Research Topic

Serving the Public Interest? Micro-Level Perspectives on Antecedents, Motivations, and Values of Pro-Social and Pro-Self Behavior

About this Research Topic

What motivates people to commit themselves to the public good? What are the values that drive pro-social behavior, and what are the antecedents of discriminatory and selfish behavior in public organizations? Addressing these questions is very important because a public organization cannot function well ...

What motivates people to commit themselves to the public good? What are the values that drive pro-social behavior, and what are the antecedents of discriminatory and selfish behavior in public organizations? Addressing these questions is very important because a public organization cannot function well without well-performing civil servants, and because a well-functioning public sector is a key driver of any community’s welfare, being a crucial determinant of the citizens’ quality of life. Endless studies in the tradition of Institutional Economics and Political Economy have provided evidence for this causal claim. This Research Topic focuses on understanding the drivers of behavior in these critical individuals in the public sector.

Traditional normative theories of behavior assume that people are mainly motivated by self-interest. Yet 50 years of research in Behavioral Economics and Social Psychology clearly reveals that actual individuals’ behavior deviates systematically from the theoretically predicted self-serving behavior, as many people tend to prefer to contribute to the greater good, share more than they are obliged to, and are generally driven by motivations and values that consider the consequences of their behavior for their social environment. This systematic deviance from pure self-serving behavior is predominantly explained by the idea that people are motivated by an abstract value-driven motivation to serve the public good based on social value orientation (SVO), as well as with references to fundamental human values that pull and push people to behave pro-socially.

Public Service Motivation (PSM) is the most prominent concept specifically exploring this motivation to serve the public interest. PSM is an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions. PSM has been widely studied in the Public Administration domain, including its relation to commitment to the public interest, compassion, self-sacrifice, and attraction to public sector employment, as well as altruism and pro-social behavior. However, recent research points toward a complex relation of these positive effects with organizational deviance in the form of rule-breaking, client discrimination based on deservingness, burnout, and unethical behavior – all referred to as dark sides of PSM. So, apparently, the motivation to serve the public interest is potentially associated with negative consequences as well.

From the above, we learn that, to date, the empirical evidence on the motivational and circumstantial causes, as well as the organizational consequences, of public sector motivations are inconclusive. Apparently, PSM has effects that can go either way, without clear insight in what effects dominate depending upon characteristics of the individual people and organizational setting involved. We call for papers that identify and explore drivers and sources of motivations and values specifically directed towards public value and societal welfare, but also studies exploring the effect of conflicts between different forms of motivation, as well as the role of the organizational context. Specifically, we encourage article submissions exploring the motivational micro-foundations of pro-social and pro-self behavior in the public sector, in the form of rigorous experimental research, either in the lab or the field, into the role of theoretical key concepts such as PSM, SVO, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, self-regulation, morality, Dark Triad character traits, risk behavior and sector-specific attitudes, McClelland’s fundamental needs, explicit vis-à-vis implicit motives, and many more.

The Guest Editors would like to express their profound gratitude to Kristina Weissmüller for her valuable work in initiating this Research Topic and actively contributing to it.  


Keywords: Public interest, motivation, public value(s), pro-self behavior, professionalism, organizational behavior


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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28 March 2020 Manuscript

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Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

28 March 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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