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Why do people help others and what motivates them to engage in voluntary work? Are the psychological mechanisms that initiate prosocial behavior similar across cultures? In order to find answers for these questions, we give an overview of the prominent approaches to helping, and report findings of studies investigating informal spontaneous help and formal, planned forms of helping. A linchpin of our review is to go beyond a mere descriptive comparison of helping and volunteering across cultures, and to examine the pathways leading to helping and volunteering, which we argue can be considered universal across cultural contexts. Previous studies demonstrate cultural differences in the frequencies of helping and volunteering. Particularly when the prosocial act is not directed at close others, i.e., at out-group members, differences between cultural samples are likely to emerge. In situations of spontaneous helping, helping is more frequent in rural and less affluent contexts than in urban and wealthier contexts. For long-term commitments of helping (i.e., volunteering) however, the reverse direction is found. Here, rates of volunteering are higher in more western and affluent countries.

We propose a model of helping that assumes different precursory mechanisms involved in these two forms of helping: spontaneous helping is an unconscious and implicit process activated by automatic affective components, whereas the decision and action of volunteering is a more conscious and explicit effort, initiated by elaborate considerations. We assume these two ways of initiating prosocial acting – implicit and explicit- to function similarly across different cultural groups. We conclude by highlighting conceptual, integrative avenues for a more systematic investigation of helping, and indicate methodological issues that need to be addressed in future research. In particular, we argue for the use of implicit measures in research of prosocial behavior, and present exemplary results for such an approach, which supports the proposed two-process model of prosocial behavior, and thus highlights the relevance for using both explicit and implicit measures in research on prosocial behavior.

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