When a group of neighbors don reflective vests and put on sunscreen, they think they are just going out to pick up trash by the roadside. In this mundane project, a University of Arkansas professor and his colleagues see something much more complex, and they want to know what leads these individuals to cooperate as a group.

Psychologists have a name for such activity, “prosocial behavior,” and have only begun to identify the factors that lead individuals to take part in cooperative relationships. In the recent book, The Social Psychology of Prosocial Behavior, published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, UA psychologist David Schroeder and co-authors John F. Dovidio, Jane Allyn Piliavin and Louis A. Penner explore “the variety of ways that prosocial actions are performed and the many reasons why people benefit each other.”

The researchers describe three types of prosocial behavior: helping, altruism and cooperation. Helping and altruism generally apply to one-on-one relationships, with one person giving and the other receiving. Cooperation is the prosocial behavior related to groups. In cooperation, people come together as more-or-less equals to work toward a common goal that benefits everyone.

“Collectivist societies are certainly more likely to be more prosocial, more cooperative, more communal in their orientation and their workings than more individualistic cultures,” Schroeder said. “By the nature of the capitalist economy it’s every person for him- or herself, so we’re more likely to find the cost-benefit analysis tilted towards ‘I want to maximize my benefits and I want to minimize my costs.’ Those in collectivist societies may see the benefit others receive to be part of the benefit they receive.”

Back to the neighbors picking up trash by the side of the road: As the researchers define cooperative behavior, the neighbors are involved in an interdependent relationship, coordinating actions to pursue common goals and to promote a mutually beneficial outcome. Their project represents one example of resolving what is known as the social dilemma, an area of study of particular interest to Schroeder.

Just as an individual contemplating helping another individual experiences a struggle between selfish, egoistic desires and selfless, altruistic motives, individuals within groups face a choice between their personal self-interest and the well-being of the group. “It is exactly this ‘mixed-motive’ conflict between individual versus collective payoffs that defines social dilemmas,” the researchers write.

The neighbors who would like a clean roadside face a type of social dilemma known as a public goods dilemma, in which group members make personal contributions to a project that will be enjoyed by all, contributors and non-contributors alike. While there are powerful motivations not to cooperate, such as greed or the fear of being “played for a sucker” should others exploit the situation, research has identified numerous factors that promote cooperation.

When people are able to sit down and talk about a common strategy, they are more likely to cooperate with the group. Through discussion, individuals coordinate actions and make public commitments. A shared social identity also promotes cooperation. For those involved in a public goods dilemma, it is particularly important that members have a strong attachment to the group and feel respect from other members.