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Examining Prosocial Behavior Quantitatively: An Activity for Introductory Psychology Students

This page was authored by Kenneth Abrams, Carleton College.
Author Profile
This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In the classes building to the assignment, students in groups of three will read and discuss studies on factors that influence helping behavior (such as similarity, attractiveness, and perceived responsibility of the person in need). Next, groups will design an experimental study that examines a particular factor (or two) of interest on helping behavior. Examples of possible study questions include the following: 1) Are responses to email requests to complete an online scientific study influenced by the apparent race of the requester (manipulated by altering the name)? 2) Are responses to a request for directions influenced by the clothing of the requester (expensive vs. raggedy)? After receiving approval from the instructor for the study design, students will collect quantitative data over a two or three week period and later analyze it using SPSS. Finally, students will submit a multi-page research report detailing and interpreting their findings.

Learning Goals

The goals of this assignment are to encourage students to think about empirical means of answering important questions about human behavior, to give students experience designing studies and collecting quantitative data, to help students learn how to analyze quantitative data, and to involve students in the interpretation and writing up of study results.

Context for Use

This assignment is most appropriate for an introductory or mid-level undergraduate psychology course. It may fit best within an introductory psychology, statistics, or social psychology course. The assignment requires lecture time (50 min.), in-class small-group discussion (50 min.), out-of-class data collection by groups (2 weeks), and student access to computers with SPSS. The total duration of the activity is 2-3 weeks. Prior to beginning the activity, students should be exposed (through textbook or lecture) to background information on prosocial behavior.

Description and Teaching Materials

The following steps provide an outline of the activity:
  1. Instructor assigns relevant readings on prosocial behavior (e.g., from the social psychology section of an introductory psychology textbook) and provides a brief lecture on the material.
  2. Instructor provides instruction on identifying and gathering peer-reviewed psychology articles (e.g., using PsycInfo).
  3. Students in groups of three identify a narrow topic of interest (within the area of helping behavior). Each student then finds and reads one relevant article. In their group of three, students share the results and limitations of their articles.
  4. Based on their findings, groups identify a question to be addressed through experimental analysis and design a methodology to test it.
  5. After acquiring instructor approval for their procedure, students collect data over a two-week period.
  6. In the meantime, the instructor provides basic training on SPSS (entering data, running t-tests and ANOVAs, graphing results, interpreting results).
  7. After completing data collection, students in small group enter their data in SPSS, analyze their results, and create a draft interpretation of their results.
  8. Students meet with the instructor or teaching assistant to discuss their understanding of and interpretation of the results.
  9. Groups complete and submit their final multi-page report. The report sections include introduction, method, results, discussion, and references.

Attached are the report shell to be gradually completed by small groups, a handout with relevant SPSS commands, and a guide prepared by Stanford University titled "Using SPSS for Macintosh."
report shell to be completed by small groups (Microsoft Word 30kB Jun25 09)
handout with relevant SPSS commands (Microsoft Word 26kB Jun25 09)
"Using SPSS for Macintosh," a guide prepared by Stanford University (Acrobat (PDF) 117kB Jun22 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Because there is no intent for the results to be published, at many institutions the various student groups need not get IRB approval prior to collecting data. However, students should acquire instructor approval prior to collecting data.

Ideally, groups should choose an independent variable that will permit random assignment (e.g., gender of a confederate). However, some groups will initially choose a variable that doesn't allow random assignment (e.g., gender of the participant). In such cases, the professor should guide the students to select a true independent variable.

Students will likely need additional guidance (beyond the lecture and handouts) to understand and interpret their results. It is recommended that groups be required to meet with the professor or a teaching assistant after data analysis but prior to submitting their report.

The report shell and guidelines are geared toward introductory psychology students and ask students to critically review three peer-reviewed articles on a narrow topic of interest within the area of helping behavior. For students in mid-level psychology courses, a greater emphasis should be placed on the integration of findings across studies.


The instructor can assess whether students are achieving the learning goals through an examination and evaluation of the group reports. Additionally, through exam questions the instructor can assess students' understanding of concepts such as independent variables, dependent variables, random assignment, hypothesis testing, descriptive statistics, and inferential statistics. Finally, students can be asked to assess the educational value of the activity in end-of-term course evaluations.

References and Resources

"Using SPSS for Macintosh," a (PDF) guide prepared by Stanford University. This guide can be given to students prior to data analysis as a resource.