A researcher’s interest in child generosity

Ariel Knafo

My first research project was about the development of values―how (and whether) values are transmitted from one generation to the other. My dissertation advisor, Shalom Schwartz, suggested that we add to the study measures of adolescent behaviors, to exemplify the importance of values to understanding behaviors.

With regard to volunteering, we found two interesting effects. The first was that, as expected, adolescents giving high importance to Universalism (values focusing on the welfare of others, including unknown or unrelated others) showed a higher tendency to volunteer. The second was a weaker effect but also a more interesting one. The adolescents reporting the highest frequency of volunteering gave substantially more importance (compared to their peers) to conformity values, which promote adherence to societal norms. (This particular study was not in the position to check the accuracy of adolescents’ reports of volunteering.  Some of the effect may be due to self-presentation processes).

The independent effects of the two values suggested the possibility that adolescents’ generous devotion of time and effort may be anchored in different motivational bases. One is compliant, focusing on doing what “ought to be done,” and the other one is more directly motivated by the welfare of others. A look at the literature found that this important distinction has been made repeatedly in the past. Yet little is known about why some individuals show this or the other kind of generous behavior. When I turned to study children’s prosocial development, the distinction between compliant (fulfilling a request) and self-initiated prosocial behavior became a key factor in my research.

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