How the perceived cost of prosocial action inspires observers to contribute

Xiaoyue WU, Xiang WANG, Qian XU, Liyin JIN*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Conventional wisdom suggests that people are less likely to help when doing so involves a high cost. However, through five experiments, this work demonstrates that when a donor's prosocial action is perceived as costlier, observers are more likely to follow the donor and engage in the same prosocial behaviour (Study 1a, N = 154; Study 1b, N = 127). The effect cannot be attributed to observers’ original preferences for costly prosocial action itself (Study 2; N = 401). Rather, it occurs because when the prosocial action is costlier, observers are more likely to perceive the donor as more intrinsically motived, which, in turn, enhances the desirability of the prosocial action, leading to a higher likelihood that the observers would engage in the same action (Study 3; N = 250). We further show that this effect is attenuated when the donor clearly demonstrates her/his extrinsic motivation (Study 4; N = 149).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-203
Number of pages13
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Psychology
Issue number1
Early online date22 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 72125005, No. 72102069, No. 71832002).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • cost
  • donation
  • intrinsic motivation
  • prosocial behaviour
  • social perception


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