The Development of Prosocial Behavior

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Principal Investigator: Felix Warneken, Harvard University

Generosity manifests itself in myriad ways. Generous people help others in need, share resources, provide information to others, and try to comfort others who are in distress. Adults regularly engage in these behaviors in the absence of an immediate benefit for themselves, and occasionally even at great costs.

It is currently a matter of debate how these behaviors develop in humans and to what extent they reflect species-unique characteristics. Many researchers view generous behavior as something unique to humans, originating mainly in socialization practices such as the teaching of prosocial norms and the rewarding of children for prosocial acts. But most such accounts are based on experiments with adults or school-aged children and cannot therefore address whether generosity arises from socialization alone; nor can they identify the origins of these behaviors in early childhood.

In fact, Warneken’s previous research on helping behaviors in children indicates that some of the fundamental cognitive and motivational processes underlying generosity might have deep roots in human lifecourse development. While these studies identified early forms of generosity in infants, they raised new questions concerning how these behaviors develop into the diverse forms of generosity that adults practice. Moreoever, the extent to which similar cognitive and motivational processes underlie different forms of prosociality remains an open question.

In this project Warneken is conducting a series of systematic developmental studies to determine the psychological processes required for different kinds of generous acts. This research is motivated by the idea that studying young children can reveal aspects of prosocial behavior that humans are equipped with early in life, and trace the development of these predispositions as they interact with the norms and socialization practices of adults.

Warneken’s previous research focused on young children’s helping behaviors, demonstrating that children in their second year of life begin to help others spontaneously in various contexts, without external reward or parental encouragement. In contrast, researchers know surprisingly little about resource sharing in young children. This is a behavior of great interest to researchers across fields ranging from psychology to economics who study adult behavior.

Unfortunately, there are very few systematic experimental studies of sharing among very young children. By adapting the methodology of one of his earlier studies on helping and extending it to sharing, Warneken’s current research aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of–and comparison between–helping and sharing as two of the earliest manifestations of generosity in young children.

Consequently this research will address some fundamental questions about human generosity by conducting experimental studies with young children. These experimental studies have three major objectives:

  • to investigate the motivational basis of prosocial behavior in early childhood
  • to determine the cognitive capacities that enable children to exert different forms of prosociality, and
  • to identify factors that can facilitate prosociality during children’s development.

Identifying these factors will have important implications for social or educational interventions designed to promote generosity across the lifespan. Moreover, it will advance our understanding of the basic forms of generosity found in early development, examining the motivational and cognitive processes that form the building blocks of generosity found in adults.