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Wednesday, April 26, 2023

A Prosociality Paradox: How Miscalibrated Social Cognition Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Prosocial Action

Epley, N., Kumar, A., Dungan, J., &
Echelbarger, M. (2023).
Current Directions in Psychological Science,
32(1), 33–41. 


Behaving prosocially can increase well-being among both those performing a prosocial act and those receiving it, and yet people may experience some reluctance to engage in direct prosocial actions. We review emerging evidence suggesting that miscalibrated social cognition may create a psychological barrier that keeps people from behaving as prosocially as would be optimal for both their own and others’ well-being. Across a variety of interpersonal behaviors, those performing prosocial actions tend to underestimate how positively their recipients will respond. These miscalibrated expectations stem partly from a divergence in perspectives, such that prosocial actors attend relatively more to the competence of their actions, whereas recipients attend relatively more to the warmth conveyed. Failing to fully appreciate the positive impact of prosociality on others may keep people from behaving more prosocially in their daily lives, to the detriment of both their own and others’ well-being.

Undervaluing Prosociality

It may not be accidental that William James (1896/1920) named “the craving to be appreciated” as “the deepest principle in human nature” only after receiving a gift of appreciation that he described as “the first time anyone ever treated me so kindly.” “I now perceive one immense omission in my [Principles of Psychology],” he wrote regarding the importance of appreciation. “I left it out altogether . . . because I had never had it gratified till now” (p. 33).

James does not seem to be unique in failing to recognize the positive impact that appreciation can have on recipients. In one experiment (Kumar & Epley, 2018, Experiment 1), MBA students thought of a person they felt grateful to, but to whom they had not yet expressed their appreciation. The students, whom we refer to as expressers, wrote a gratitude letter to this person and then reported how they expected the recipient would feel upon receiving it: how surprised the recipient would be to receive the letter, how surprised the recipient would be about the content, how negative or positive the recipient would feel, and how awkward the recipient would feel. Expressers willing to do so then provided recipients’ email addresses so the recipients could be contacted to report how they actually felt receiving their letter. Although expressers recognized that the recipients would feel positive, they did not recognize just how positive the recipients would feel: Expressers underestimated how surprised the recipients would be to receive the letter, how surprised the recipients would be by its content, and how positive the recipients would feel, whereas they overestimated how awkward the recipients would feel. Table 1 shows the robustness of these results across an additional published experiment and 17 subsequent replications (see Fig. 1 for overall results; full details are available at OSF: osf.io/7wndj/). Expressing gratitude has a reliably more positive impact on recipients than expressers expect.


How much people genuinely care about others has been debated for centuries. In summarizing the purely selfish viewpoint endorsed by another author, Thomas Jefferson (1854/2011) wrote, “I gather from his other works that he adopts the principle of Hobbes, that justice is founded in contract solely, and does not result from the construction of man.” Jefferson felt differently: “I believe, on the contrary, that it is instinct, and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing . . . that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another” (p. 39).

Such debates will never be settled by simply observing human behavior because prosociality is not simply produced by automatic “instinct” or “innate” disposition, but rather can be produced by complicated social cognition (Miller, 1999). Jefferson’s belief that people feel “pleasure in doing good to another” is now well supported by empirical evidence. However, the evidence we reviewed here suggests that people may avoid experiencing this pleasure not because they do not want to be good to others, but because they underestimate just how positively others will react to the good being done to them.