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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Too Good to be Liked? When and How Prosocial Others are Disliked

Boileau, L. L. A., GrĂ¼ning, D. J., & Bless, H. (2021).
Frontiers in Psychology, 12.


Outstandingly prosocial individuals may not always be valued and admired, but sometimes depreciated and rejected. While prior research has mainly focused on devaluation of highly competent or successful individuals, comparable research in the domain of prosociality is scarce. The present research suggests two mechanisms why devaluation of extreme prosocial individuals may occur: they may (a) constitute very high comparison standards for observers, and may (b) be perceived as communal narcissists. Two experiments test these assumptions. We confronted participants with an extreme prosocial or an ordinary control target and manipulated comparative aspects of the situation (salient vs. non-salient comparison, Experiment 1), and narcissistic aspects of the target (showing off vs. being modest, Experiment 2). Consistent with our assumptions, the extreme prosocial target was liked less than the control target, and even more so when the comparison situation was salient (Experiment 1), and when the target showed off with her good deeds (Experiment 2). Implications that prosociality does not always breed more liking are discussed.

General Discussion

The present research demonstrates that individuals who perform an outstanding degree of prosocial behaviors may be devaluated—due to their prosocial behaviors. Specifically, across two experiments, the prosocial target was liked less than the control target. This consistent pattern is unlikely to be due to participants' perception that the displayed behaviors did not unambiguously reflect prosocial behavior: When explicitly evaluating prosociality, the prosocial target was clearly perceived as prosocial (and more so than the control target). The finding that prosocial behaviors may decrease rather than increase liking seems rather surprising at first glance. Past research suggests that liking and perceptions of prosociality in others are in fact very highly correlated (Imhoff and Koch, 2017). However, the observed devaluation is in line with prior empirical research suggesting that superior prosocial others are indeed sometimes devaluated through rejection and dislike (Fisher et al., 1982; Herrmann et al., 2008; Parks and Stone, 2010; Pleasant and Barclay, 2018).

The present research goes beyond prior research that has similarly demonstrated a possible disliking of prosocial targets by suggesting and investigating two possible underlying processes. Thus, it responds to the call that mediating mechanisms for the dislike of very prosocial targets are yet to be investigated (Parks et al., 2013).

First, the reduced liking of the prosocial target was more pronounced when comparisons between the target and the observers were induced by the information that observers would first evaluate the target and then themselves on the very same items. Eliciting such a comparison expectation increased disliking of the prosocial target. Presumably, in this situation, the extremely prosocial target constituted a very high comparison standard, and this high standard would have negative consequences for participants' evaluations of themselves (Mussweiler, 2003; Bless and Schwarz, 2010; Morina, 2021). This conclusion extends indirect evidence by Parks and Stone (2010) by providing an experimental manipulation of the assumed comparison component.

Second, as predicted, the dislike of the prosocial target was increased when perceptions of communal narcissism (Gebauer et al., 2012; Nehrlich et al., 2019) were elicited by informing participants that the target actively sought to let others know about her prosocial behaviors. This finding suggests that a target's prosocial behavior will not turn into more liking but backfire when that target is perceived as someone who exerts “excessive self-enhancement” in the domain of prosociality and who is showing off with her good deeds (Rentzsch and Gebauer, 2019; p. 1373).