Is there sufficient evidence to support the claim that television influences pro-social and altruistic behaviour?


In socio-psychological terms, altruism is defined as helping someone at a cost to oneself (Mares, 1996). An extreme example would be risking your life to save a friend. However, a more everyday example would be giving money to a charity.  

The effects of the media on altruistic behaviour are often over looked as most research tends to be focused upon antisocial behaviour. This may be because pro-social programmes do not lead to moral panics as violent media does.  Altruistic acts on television are likely to reinforce our social norms e.g. helping others. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1961), claims that we are more likely to imitate observed acts if we can relate to the characters, either because they are similar in terms of age or gender, or because they are admired. It could be argued then, that the audience can only relate to real-life characters and not cartoons.

One study by Poulos et al (1975) looked at the effects of television on altruistic behaviour. His study consisted of one group of young children watching an episode of Lassie and one group of children watching a neutral programme. After viewing the programme the children were presented with puppies in distress, but to help them they had to stop playing a video game. The children who watched Lassie were more likely to help puppies in distress than the children who watched the neutral programme, thus suggesting that children can be influenced by specific acts of altruism. This experiment also supports Bandura’s Social Learning Theory as the children learned through observation. However, this experiment only looked at one-shot exposures to a pro-social model (Mares and Woodard, 2005). The findings show that children are most affected when they are shown the exact steps for positive behaviour and are more likely to remember concrete acts rather than abstract ones ; explaining why the children helped the puppies in distress.

Studies show that there are beneficial short-term effects on altruistic behaviour and positive social interactions. However, there are very few studies that prove any effects in the long-term. Most of the findings are consistent with Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, that people imitate the positive behaviour that they have observed. However, studies involving the effects of the media on pro-social behaviour have focused on very specific things i.e. helping puppies. Therefore, psychologists remain uncertain about the intensity of the effects of television on pro-social behaviour. Social Learning Theory states that we imitate the behaviour we see on screen, however, Rosenkoetter (1973) states that we are more likely to imitate behaviour if we know why the individual is behaving in a certain way, and he claims that Social Learning Theory does not explain this.



Bandura, A. (1978) Social Learning Theory of Aggression. Journal of Communication, Vol 28 (3) 12-29. DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1978.tb01621.x

Mares, M. (1996) The role of source confusions in television’s cultivation of social reality judgements. Human Communication Research. 23 (2), 278-97.

Mares, M., Woodard, E. (2005) Positive Effects of Television on Children’s Social Interactions: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, Vol 7 (3), 301-322. DOI:10.1207/S1532785XMEP0703_4

Poulous, R.W., Harvey, S.E., Liebert, R.M. (1976) Saturday Morning Television: A profile of the 1974-75 Children’s season. Psychological Reports, Vol 39 (1) 1047-1057. DOI: 10.2466/pr0.1976.39.3f.1047

Rosenkoetter, L.I. (1973) Resistance to temptation: Inhibitory and disinhibitory effects of models. Developmental Psychology, Vol 8(1), Jan 1973, 80-84. Doi: 10.1037/h0033837


7 responses »

  1. There are egotistic alternatives to altruism, on a whole, it could be argued that much of what we do is egotistic (the view that people are fundamentally selfish), in some circumstances we feel empathic concern when people/animals are in distress and feel that we need to help in order to relieve our emotional distress rather than the distress of others-aversive-arousal reduction. Other reasons why we help could be to: reduce one’s empathic arousal, enable one to avoid possible social and self-punishments for failing to help and enable one to gain social and self-rewards for doing what is good and right (Batson, Oleson & Clark 1991).

    Batson, D.C, Oleson, K.C, & Clark, M.S. (1991). Current status of the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior, Review of personality and social psychology, 12. 62-85

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  2. Agreeing with samanthakatepsychology, television can promote altruistic behaviour. Iannotti (1978) found that role taking and role switching improved the altruistic behaviour of six year old boys. Whilst watching television, you engage with the role of the characters displayed. Television can portray words, behaviours and models from which children can be influenced towards altruistic behaviour. However, Liss, Reinhardt & Fredriksen (1983) found that it is not the characters specifically within programs which can influence behaviour, it is the actual program which can promote behaviour. Calvert, Jordan & Cocking (as cited in Rauterberg, 2004) suggest the influences on such behaviour are different for boys and girls, where girls behave more altruistically than boys whereas Breuer (as cited in Rauterberg, 2004) implies the effects are different for younger and older children, as the effects of television on pro social behaviour is decreased as children become older.


    Iannotti, R., J. (1978) Effect of Role – Taking Experiences on Role Taking, Empathy, Altruism and Aggression. Developmental Psychology, 14, 119-124. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.14.2.119

    Liss, M. B., Reinhardt, L. C. & Fredriksen, S. (1983) TV Heroes: The Impact of Rhetoric and Deeds. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 4, 175-187. doi:10.1016/0193-3973(83)90005-9

    Rauterberg, M. (2004). Positive Effects of Entertainment Technology on Human Behaviour. In R. Jacquart (Eds.) Building the Information Society (pp. 51-58) Boston: Kluwer Academic Press

  3. You’re much more likely to help and be altruistic if brought up like that. A lot of people grow up with television so television will affect how someone reacts to a situation. The media has a large control on how people think.

  4. Another interesting study looks at the effects of children’s television on the immediate attention and logic tasks. Lillard and Peterson (2011) randomly assigned 60 4 year old infants to 3 groups in an independent measures design. The first group completed a drawing exercise; the second group watched an educational cartoon and the third group watched a popular fast-paced cartoon. In the second condition, the cartoon averaged a new scene every 34 seconds, whilst the third condition changed scenes approximately every 11 seconds. Each condition lasted for nine minutes, then the participants completed 4 tasks that measured creativity, attention, logic and deferred gratification.

    The Z scores for every task showed that the fast-paced cartoon group scored negatively on all four tasks. The drawing group scored positively on every task, as did the educational cartoon group except on the logical task. This suggests that watching a fast-paced cartoon can diminish the immediate functioning of some cognitive skills in children. The reliability of this study is supported in obtaining a questionnaire completed by parents, to assess how much television children watched per week, however the internal reliability of the questionnaire itself was not confirmed.


    Lillard, A. S., & Peterson, J. (2011). The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function. Pediatrics,128(4), 644-649. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919

  5. There is a lack of studies that supporting the claim that TV has long term effects on pro-social behaviour, however there are studies to claim that the presence of a parent whilst children watch TV can increase its long term effect on pro social behaviour.
    Parental presence has been shown to enhance the learning effect of pro-social programming. By watching with a parent it enables the child to discuss the programme, the parent is then able to give explanations about what has just been seen and follow up the concepts of the programme, reinforcing the pro-social behaviour they had just seen.
    Rosenkoetter (1999) claimed that by watching TV with a parent “children as young as seven were able to understand even more complex moral messages contained in adult sitcoms.”

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