Cultural And Environmental Effects On Pro-social Behavior

George W. Doherty, M.S.

It is impossible to regard the individual outside the social environment where he grows up and develops. He is a product of the natural and social environment in which he lives. His biological heritage is molded, directed and rebuilt under the conditions of his social environment. The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the views of different investigators and theorists concerning the effects of environment on pro-social behavior.

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory (1933) the idea of the individual is rather difficult to accept. According to this theory, man resembles a plaything in the grip of dominating inferior instincts of which the sex instinct and the propensity for death and destruction are foremost. However, if the pleasure principle and destructive instincts were all that guided the behavior of each individual, there would be no human society. History and everyday life are both filled with examples which testify to exactly the opposite. The fact that there is human society is due to such things as human heroism, human goodness and moral principles. Unfortunately, the so-called "law of the jungle" often makes a breach in social life. However, the mere fact that these are individual breakthroughs with which society copes, indicates that the Freudian understanding of dominating and destructive instinctual activity does not reflect the reality. This type of activity exists, but does not always dominate. Formulating and popularizing a general theory of the human personality based on the ordinary sexual urge and some psychopaths' urge for death and destruction distorts the human condition and is certainly not acceptable as a total explanation. These concepts are upheld by a number of prominent scientists who argue with the seemingly logical facts of psychopathology and crime detection. However, they are nothing but discouraging mass suggestion to the average man who is unfamiliar with scientific thinking. The same can also be said for young people whose moral restraint is still unstable.

The ideas of those who broke away from Freud did not change substantially. Jung (1923) in the elaboration of his ideas about the conscious and the unconscious, and Adler (1951) in his Individual Psychology, did not fully understand the role and significance of the social factor. This can be more clearly seen in the neo-Freudians such as Fromm (1947). Many other authors, in spite of their deep reasoning and detailed research, have defined the human personality without taking the social links and the specific human conscious- ness into consideration (e.g. Allport, 1937, 1950). Modern existential writers such as Frankl (1956) also regard the personality as being dissociated from the influence of the environment. Existentialism brings the idea of existence to the fore, implying that the unconscious internal life of the individual is somehow independent of the objective world. Personalism (Stern, 1922), Holism (Smuts, 1926), Gestalt (Kohler, 1930) and authors who uphold various ideas about the layer structure of the personality (Schultz, 1964) also treat it as more or less dissociated from its environment.

The unity in the structure of the personality built up in continuous interrelations with the environment, especially the social environment, has been emphasized by others. Conceptions based on the physiological trend were developed by Sechenov (1952) and Pavlov (1927). According to Sechenov, all activities of the organism are determined by the environment. The same reflex principles underlie both neurophysiology and psychology. Pavlov developed these principles still further. His teaching on conditioned reflexes raised the problem of the signal role of external stimuli and the dependence of reactions on the past experience of the organism. The nervous system was not similar to an automation, however, since one and the same stimuli could cause different reactions, depending on the individual experience of each person. This was already a form of prediction, of forestalling the changes in the environment on the basis of the past experience of the personality. The principle of the conditioned reflex which brings about the connections between organism and environment, between personality and environment, as well as the teaching on the higher nervous activity, acquires a new meaning in the light of later physiological research.

Many investigations (Moruzzi and Magoun, 1949; Moruzzi, 1964; Rheinberger and Jasper, 1937; Rossi, 1962; Zanchetti, 1965) have given more insight into the cortico-subcortical connections and their unity in the formation of the regulating mechanisms for maintaining equilibrium between organism and environment. The polysynaptic route has been studied from the receptors to the cerebral cortex passing through the reticular formation and activating the cerebral cortex in the presence of receptor excitation. The descending effect of the central sectors of the nervous system on the work of the analyzers to their ultimate receptory function has been established.

The physiological mechanisms for maintaining the organism's equilibrium with nature and the social environment for forming the indestructible link between the individual and his social community most often occur below the threshold of the conscious. Man is not usually aware of the course and nature of these regulating and balancing physiological mechanisms. Frequently, the ultimate psychological result of these mechanisms also escapes consciousness. According to this way of thinking, the activity of the individual does not take place only in the form of a simple stimulus-response connection.

The complicated process which goes on inside a computer is similar to what goes on inside the human brain. Like a computer, the brain takes in information, processes it and gives back an answer. In humans the process is called cognition. Cognition refers to the process of knowing. Knowing is one of those internal constructs which cannot be directly observed. We infer that another person "knows" if he emits certain verbal symbols or if he acts appropriately in a given set of circumstances.

Cognition is one of the most important behaviors of the human organism. However, attempts to understand cognition have been hampered by the fact that what happens in the brain or mind cannot be seen. Without this inside information, theories of cognition have had to rely on external signs of cognition as exemplified in behaviors, many of which take the form of language. From these signs, attempts are made to determine what is really happening inside the human brain or mind.

While learning theory may help explain human behavior, children always seem to be doing something unexpected. For example, operant conditioning can explain some aspects of how children learn a language. Parents reinforce children as they learn and begin to use new words. However, once children have acquired a number of words, they begin to use these words in new and novel ways. They say things for which they may not have been reinforced. They talk about things they may never have experienced. It therefore seems that more is going on in the child's mind than the formulation of associations between stimuli and responses.

Unlike computers, children and their thought processes cannot be taken apart and thoroughly examined. So human cognition must be explained in theories instead of solid facts. Children's behaviors are observed, and attempts are made to explain those behaviors and the thoughts responsible for them by using one theory or another. Learning theory, information-processing theory and structural theory are all based on observations of the same subject - human children. Each approach views the developing child from a slightly different angle. Therefore, each comes up with an explanation of cognition which is slightly different from the others. Since the three theories look at the same subject from slightly different perspectives, a combination of all of them probably offers a more well- rounded explanation of cognitive development than any single theory does.

From the interaction between the hereditary and congenital qualities of the individual and the characteristic features of the social and natural environment, both the health of the individual and his education and development are built up. In actual fact, the environment is not always able to prevail over certain qualities of the personality. For example, the environment cannot change temperament to such an extent as to basically alter its reaction under particular conditions. However, the environment can often shape the personality sufficiently to make it possible for the individual to put his capabilities to the most valuable use. On the other hand, the environment can have such a bad effect that the individual's capabilities are suppressed or extinguished.

Man remains largely unconscious of environmental effects. This is usually because they are the natural continuous environment which rarely shows changes of great amplitude. On the other hand, there are effects for which the receptors have not yet been established, such as the electromagnetic field (Petrov, Traikov and Kalendjiev, 1964; Lissman and Machin, 1963).

The formative effects of the social environment on the individual are of special psychological significance. The relations between the personality and the social environment are most often realized through the mechanisms of suggestion. The large role played by suggestion in public life has been pointed out by Bechterev (1973/1932). Social environment with its prestige, its requirements for the individual member of society, and its generally accepted concepts and tastes, imposes subordination on the individual. The social environment exercises a suggestive influence on the individual in an unconscious manner - not only through fear of the power of the collective or through blind subordination, but often the individual accepts suggestions in the absence of any fear or subordination - suggestions which are in harmony with the generally accepted norms and views. Society has exercised a powerful and sometimes insurmountable influence over the individual since the beginning of man's existence.

The force of social suggestion, when it is developed to the point of mass morbidity, can be clearly seen in "psychic epidemics". One type, "Political epidemics", occur when a society or a nation, caught by the suggestive effect of an idea which is harmful to the interests of humanity, can fanatically perpetuate brutal mass outrages which are in radical contrast to the culture of the time. An example of this would be Hitler's Germany.

Psychic epidemics may originate outside the sphere of political life. For example, religious epidemics can also occur. An example might be the phenomenon that has taken place in Iran. Psychic epidemics may appear outside of religious movements. All psychic epidemics are nurtured by the mental attitude of the given society or community in which they originate. Old beliefs were expressed in mystic poetry in a number of national sagas and legends. They often assisted in inducing mass psychosis. In some cases, these legends have a purely national character. In others, they have acquired international significance.

The environmental effect is especially strong on young people. No matter how eloquent or strong words may be or how effectively they are "supported" by regulations, norms and the law, they cannot suggest and induce a lasting desire for the cultivation of sensible habits. They also cannot give rise to the urge to search for an enlightened outlook if they are not backed up by personal example and a stable social environment. Only in this way can the suggestions which come by word of mouth from leaders, teachers, educators and others be gradually transformed into convictions, consolidated under the effect of the suggestions of the harmonious social environment. However, when the environment is not healthy, when there are conditions which cause mental disorders, psychic epidemics may appear.

During the past twenty-five years or so there has been a growing interest among psychologists in the study of pro-social behavior (Bar-Tal, 1976). Most of the research has focused on the specification of situational conditions which either promote or inhibit the amount of helping that an individual is willing to give to the needy. Related research has been concerned with organismic variables and has specified personal, familial and cultural antecedents of pro-social behavior.

In addition to personal and cultural factors, a potent determinant of social behavior has been shown to be the social pressure put on an individual (Allen, 1965; Asch, 1956; Milgram, 1965). However, research has demonstrated that individuals conformed less when the direction of the social pressure they were confronted with was opposite in direction to their previously held values (Snyder et al., 1960; Vaughan and Morgan, 1963). Applying this to the issue of pro-social behavior, social pressure in the direction of egotism should be least effective with children who hold values of sharing and cooperation. Conversely, social pressure in the direction of altruism should be least effective with children who espouse norms of competition and individual rather than group achievement.

It has been suggested that different sociocultural backgrounds affect:

A. Children's adherence to norms of social responsibility, which produce

B. differential amounts of pro-social behavior, and is related to

C. a child's resistance to or compliance with an egotistic or altruistic social pressure.

Madsen (1967) found highly significant differences between children from different sub- cultural settings in Mexico. Rural village children and lower-class, urban children behaved in a much more cooperative manner on an experimental task than did urban middle-class children. Madsen's study was motivated by anthropological observations (Lewis, 1961; Romney and Romney, 1963) of child-rearing practices in different Mexican settings.

In a second study, Shapira and Madsen (1969) found children of Israeli Kibbutzim (rural communal settlements) to be more cooperative than urban, middle-class Israeli children. In this study, the magnitude of the difference in cooperative behavior was greater for boys than for girls. That children of the Kibbutz would be highly cooperative in an experimental task was predictable from observations of child-rearing practices and parental values in the Kibbutz as reported by Spiro (1965).

Previous experiments (Madsen, 1967; Shapira and Madsen, 1969; Madsen and Shapira, 1970) have demonstrated the existence of substantial differences in the degree to which children of different subcultures cooperate or compete on an experimental task. In a study of 7-9year old children, Kagan and Madsen (1971) found Anglo-Americans to be far more competitive than were children in a small Mexican town. Mexican American 7-9 year olds were approximately midway between the other two groups in their degree of competitive responding. This study also included 4-5 year old Anglo-American and Mexican American children. The results indicated a substantially higher level of competitiveness among 7-9 than among 4-5 year old children within both cultural groups. These findings of both developmental and cultural differences on this dimension of behavior are of sufficient importance to warrant additional verification and extension.

Nadler, Romek and Shapira-Friedman (1979) studied the attitudes of social responsibility and pro-social behavior of Israeli city and kibbutz children. They also studied the effects of "altruistic" and "egotistic" social pressures. Children were asked to donate some or all of a valued reward they had earned previously in favor of poor children. It was found that kibbutz children had higher scores on the social responsibility scale and were more generous than city children. Females had higher social responsibility scores and gave more than males. City boys appeared to be the least helpful to all other groups. With regard to social pressure, only the egotistic pressure manifestation affected pro-social behavior.

There have been several investigations which have attempted to relate personality variables to the willingness to help others (see Staub and Sherk, 1970; Wilson, 1976). Unfortunately, most of these studies have yielded low and often inconsistent correlations (see Gergen et al, 1972). The variable of social responsibility appears to be an exception to this, however. This variable assesses the degree to which a child feels it is within his range of responsibilities to get the "group work" done (Harris, 1971). It has been shown that this variable is consistently and positively related to pro-social behavior of children (e.g. Harris, 1971; Midlarsky and Bryan, 1972). When an individual has internalized societal demands for social responsibility, he acts in line with these norms and helps the less fortunate members of his group (Berkowitz, 1972).


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