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Although prosocial behaviors have been widely studied across disciplines, the mechanisms underlying them are not fully understood. Evidence from psychology, biology and economics suggests that prosocial behaviors can be driven by a variety of seemingly opposing factors: altruism or egoism, intuition or deliberation, inborn instincts or learned dispositions, and utility derived from actions or their outcomes. Here we propose a framework inspired by research on reinforcement learning and decision making that links these processes and explains characteristics of prosocial behaviors in different contexts. More specifically, we suggest that prosocial behaviors inherit features of up to three decision-making systems employed to choose between self- and other- regarding acts: a goal-directed system that selects actions based on their predicted consequences, a habitual system that selects actions based on their reinforcement history, and a Pavlovian system that emits reflexive responses based on evolutionarily prescribed priors. This framework, initially described in the field of cognitive neuroscience and machine learning, provides insight into the potential neural circuits and computations shaping prosocial behaviors. Furthermore, it identifies specific conditions in which each of these three systems should dominate and promote other- or self- regarding behavior.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Behav Neurosci

Publication Date





Pavlovian, altruism, dictator game, model-based, model-free, prosocial behavior, reinforcement learning, warm-glow