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Social Psychology

Helping Others and Building Relationships

Prosocial Behavior

People engage in prosocial behavior even when it causes some risk or loss for them. Social norms and environmental factors influence the likelihood of helping behavior.

Behaviors that help others are called prosocial behaviors. Prosocial behavior can be motivated by many factors. Egoism suggests people's behavior is motivated by self-serving interests. People may help others to gain personal benefits, such as recognition, rewards, or pride. According to social exchange theory, people are inclined to maximize rewards and minimize costs in relationships. The theory suggests that people do a cost-benefit analysis before helping others. For example, a busy person may agree to spend an hour helping a friend study for a test in the hopes of being allowed to borrow their car later. A busy person would be less likely to agree to help a stranger study or to offer their friend a full day of tutoring. To maximize benefits, people cannot consistently take without giving. Lasting relationships typically follow the reciprocity norm, the expectation that an act of helpfulness will be repaid in some fashion. For instance, a person might buy her friend dinner to thank him for checking on her cat while she was away. If a person continually violates this norm, they may be seen as a freeloader.

In altruism people help others without concern for personal benefits. For example, a person may volunteer their time or donate money to help strangers. People may act altruistically even in potentially dangerous situations, such as jumping into a river to help a drowning child. Police officers and firefighters exhibit altruistic behavior when they put themselves at risk to protect or rescue others. Altruistic behavior is expected of people in those professions, a reflection of the social responsibility norm. This norm holds that people in positions of authority are obligated to help those who rely on them.

Some researchers have suggested that empathy drives altruism. Empathy is the ability to understand another person's perspective or experience their emotions. Other researchers argue that pure altruism does not exist. They claim the ego is always looking for personal gain, even in prosocial behavior. For instance, a person may volunteer for an organization partly because she enjoys being complimented by others for her contributions.

The presence of other people influences how likely people are to offer aid to strangers. The bystander effect is a phenomenon in which an individual does not give aid if other people are present but not intervening. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely an individual is to render aid. Diffusion of responsibility, the tendency for people take less responsibility for their individual behavior when others are present, partly explains the bystander effect. When individuals notice a person in need, they often believe someone else is already helping—but so do other people. As a result, the victim remains unaided. The more bystanders there are, the less likely one is to help. Although making a phone call to seek help takes little time or effort, bystanders may not do so because they assume someone else will.

The bystander effect is particularly likely to occur in ambiguous situations. When it is unclear whether or not someone needs help, people are likely to look to others to help resolve the ambiguity. This social referencing leads people to act like the others around them. If everyone passes by a man sprawled in the street, people will be more likely to assume the man is drunk rather than ill. People also feel self-conscious about behaving differently from the group because they want to fit in (conform).
In the bystander effect people are less likely to offer help when others are present. This occurs due to diffusion of responsibility (everyone assumes someone else will help) and social referencing (people look to others to decide how to behave).

Relationship Formation

Proximity, repeated exposure, and similarity make relationships more likely to form.

Social factors that make people more likely to form relationships include proximity and repeated exposure. Proximity, meaning often being in the same area, increases the likelihood of people connecting. People who live near each other, go to school together, work together, or frequent the same places are more likely to form relationships than those who do not. Individuals are more likely to become friends with people they see regularly because they can get to know each other more easily.

The repeated exposure that comes with proximity also builds a sense of familiarity. The mere exposure effect describes the tendency for people to develop a preference for familiar people and things. Simply seeing another person regularly can build liking, even for people who do not actually know one another. This effect also happens outside the social arena. For example, people often do not like new songs but find that the song grows on them after they hear it repeatedly.

Similarity also influences relationship formation. Individuals are more likely to become close to people who share similar backgrounds, beliefs, and ways of life. Homophily is the tendency for people to form friendships, romantic relationships, and business partnerships with those who are similar to themselves. Being surrounded by similar people can provide a sense of safety and familiarity, but it can also limit a person's exposure to different points of view and life experiences.

Reciprocity means that a relationship is a two-way street. Individuals tend to prefer spending time with others who devote equal effort to the relationship. For example, if one person in a friendship is always the one to reach out to make plans, the relationship may fade. If one person always talks about themselves without listening to others, they are likely to find friends dropping away. Relationships that are fair and equitable are more likely to last than those that are not.

Love and Attraction

People are attracted to facial features and body types that indicate health and fertility. Passionate love tends to decline over time, but intimacy and commitment can increase with time.

People tend to be drawn toward physically appealing people. While aesthetic preferences differ across individuals, researchers have identified some universally attractive features. Facial symmetry, where both sides of the face are equally proportioned, is generally considered highly attractive in men and women. People rate computer-generated composites, which average the features of many people, as more attractive than individual faces. These composite faces are highly symmetrical.

Youth and health are also attractive. From an evolutionary perspective these traits suggest a high likelihood of fertility and reproductive potential. In women these indicators include large eyes, high cheekbones, and a slim waist with wider hips. For men these indicators include a tall stature, broad shoulders, and a narrow waist. Men value signs of youth in romantic partners more than women do. Around the world, women tend to place more value on evidence that a partner will be a reliable provider for a family.

Attraction is also shaped by culture. In Asia, for instance, pale skin is considered highly attractive, especially for women. The Asian beauty industry is awash with skin-lightening and "bleaching" creams to whiten skin. In the United States, however, bronzed skin remains a popular beauty symbol, and self-tanners fill health and beauty shelves. In countries with a surplus of food, slender bodies are considered more attractive. In eras and cultures with food shortages, heavier bodies are considered more attractive.

Personality traits and social norms contribute to physical attraction as well. Appealing traits in women include warmth, affection, and openness. Traits such as ambition, leadership, and stoicism (lack of emotional expression) are considered conventionally attractive in men. Despite recognition of universally attractive features, not everyone seeks out the most stereotypically attractive partner possible. The matching hypothesis suggests that people tend to choose someone they consider their equal in terms of physical attractiveness and social desirability.

The emotional aspect of romantic relationships can take various forms. Psychologist Elaine Hatfield introduced a model comprising two types of love: passionate and companionate love. Passionate love involves intense feelings and sexual attraction, also known as lust. This type of love is more common during the early stages of an intimate relationship. Companionate love is built on mutual respect, trust, appreciation, and affection. This type of love grows over time as the relationship strengthens between two partners or friends.

In 1986 psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed a triangular theory of love. This theory states there are three components of romantic love: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy is the sharing of intimate feelings and thoughts. Passion is physical attraction and desire. Commitment refers to standing by one's partner no matter what. Sternberg theorized that romantic relationships can take many forms based on combinations of those three components. Consummate love, which combines intimacy, passion, and commitment, is the form of love typically portrayed in romantic stories. Consummate love is not the norm for real relationships because passion tends to decline as a relationship progresses. However, intimacy and commitment can increase over time.

Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love

According to Sternberg's triangular theory of love, there are three components of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment. The presence or absence of these components can describe seven different types of love.