Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Maurice E. Schweitzer
In Chapter 1, we examine how the decision maker’s perceived risk of successfully obtaining prosocial outcomes influences prosocial decisions. Across seven field and laboratory studies, we show that risk transforms prosocial behavior. In a field setting, we examine millions of risky prosocial behaviors by volunteer crisis counselors who try to help others deal with depression, abuse, and suicide. By leveraging plausibly exogenous increases in positive affect (driven by good news, happy calendar days, and sunshine), we show that unlike riskless prosocial behavior, risky prosocial behavior actually decreases when people experience an exogenous increase in positive affect. In pre-registered experiments, we show that loss-frame (vs. gain-frame) nudges boost risky prosocial behavior by 38%-40%, but do not influence riskless prosocial behavior. These findings contradict current theories and identify a novel prosocial-behavior nudge that is nearly ten times stronger than leading prosocial-behavior nudges. To explain these findings, we introduce the Warm Glow Gamble framework and argue that deciding to engage in risky prosocial behavior creates a warm glow gamble – prosocial successes feel good, but prosocial failures feel bad – which people evaluate in line with Prospect Theory. In Chapter 2, we examine how the perceived need of the help recipient influences decision maker’s prosocial decisions. 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 conducting a quasi-experiment by combining millions of time-stamped prosocial behaviors with 108 exogenous shocks that created high levels of harm in the U.S. between 2013-2018: major disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and mass shootings). Contrary to normative theories and lay beliefs, we find that major disasters actually demotivate prosocial behavior. We develop and test a simple alternative model of prosocial behavior that we call the Prosocial Prospects Framework (PPF) to 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.
Kang, Polly, "Is It Worth My Time And Effort To Help Others? Prosocial Behaviors As Consequential And Risky Decisions." (2021). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 4227.