Thursday, 20 November 2014

Pro-social behaviour

One of the presentations I heard at a graduate psychology conference at Durham this week (to which I had been generously invited to give the closing lecture) concerned an investigation of the factors that encourage pro-social (the antonym of anti-social) behaviour in some example universities. The potential impact of the research was that it might indicate how to make universities better but in particular more harmonious places especially important in the light of the rise of tuition fees in the UK and the need for high student satisfaction scores.

One stage of the research concerned self assessments of instances of pro-social behaviour undertaken by individuals themselves identified via questionnaires. A further stage included objective external measures including both experimental and descriptive data gathering. So for example, for the latter, total quantities of recycling might be weighed for particular student groups. For the former, students might be asked to throw some paper away being offered, without comment, both recycling and non recycling rubbish bins. Both self assessment and more objective measures required, however, some identification of what counted as pro-social behaviour. And this was picked out, not by a priori experimenter imposition, but by preliminary research of what students themselves thought of as pro-social with then some editing out of idiosyncratic outliers.

I was struck by the fact that recycling was used as an example of what is pro-social. This, it seems to me, is obviously a good thing. But it isn't clear why it counts in this case, as pro- social as opposed to pro- some other good (eg future generations, the good of the planet, ecology etc) especially given the link made in the presentation to social harmony. Of course, if everyone in the community agrees on this value then subscribing to it will count as pro-social and non recyclers will look disruptive of harmony but it seems interestingly contingent that this value, the value of recycling, promotes harmony. In communities elsewhere, or in the past, the ardent recycler will be / was a thorn in the side of the harmonious wasteful consumers.

This struck me as an interesting feature of the research because of an event a couple of weeks ago. Working one evening in my room in college, in a castle in Durham, I was disturbed by odd noises from the stairwell outside. There, I found a group of young men undertaking a drinking rite, one sitting in the dungeon like basement on a chair being cheered, or perhaps jeered, on by an audience as he drank quantities of beer. When I asked - like you do - whether they were OK or were killing one another, everyone insisted they were fine including the victim (I was reminded of the cheery wave of the man being beaten up in the children's cartoon pastiche of the TV series Life on Mars) and a quick informal assessment of capacity suggested I should leave them alone. Later, when I left the building, I warned them I was off out and thus no longer able to get help should it be needed, but they still seemed to have capacity though by now there was a 20 foot tube down the stairs feeding the beer into the mouth of the (now different) victim from above. I left in a strangely bad mood but they were doing nothing worse than many other adult students across the UK and across time. Further, unpleasant though the scene seemed to me, such behaviour no doubt survives from generation to generation precisely because of its function in sustaining and underpinning a kind of social harmony in the groups concerned.

But when I asked my psychologist researcher, she assured me that such behaviour had not featured in her research into what is pro-social. I suspect an implicit normative control was in place. That doesn't look good when it comes to thinking about harmonious university life in the era of high tuition fees.