“Ding Dong Bell, Pussy’s in the well….”

……… And, we all know who pulled her out!!

So what made little Tommy pull out the cat? What made him the “nice” boy? What was in it for him? Why do people behave prosocially?

Research from developmental and social psychology shows that people behave prosocially often with no underlying selfish reasons. Children as young as 12 months of age, demonstrate helping behaviors when they see someone has dropped something and is unable to reach it (Paulus et al., 2013). Some argue that this is because of the evolutionary benefit it offers to our species.

There is enough research that correlates prosociality to wellbeing and happiness(Crick, 1996; Sallquist et al., 2012; Anderson and Kilduff, 2009; Zak, 2008; Tomasello, 2009). So it may be worth finding out what happened in little Tommy’s brain when he helped the poor pussy cat.
Let’s take a look.

Based on several neuroscience studies of different prosocial behaviors, some common neural subsystems can be identified. This includes the empathy and theory of mind network, the rewards system, and the prefrontal cortex.

The first thing that happens when we encounter a situation is that two separate processes are activated.
The first one is called Empathy. The Anterior insula (AI) and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) are activated just as if we were in pain ourselves. Simultaneously we mentalize the situation, meaning we are able to see the situation from the point of view of the other person. This is called perspective-taking. Bilateral Temporo Parietal Junction (TPJ), the Right Superior Temporal Sulcus (rSTS), and the Precuneus are activated while this happens.

There is the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), striatum, subgenual ACC, and the caudate. These are the reward centers of the brain and this is also involved in prosocial behaviors. It seems to make one feel good when acting prosocially!!. This emotional experience of being rewarded is then stored in memory. The AI gives context to the memory and the amygdala determines where the memory must be stored. The Hippocampus sends the memory to relevant brain regions to be stored. Ultimately, the prefrontal cortex gathers all the information, puts them under context, and makes a decision whether and how to act prosocially. Thus you can see that there are several complex and independent neural networks that are all involved in the execution of prosocial behaviors. The Vento-medial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC), sometimes known as Orbito Frontal Cortex (OFC) is certainly the executive director of prosociality here. Several studies have shown that individual differences in signals from the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) are correlated with empathy and altruistic behaviors. Some consider this as possibly the seat of conscience. We all know that Phineas Gauge, the most famous patient in neuroscience, stopped acting prosocially when his vmPFC/OFC was damaged.

Now how can this understanding help create a nicer, more prosocial self, family, community, and world? Several studies link perspective-taking and compassion or empathic concern to be significant predictors of prosociality. Studies also show that training can induce adaptive neuroplasticity in the brain resulting in prosociality. Social-emotional learning is all about helping our children get in touch with themselves and others and see the connection we all share. Such opportunities to step outside of our comfort zones and see the world from another’s perspective are likely to set them up on a path towards strengthening their prosocial abilities!! Bullying, violence, and drugs are practical problems. Punishment may not be that effective. Rather, if the brain’s reward centers can be activated just as well through prosocial endeavors, strengthening those pathways can most likely help reduce maladaptive ways to seek out excitement and thrill.


Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. J. (2009). The pursuit of status in social groups. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(5), 295-298.

Beilin, H. (2013). The development of prosocial behavior. Academic Press. 

Bulloch, D. (2012). The Better Angels in Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. Global Policy, 3(2), 255-255.

Crick, N. R. (1996). The role of overt aggression, relational aggression, and prosocial behavior in the prediction of children’s future social adjustment. Child development, 67(5), 2317-2327.

Fahrenfort, J. J., van Winden, F. A., Pelloux, B., Stallen, M., & Ridderinkhof, K. R. (2012). Neural correlates of dynamically evolving interpersonal ties predict prosocial behavior. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 6, 28.

FeldmanHall, O., Dalgleish, T., Evans, D., & Mobbs, D. (2015). Empathic concern drives costly altruism. Neuroimage, 105, 347-356.

 Kim, J. W., Kim, S. E., Kim, J. J., Jeong, B., Park, C. H., Son, A. R., … & Ki, S. W. (2009). Compassionate attitude towards others’ suffering activates the mesolimbic neural system. Neuropsychologia, 47(10), 2073-2081.

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral cortex, 23(7), 1552-1561

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2014). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 9(6), 873-879.

Luo, J. (2018). The neural basis of and a common neural circuitry in different types of pro-social behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 859.

Olivo, D., Di Ciano, A., Mauro, J., Giudetti, L., Pampallona, A., Kubera, K. M., … & Sambataro, F. (2021). Neural Responses of Benefiting From the Prosocial Exchange: The Effect of Helping Behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 513.

Paulus, M., Kühn-Popp, N., Licata, M., Sodian, B., & Meinhardt, J. (2013). Neural correlates of prosocial behavior in infancy: different neurophysiological mechanisms support the emergence of helping and comforting. Neuroimage, 66, 522-530.

Preckel, K., Kanske, P., & Singer, T. (2018). On the interaction of social affect and cognition: empathy, compassion and theory of mind. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 19, 1-6.

Rameson, L. T., Morelli, S. A., & Lieberman, M. D. (2012). The neural correlates of empathy: experience, automaticity, and prosocial behavior. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 24(1), 235-245.

Sallquist, J., DiDonato, M. D., Hanish, L. D., Martin, C. L., & Fabes, R. A. (2012). The importance of mutual positive expressivity in social adjustment: understanding the role of peers and gender. Emotion, 12(2), 304.

Singer, T., & Klimecki, O. M. (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology, 24(18), R875-R878.

Svetlova, M., Nichols, S. R., & Brownell, C. A. (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child development, 81(6), 1814-1827.

Tankersley, D., Stowe, C. J., & Huettel, S. A. (2007). Altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency. Nature neuroscience, 10(2), 150-151.

Tashjian, S. M., Weissman, D. G., Guyer, A. E., & Galván, A. (2018). Neural response to prosocial scenes relates to subsequent giving behavior in adolescents: A pilot study. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 18(2), 342-352.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. MIT press.

Van Hoorn, J., Van Dijk, E., Güroğlu, B., & Crone, E. A. (2016). Neural correlates of prosocial peer influence on public goods game donations during adolescence. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(6), 923-933.

Waytz, A., Zaki, J., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012). Response of dorsomedial prefrontal cortex predicts altruistic behavior. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(22), 7646-7650.

Will, G. J., Crone, E. A., van Lier, P. A., & Güroğlu, B. (2018). Longitudinal links between childhood peer acceptance and the neural correlates of sharing. Developmental science, 21(1), e12489.