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