Do major disasters motivate prosocial behavior?

Posted: 19 Feb 2020 Last revised: 3 Aug 2020

See all articles by Polly Kang

Polly Kang

Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania)

David Daniels

National University of Singapore (NUS)

Maurice E. Schweitzer

University of Pennsylvania - Operations & Information Management Department

Date Written: July 23, 2020

Abstract

Across the organizational, social, and natural sciences, normative theories of prosocial behavior assert that people will provide more help when others face harm. Experimental research shows that prosocial behavior indeed increases when others face low levels of harm. However, due to ethical and methodological difficulties, it remains unknown whether prosocial behavior increases when others face high levels of harm. In a field study, we overcome these difficulties by analyzing a quasi-experiment that combines a unique, massive dataset (including almost 3 million time-stamped prosocial behaviors by over 19 thousand volunteers) with 108 exogenous shocks that created high levels of harm: major disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and mass shootings) that affected the U.S. between 2013 and 2018. We find that major disasters actually demotivate prosocial behavior. This result is inconsistent with both normative theories and lay beliefs regarding prosocial behavior, which predict the opposite. We develop and test a simple alternative model of prosocial behavior that we call the Prosocial Prospects Framework (PPF); the PPF can explain both why small harms motivate prosocial behavior (because of loss aversion), and why large harms demotivate prosocial behavior (because of diminishing sensitivity). In randomized laboratory experiments, we provide additional evidence for the PPF.

Keywords: Prosocial behavior, Natural experiment, Big data

Suggested Citation

Kang, Polly and Daniels, David and Schweitzer, Maurice E., Do major disasters motivate prosocial behavior? (July 23, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3524530

Polly Kang (Contact Author)

Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
19104 (Fax)

David Daniels

National University of Singapore (NUS) ( email )

1E Kent Ridge Road
NUHS Tower Block Level 7
Singapore, 119228
Singapore

Maurice E. Schweitzer

University of Pennsylvania - Operations & Information Management Department ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-4776 (Phone)
215-898-3664 (Fax)

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