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Abstract

This article provides a critical review of recent psychological articles on prosocial behaviour. Even though it focuses on a specific section of this literature – giving to charities and prosocial responses to humanitarian disasters – the paper aims to offer a wider critique as it interrogates the epistemological and methodological underpinnings of the prosocial literature as a whole. It aims to illustrate how the problematic aspects of traditional quantitative, deductive, experimental research in prosocial behaviour in general, when applied to giving to charities, preclude a deeper and more complex understanding of a phenomenon quintessentially social and altruistic. I identify three specific issues that make mainstream approaches to prosocial behaviour problematic and limited in scope. The first relates to the insularity of mainstream psychology and the lack of contextualisation of its findings, in particular the problematic neglect of ideological and socio-historical factors in prosocial behaviour. The second relates to mainstream psychology's disregard for the role played by conflict, contradiction and ambivalence, in attitudes and decision making as well as in the emotional aspects of prosocial behaviour. The third looks at the constraints imposed by scientifically inspired methods, how they predetermine the range of participants' responses and make it hard to apply the findings to real life situations. I claim that these epistemological and methodological constraints severely limit the applicability and comprehensiveness of current research. The discussion of these issues is woven through the review and uses some specific studies to illustrate the limitations imposed by these constraints. Throughout the paper I also argue for the need to incorporate a psychosocial approach to research into prosocial behaviour.