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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Personality and prosocial behavior: A theoretical framework and meta-analysis

Thielmann, I., Spadaro, G., & Balliet, D. (2020).
Psychological Bulletin, 146(1), 30–90.


Decades of research document individual differences in prosocial behavior using controlled experiments that model social interactions in situations of interdependence. However, theoretical and empirical integration of the vast literature on the predictive validity of personality traits to account for these individual differences is missing. Here, we present a theoretical framework that identifies 4 broad situational affordances across interdependent situations (i.e., exploitation, reciprocity, temporal conflict, and dependence under uncertainty) and more specific subaffordances within certain types of interdependent situations (e.g., possibility to increase equality in outcomes) that can determine when, which, and how personality traits should be expressed in prosocial behavior. To test this framework, we meta-analyzed 770 studies reporting on 3,523 effects of 8 broad and 43 narrow personality traits on prosocial behavior in interdependent situations modeled in 6 commonly studied economic games (Dictator Game, Ultimatum Game, Trust Game, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Public Goods Game, and Commons Dilemma). Overall, meta-analytic correlations ranged between −.18 ≤ ρ̂ ≤ .26, and most traits yielding a significant relation to prosocial behavior had conceptual links to the affordances provided in interdependent situations, most prominently the possibility for exploitation. Moreover, for several traits, correlations within games followed the predicted pattern derived from a theoretical analysis of affordances. On the level of traits, we found that narrow and broad traits alike can account for prosocial behavior, informing the bandwidth-fidelity problem. In sum, the meta-analysis provides a theoretical foundation that can guide future research on prosocial behavior and advance our understanding of individual differences in human prosociality.


Individual differences in prosocial behavior have consistently been documented over decades of research using economic games – and personality traits have been shown to account for such individual variation. The present meta-analysis offers an affordance-based theoretical framework that can illuminate which, when, and how personality traits relate to prosocial behavior across various interdependent situations. Specifically, the framework and meta-analysis identify a few situational affordances that form the basis for the expression of certain traits in prosocial behavior. In this regard, the meta-analysis also shows that no single trait is capable to account for individual variation in prosocial behavior across the variety of interdependent situations that individuals may encounter in everyday social interactions.  Rather, individual differences in prosocial behavior are best viewed as a result of traits being expressed in response to certain situational features that influence the affordances involved in interdependent situations. In conclusion, research on individual differences in prosocial behavior – and corresponding trait conceptualizations – should consider the affordances
provided in interdependent situations to allow for a complete understanding of how personality can shape the many aspects of human prosociality.