Prosocial behavior is, in a very broad sense, any behavior that benefits the welfare of others and of society as a whole. In examining such behavior, the emphasis is typically on the actions rather than on the motivations behind them. While altruism refers to helping others with no regard for the benefit to one's self, prosocial behavior refers only to action that benefits others. An action can be prosocial but not altruistic if the acting individual acts to help others because of the benefits to himself. Such behavior, particularly when altruistic, is of great interest to psychologists and sociologists because it can be very difficult to explain, based on traditional social and psychological concepts.
Many social scientists and psychologists find prosocial behavior to be a particularly interesting issue in their fields of study, as it cannot always be easily understood simply by examining one's motivations or selfish interests. Prosocial behavior is highly prevalent in human society despite the fact that, in many cases, it provides little direct benefit to the individual acting toward the welfare of others. Many world religious, political, and social institutions strongly promote and support such behavior. Individuals unassociated with any such groups also often choose to act in a socially beneficial manner, even though it is not expected of them because of affiliation with a prosocial group.
One theory about the underlying causes of prosocial behavior involves self-image. It is believed that people act in a way that they believe to be good and beneficial to society because it gives them a personal sense of fulfillment and improves their self-esteem. Another possibility is that those who exhibit prosocial behavior do so with the desire of gaining greater social esteem among their peers. There can, however, be little doubt that some people act in a purely altruistic manner without the expectation of reward; many psychologists and social scientists still find such people to be baffling.
The development of prosocial behavior tends to be socially encouraged from a very early age. Young children are encouraged to share and to help other people in their families and in their schools. Positive social behavior, therefore, is often connected very closely to the ideas of right and wrong in a child's mind. This leads to another common cause of prosocial behavior: social obligation. Many of the prosocial activities that people engage in are directly linked to feelings of responsibility to one's family, friends, coworkers, or others.