocial behavior in the media

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Prosocial behavior in the media

What do we mean by “prosocial”

  • Not as easy to define as one might think

    • Which is more important, the intent or the effect?

      • “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

      • “Enlightened self-interest”

      • Without intent, any good outcome suddenly becomes evidence of moral behavior

    • When one group benefits and another is disadvantaged, is the act “prosocial”?

    • Can the actor benefit from “pro-social” behavior? Can one’s family?

“Prosocial” working definition

  • For our use, a person will engage in prosocial behavior when she intentionally commits any act which will be likely to improve other people’s welfare overall

    • The actor can (and as we see later, hopefully does) feel good about the act

    • If the actor is really not free to decide whether to benefit another or not then the action is really not prosocial, though the person requiring the beneficial behavior may be acting prosocially

      • Contributions to Red Cross taken out of your check while the boss looks on

What kinds of prosocial acts have been proposed?

  • Altruism

  • Control of aggressive impulses

  • Delay of gratification/task persistence

  • Explaining feelings of self or others

  • Reparation for bad behavior

  • Resistance to temptation

  • Sympathy

    • Liebert & Sprafkin

Prosocial effects

  • The study of prosocial effects of media portrayals is a minor part of effects study

  • Most prosocial effects research occurred in late 70s and early 80s

Researchers of prosocial effects apply theories akin to those for violence studies

  • Social learning (social cognitive) theory

  • Affect referal

  • Differential effects

  • Not catharsis, though

Scholars have reviewed the findings

  • A number of meta-analyses have been produced

    • Rushton

    • Hearold

    • Paik

    • Mares

Most research looks at children’s learning of prosocial behavior

  • Developed as an extension the 1960s-1970s concern over the application of television to the goal of public education

    • Educational content

    • Prosocial content

      • Often the two are combined (Sesame Street)

For example, multiple studies of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood reveal:

Prosocial effects

  • Conclusions

    • Prosocial content can lead to positive behavioral outcomes

    • Effects of exposure to prosocial content are comparable in strength to those of exposure to antisocial content

      • Scholars disagree on which is stronger

    • Altruism is the most effective prosocial portrayal

Prosocial effects

  • The effect of prosocial content on boys is not significantly different from the effect on girls

    • Paik, 1995

  • Prosocial portrayals in family sitcoms have a greater effect than in educational programming

  • The effects are positive for all ages

  • The effect is greater for donation than for prosocial play or cooperation

  • The effect of stereotyping is greater than the effect of anti-stereotyping content

Hearold, 1986

  • Synthesis of 1,043 studies of effects of television on social behavior

    • “Effect sizes for prosocial treatments and behavior, of course, were consistently greater than for antisocial treatments on behavior.”

    • “The implication is that if subjects watched the antisocial treatments, usually violent programs or episodes, they would be elevated from the 50th to the 62nd percentile in antisocial behavior, typically physical aggression, and if they watched the prosocial treatment, they would be elevated from the 50th to the 74th percentile in prosocial behavior, typically altruism.”

Critique of studies

  • Stimulus materials were usually either:

    • depictions of prosocial behavior developed specifically to elicit the behavior, or

    • Either Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street

  • Normal tv fare sends mixed messages

    • prosocial violence

    • characters exhibiting good and bad behaviors

Prosocial content research

  • Liebert, Sprafkin, Rubinstein and others (mid 70s)

  • Greenberg et al. (late 70s)

  • Baxter & Kaplan (early 80s)

  • Lee (late 80s)

  • Potter & Ware (late 80s)

Distribution of prosocial acts on Saturday morning TV, 1970s

Primetime prosocial behavior

Lee, 1988

Comparison of pro- and antisocial behavior primetime (Kaplan & Baxter, 1982)

Note: 12 hours, 17 programs

Prosocial content

  • The relative incidence of prosocial and antisocial acts varies widely among studies

    • Greenberg et al., about 42 pro- and 40 antisocial acts per hour

    • Kaplan & Baxter, 46 pro- and 17 antisocial acts per hour

  • Altruism

    • Greenberg et al., 14 acts/hour, most common pro-social act

    • Potter & Ware, 2 acts/hr, 5th most common

Prosocial and antisocial acts per hour of primetime programming

Prosocial content

  • Males engage in the most prosocial acts

    • Potter & Ware: 67% of pro, 80% of anti

    • Baxter & Kaplan: 69% of pro, 78% of anti

    • However, there are more male characters

  • The great majority of both violent and prosocial acts are seen as justified

  • The outcome of prosocial acts was not reviewed

Proportion of prosocial and antisocial acts committed by gender(Greenberg et al. primetime 1975-78 study)

Prosocial content

  • Most analyses exclude violent content from prosocial acts

    • Some evidence exists of a significant amount of prosocial violence

      • Heroes commit a significant amount of violence

      • Saturday morning tv

Liss and Reinhardt

  • Regular and prosocial Saturday morning cartoons

  • Antagonists commit more violent acts than protagonists

  • No significant difference in the amount of violence on regular and prosocial cartoons

Prosocial content

  • We were interested in:

    • Relationships among actors

    • Involvement of third parties

    • Rewards for altruism

    • Social support

The method:finding and measuring altruism

  • Primetime programs recorded for one week on ABC, NBC and Fox networks

  • 26.5 hours of programming included in the study

  • Only regularly scheduled series included (no movies, game shows, sports, news)

  • Unit of analysis: the altruistic act

Defining altruism

  • “social behavior carried out to achieve positive outcomes for another rather than for the self” (Rushton, 1980)

    • must include some nontrivial self-sacrifice

    • leaves open the possibility of antisocial altruism

Risking life, health or safety

Risking career or future

Sacrificing money

Sacrificing or giving up time

Sacrificing something of personal value, a dream or satisfaction

Not included: common courtesy or minimal sacrifice

Acts of altruism

Coding altruistic acts on TV

  • Relationship of the benefactor and beneficiary

    • Friends, neighbors or coworkers

    • Mere acquaintances

    • Strangers

    • Superior and subordinate

    • Subordinate and superior

    • Family

    • Lovers or romantically involved

Gender of beneficiary and benefactor

Relationship to violence

Involvement of a third party

Outcome of the act for any third party

Immediate response to the act by the benefactor and the beneficiary

Long-term outcome of the act for the benefactor and the beneficiary

Coding altruistic acts on TV

Measuring altruistic acts on TV

  • Coding the justification of the acts

    • Was it part of the benefactor’s job?

    • Was it expected under the circumstances?

    • Was this above and beyond what would be expected?

Measuring altruistic acts on TV

  • The coding instrument was pretested

    • Both authors viewed two hour long programs

    • (Neither program included in results)

  • Programs were recorded on videotape and later coded

  • Second author coded all programs

  • No “sweeps month” programs included

1: What is the rate for altruistic behavior in primetime programming?

2: Is there a relationship between the gender of the benefactor and the gender of the beneficiary of the altruistic acts?

3. What is relationship between the benefactor and the beneficiary?

4: What is the nature of the altruistic act?

Research questions

Research questions

  • 5: What are the consequences of the altruistic act for the benefactor and the beneficiary?

    • Outcome

    • Response


  • 27 acts of altruism identified in 26.5 hours of primetime programming

  • Just over one act per hour (1.1 acts/hour)

    • Fewer than in previous research

Relationships portrayed

Nature of the altruistic act

Outcome for the actorsPercent of acts (n=27)

Response to the altruism


  • Altruistic acts were rarely tied to violence

  • Most acts (63%) exceeded expectations for benefactor behavior based on occupational role or social norms

  • The outcome for third parties was negative more than half the time


  • Results of altruism are as likely to be negative as to be positive

  • Gender is less related to TV altruistic acts than in the past

  • Altruistic violence is uncommon

More conclusions

  • The definition of altruism is critical to outcome of the analysis

  • A larger sample is needed

  • Multiple coders are needed

  • More extensive analyses are needed

    • Monitoring much like violence studies

    • Dramatic function of violence and prosocial acts

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