Science’s understanding of autonomous prosocial motivation (APM)—motivation to help others based on convictions and moral principles, even in the absence of external incentives—is still in its infancy. A better understanding of APM would be useful because APM yields
prosocial behavior that is highly reliable, responsive to need, and effective. Here we seek to advance understanding of APM through a planning grant in which we pilot cognitive and behavioral measures that plausibly reflect the operation of APM. We will use two approaches to measurement development. The first approach, based on what we call the Capabilities Hypothesis, is based on the proposition that people who motivated by APM will evince superior prosocial cognitive capacities in domains such as attention, learning, memory, and effort in situations in which they encounter people with needs. We hypothesize that these capacities can be measured with modifications to standard cognitive paradigms. The second approach we will explore, based on what we are calling the Revealed Motivation Hypothesis, revolves around the proposition that people motivated by APM persist in trying to help others even when all conceivable non-autonomous motivations for helping have been experimentally removed from the helping encounter. This second approach draws from standard social-psychology approaches to studying prosocial motivations by creating experimental conditions in which people will be willing to help only if they are motivated by APM instad of other egoistic motivations. This project sets the stage for a more elaborate research project in which we use the measures we pilot here to examine the individual-differene and developmental factors that predispose people to autonomously motivated prosocial behavior. In addition, the project will produce journal articles and conference presentations that expose the field to these new measures of APM, hopefully leading to their use by other researchers in this area.
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