Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis



First Advisor

Brent T Simpson


A continuous area of focus in the social sciences is the motivation for prosocial behavior, an act to benefit another, often at a cost to oneself (Simpson and Willer 2008). Previous research demonstrates that taking the perspective of another activates empathy, which then leads to altruistically motivated prosocial behavior (e.g., Toi and Batson 1982). Other research shows that in addition to empathy, perspective taking activates personal distress, sadness and/or oneness. Personal distress, sadness and/or oneness then leads to egoistically motivated prosocial behavior (e.g., Maner et al. 2002). The current research examines the motivation for prosocial behavior by using priming instead of perspective taking to activate empathy. Priming is the incidental activation of knowledge structures by the current situational context (Bargh and Chartrand 2000). Priming, unlike perspective taking, should only make empathy salient (e.g., Bargh, Chen and Burrows 1996). Thus, only empathy should be influencing prosocial behavior. The effects of induced emotional states on motivation and behavior also vary by individual differences (e.g., Nelissen, Dijker and deVries 2007). As such, I examine how priming, emotional responses and behavior are influenced by one's social value orientation. Social value orientation (SVO) is a preference for different allocations of outcomes for oneself and another (Kramer, McClintock and Messick 1986). Pilot study results show that empathy primes can activate empathic concern. Thus, this empathy prime was used in the main study to make empathy salient. I hypothesize that empathy primed participants will engage in greater prosocial behavior than neutral primed participants. I also hypothesize that prosocial behavior will vary based on one's SVO. Furthermore, empathy primes will temporarily override one's SVO if one's SVO is inconsistent with the goals associated with empathic concern. I also examine if empathic concern, personal distress, sadness and oneness differ based on SVO. Results did not show that empathy primed participants engaged in greater prosocial behavior than neutral primed participants. Empathy primes did not override one's SVO if one's SVO was inconsistent with the goals associated empathic concern. Prosocial behavior did vary based on SVO. Additionally, self-reported empathy and oneness did differ by SVO. Conclusions discuss explanations for why the empathy prime was effective in the pilot study but not the main study. I also discuss explanations for why SVO influenced empathic concern and oneness. Furthermore, I discuss possible implications of my findings and areas for future research on emotion priming, heterogeneity of individuals and prosocial behavior.