Do major disasters motivate prosocial behavior?
Posted: 19 Feb 2020 Last revised: 3 Aug 2020
Date Written: July 23, 2020
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
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