Historical Background

Concern with helping behavior has its roots in early philosophy. Thinkers such as Aristotle, Socrates, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes debated whether humans are by nature good or bad, selfish or selfless. Most empirical psychological research on the topic, however, was not initiated until after the 1950's. This was probably not coincidental. Many people were concerned with the atrocities of World War II and, in the United States, with rising crime rates. In response, psychologists not only began to investigate human cruelty but also gave increased attention to what could be done to offset it. Similarly, the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, with its emphasis on cooperation and harmony, probably further propelled the study of prosocial behavior. The term "prosocial behavior," or behavior intended to benefit other people, is sometimes used synonymously with "helping" and is sometimes meant to be a larger category that includes helping.

Early studies of helping behavior examined situational variables that influence the decision to help someone who is in physical distress. The arousal cost-reward model and the subway experiment characterize this type of work. Also important during this period were Alvin Gouldner's theorizing on the norm of reciprocity and subsequent empirical investigation of the norms governing helping behavior, such as Leonard Berkowitz's work in the 1960's. As social psychologists explored situational variables that influence helping, developmental psychologists examined the emergence of positive social behavior in children. Some, such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, postulated distinct stages of moral development. Others focused on how people who model helping behavior influence children's subsequent behavior.

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