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Risk Transforms Prosocial Behavior
Prosocial behavior research overwhelmingly focuses on riskless prosocial behaviors, implicitly assuming findings will generalize to risky prosocial behavior. We challenge this paradigm. Across seven studies, we show risk transforms prosocial behavior. We examine millions of risky prosocial behaviors by volunteer crisis counselors. By leveraging exogenous increases in positive affect (good news, happy days, sunshine), we show that unlike riskless prosocial behavior, risky prosocial behavior decreases when people experience an increase in positive affect–contradicting theories and individuals’ predictions. In experiments, we show loss-frame (vs. gain-frame) nudges boost risky prosocial behavior by 38%-40%, but don’t influence riskless prosocial behavior–contradicting theories and identifying a new prosocial-behavior nudge ~10 times stronger than existing nudges. We argue risky prosocial behavior creates a warm glow gamble–prosocial successes feel good, but failures feel bad–evaluated in line with Prospect Theory. Because many prosocial behaviors are risky, the key barrier to prosocial behavior may be risk aversion, not selfishness.