Science of Giving: Using social groups to increase prosocial behavior


Science of GivingBrittany Shoots-Reinhard has a PhD in social psychology with a specialization in attitudes and persuasion, and judgment and decision making. She is also Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network coordinator.

Most atheists have come up against the idea that they are less moral or charitable than believers, and research on social exclusion suggests that there may be a grain of truth to this idea. When people feel alone or rejected, they are less likely to donate money, volunteer, or perform a spontaneous act of kindness (e.g., helping someone pick up dropped belongings) than people who feel accepted (Twenge, Baumeister, DeWall, et al., 2007). Critically, it appears that exclusion reduces feelings of empathy (e.g., Twenge et al., 2007; DeWall & Baumeister, 2006), an emotion that is central to the motivation of prosocial behavior (e.g., Batson, 1991).

However, local atheist groups, online forums, or even communities that develop around commenting on a blog insulate atheists against loneliness or rejection and the associated deficits to helping. Certainly the atheist groups that are part of Beyond Belief Network are extraordinarily prosocial, having volunteered more than 30,000 hours of service to date. Our Humanist Giving program similarly demonstrates the prosociality of atheists: last quarter’s totals were well over $120,000 donated to our beneficiaries!

The success of our programs isn’t just due to benefits to belongingness, because groups don’t just make people feel socially accepted, they create norms for their members (Hackman, 1992). Norms can be descriptive (e.g., what most people do) and injunctive (e.g., what most people approve of); when descriptive and injunctive norms align, they are especially powerful (e.g., Cialdini, 2003). When norms are prosocial, members will be more likely to behave prosocially and be concerned with others (e.g., George & Bettenhausen, 1990).

Foundation Beyond Belief’s mission to focus, encourage, and demonstrate humanist generosity and compassion is no mistake. Focusing and encouraging our Beyond Belief Network groups and Humanist Giving members creates the injunctive norm that secular humanists approve of and value prosocial behavior. Highlighting our successes and milestones is equally important to establishing the descriptive norm that most people who identify as secular humanist volunteer or donate.


  1. Join or create online or in-person nonbeliever groups. Feeling accepted (versus alone or rejected) makes helping more likely. For example, you can also join our Member Community on Facebook and learn about potential future beneficiaries and connect with other FBB Humanist Giving members.
  2. Establish an injunctive prosocial norm by joining Beyond Belief Network. Announcing or discussing potential BBN membership and making a public commitment shows your members that generosity and volunteering are valued.
  3. Do what you can to make descriptive norms prosocial, too. For example, it’s more important to find a small task that nearly everyone will do than start large. Being able to say that nearly everyone helps is crucial to establishing the prosocial norm. Additionally, the small task is the foot in the door that can make future volunteering more likely (Burger, 1999).

Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a socialpsychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Burger, J. M. (1999). The Foot-in-the-Door Compliance Procedure: A Multiple-Process Analysis and Review. Personality & Social Psychology Review 3(4), 303.

Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109.

DeWall, C. N., & Baumeister, R. F. (2006). Alone but feeling no pain: Effects of social exclusion on physical pain tolerance and pain threshold, affective forecasting, and interpersonal empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 1–15.

George, J. M., & Bettenhausen, K. (1990). Understanding prosocial behavior, sales performance, and turnover: A group-level analysis in a service context. [doi:10.1037/0021-9010.75.6.698]. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(6), 698-709.

Hackman, J.R. (1992). Group influences on individuals in organizations. In M.D. Dunnette & L.M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 3). Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 234-245.

Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Ciarocco, N. J., & Bartels, J. M. (2007). Social Exclusion Decreases Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 56-66.