Personality and prosocial behavior: A theoretical framework and meta-analysis

Isabel Thielmann*, Giuliana Spadaro, Daniel Balliet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Decades of research document individual differences in prosocial behavior using controlled experiments that model social interactions in situations of interdependence. However, theoretical and empirical integration of the vast literature on the predictive validity of personality traits to account for these individual differences is missing. Here, we present a theoretical framework that identifies 4 broad situational affordances across interdependent situations (i.e., exploitation, reciprocity, temporal conflict, and dependence under uncertainty) and more specific subaffordances within certain types of interdependent situations (e.g., possibility to increase equality in outcomes) that can determine when, which, and how personality traits should be expressed in prosocial behavior. To test this framework, we meta-analyzed 770 studies reporting on 3,523 effects of 8 broad and 43 narrow personality traits on prosocial behavior in interdependent situations modeled in 6 commonly studied economic games (Dictator Game, Ultimatum Game, Trust Game, Prisoner's Dilemma, Public Goods Game, and Commons Dilemma). Overall, meta-analytic correlations ranged between -.18 ≤ p ≤ .26, and most traits yielding a significant relation to prosocial behavior had conceptual links to the affordances provided in interdependent situations, most prominently the possibility for exploitation. Moreover, for several traits, correlations within games followed the predicted pattern derived from a theoretical analysis of affordances. On the level of traits, we found that narrow and broad traits alike can account for prosocial behavior, informing the bandwidth-fidelity problem. In sum, the meta-analysis provides a theoretical foundation that can guide future research on prosocial behavior and advance our understanding of individual differences in human prosociality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-90
Number of pages61
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020


Additional materials (including the preregistration and data) are provided online on the Open Science Framework ( The work reported herein was supported by grants to Isabel Thielmann from the German Research Foundation (TH 2318/1-1) and to Daniel Balliet from the European Research Council (StG 635356). Moreover, we thank Simon Columbus, Reinout de Vries, Benjamin Hilbig, and William Fleeson for valuable comments on previous versions of the manuscript and/or the classification of traits, Morten Moshagen for sharing some beautiful R code, and the team of the Cooperation Databank as well as Margriet Bentvelzen, Jan Hendrik Henze, Maaike Homan, Luisa Horsten, Oliver Lowack, Alexander Nicolay, Teresa Schimmer, Maja Stoverock, and Maximilian Tantik for their support in literature search, data handling, and coding of studies. Finally, our thanks go to all authors who were willing to share their data.

FundersFunder number
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme635356
European Research Council
Deutsche ForschungsgemeinschaftTH 2318/1-1


    • Cooperation
    • Games
    • Individual differences
    • Interdependence
    • Personality
    • Prosocial behavior


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