Theses Doctoral

Motivating Prosocial Behavior: The Potential of Positive Self-Directed Emotions

Schneider, Claudia Regina

Faced with global challenges, like environmental degradation, poverty, social injustice, and discrimination against marginalized societal groups, it is important to develop strategies that promote concern for the well-being of others and encourage prosocial action. Engaging in prosocial behaviors can contribute to positive social change through reducing discrimination, improving the situation and well-being of those in need, and fostering more sustainable personal lifestyles. One important factor that limits human prosociality is our ‘finite pool of worry’, the fact that humans have only finite resources, physiologically, cognitively, and socially (Linville & Fischer, 1991; Weber, 2006). Effortful and costly prosociality (Dovidio, 1984; Gneezy, Imas, Brown, Nelson, & Norton, 2012; Rand, Greene, & Nowak, 2012; Rand & Nowak, 2013; Simpson & Willer, 2008), especially towards distant and unknown others, stigmatized groups, or the natural environment, may not receive preference in the allocation of resources over self-related goals and the fulfillment of crucial personal needs. One of the most fundamental human needs is establishing and maintaining a positive self-image (Epstein, 1973; Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). This dissertation investigates two strategies for motivating prosocial behavior that leverage this need for a positive self-image and the fact that humans are motivated to fulfill it. Paper I explores anticipated emotions in the context of pro-environmental decision making. It assess the effects of inducing people to consider their future feelings with a certain decision they are about to take. Results show that inducing people to anticipate pride from prosocial action versus guilt from inaction is relatively more effective at instilling pro-environmental motivation. Furthermore, exploratory findings point toward potential reactance to attempts to solicit prosocial behavior by prompting anticipated guilt. Papers II and III explore the potential of a values affirmation intervention to motivate prosocial behavior. Starting from self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988), paper II hypothesizes that the act of affirming one’s values may increase positive self-directed emotions (‘positive self-regard’) which can translate into downstream prosociality. It proposes a potential explanation for this effect, such that a heightened positive sense of self, stemming from engaging in the affirmation intervention, may reduce worry about the self, thus freeing up cognitive and emotional resources to engage in behaviors directed towards others. Results show that a values affirmation intervention can successfully promote prosocial behavior towards unknown and distant others in the form of volunteering time and donating real money to charity. As hypothesized, positive self-regard mediates the effect of the affirmation intervention on prosociality. Paper III extends the scope of the work to situations in which the beneficiaries of the prosocial action are members of marginalized and stigmatized societal groups, such as ex-prisoners. It tests the generalizability of the hypothesized affirmation effects in two countries, Nigeria and the United States. Results show that engaging members of the public in a values affirmation intervention can reduce discriminatory tendencies and promote prosociality towards ex-prisoners in both countries under investigation. Implications and recommendations for policy and practice are discussed in each paper. This dissertation is of high theoretical as well as applied relevance and makes important contributions to scholarship and practice. It contributes to the advancement of psychological theory as well as its application potential to help foster social change in an endeavor to address some of the most pressing and challenging social issues nations around the world face.


  • thumnail for Schneider_columbia_0054D_14702.pdf Schneider_columbia_0054D_14702.pdf application/pdf 2.19 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Weber, Elke U.
Bolger, Niall Paul
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 16, 2018