Contagion of kindness: Observability, recognition and shared experience as motivation for online prosocial behavior

Kelly M Alverson, Salve Regina University


This dissertation employs a theoretical approach to examine the online milieu as an enabling space that allows individuals to act prosocially by providing opportunities for: observability of prosocial participation; receipt of explicit recognition toward the development of implicit recognition; and shared experience with the other, toward an end of increased empathic concern. The parable of the Good Samaritan, illustrates the capacity that the individual possesses to help a stranger in need. With the parable as backdrop, individual motivations for participation in prosocial action are examined, in the setting of the online milieu. The willingness to assist a stranger or “the other,” that the Good Samaritan exemplifies, translates into the online milieu through the connective technology of the Internet, by virtue of its permitting a digitally enabled linking that would otherwise, largely be restricted by geospatial separation. The motivation of the individual, to help another in need, by means of online prosocial action, is examined through an interdisciplinary analysis utilizing the lenses of: religious studies, practical ethics, moral philosophy, social psychology, Internet studies, economics, political philosophy, media studies and contemporary literature. This dissertation investigates the impact of observability; explicit and implicit recognition; and shared experience in terms of motivations at four levels of individual participation in online prosocial behavior: the Inert Actor, the Random Actor, the Individual Actor and the Altruous Actor. These levels of motivation are inspired by C.D. Batson’s “Paths of Motivation Matrix.” The goal of examining motivations at varying levels of individual participation is to develop a deeper understanding of the interplay between other-interested and self-interested motivations in encouraging participation in online prosocial behavior. This dissertation uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine the construction of prosocial behavior. Motivations for prosocial behavior are examined through a comparative analysis of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and similar teachings that are presented in the wisdom traditions of Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, to investigate the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivations may play in other-interested action. The theories of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Plato, Aristotle, Auguste Comte, and Adam Smith are discussed to provide an overview of the philosophical debate surrounding altruistic and egoistic motivations. The social sciences provide a contemporary lens through which to analyze the impact of the online milieu on prosocial behavior. Batson’s “empathy altruism hypothesis” is analyzed to illuminate the role of empathy in online prosocial behavior. The Internet as enabling technology is studied through perspectives in media studies and Internet studies including the works of Marshall McLuhan, which are placed in conversation with Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. Civic engagement is examined through the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in dialog with contemporary scholarship discussing the implications of a digitally enabled “feeling-with.” The concept of revelatory participation is analyzed building on the works of Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault and Immanuel Kant. The role of empathy as motivation for prosocial action is surveyed through multiple perspectives from the fields of virtue ethics, care ethics and practical ethics including Peter Singer’s theory of “effective altruism.” This dissertation focuses on motivation for online prosocial behavior at the individual level to understand further the potential that the online milieu holds for a digitally mediated empathic concern for the other.

Subject Area

Ethics|Philosophy|Information Technology|Web Studies

Recommended Citation

Alverson, Kelly M, "Contagion of kindness: Observability, recognition and shared experience as motivation for online prosocial behavior" (2015). Doctoral Dissertations. AAI3725254.