The development of altruism
on 29 September 2015
The inner circle

Have you ever heard a parent, or anyone else for that matter, saying, "little boys don't cry"? Well, the evidence is emerging that such well-intentioned statements could be instrumental in the suppression of emotion in later years. Perhaps what is not so well understood, is that either you learn to express emotion; or it will express you!

A nice and welcome piece of research from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Developmental psychologists long have debated whether individuals volunteer and help others because they are sympathetic or whether they are sympathetic because they are prosocial. Now, new research from the University of Missouri helps clarify some of the confusion, which could lead to better interventions to promote positive behaviours in adolescents and clues as to what makes some individuals altruistic.

"As researchers, we've known about the link between sympathy and prosocial behaviour, such as volunteering and helping others, for a long time, but we didn't have much evidence about the nature of the relationship," said Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity in MU's College of Human Environmental Sciences. "We demonstrated that a reciprocal relationship existed between prosocial behaviours and sympathy for adolescents from ages 12 to 16. Sympathy predicted prosocial behaviours, but also engaging in earlier prosocial behaviours positively predicted later sympathy."

Engaging in prosocial behaviours has a self-reinforcing quality that eventually may become incorporated into how adolescents view their moral selves; this may help explain how some individuals, over time, become more likely to engage in prosocial behaviours and become more sympathetic, Carlo said.

"This research has tremendous implications for understanding those individuals who we think of as moral exemplars, individuals who commit themselves to certain causes or other forms of generosity -- people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and others," Carlo said. "We want to know which developmental processes led these individuals to eventually manifest altruistic behaviours that set them apart from other individuals. For every one of those individuals who became famous, thousands of others exist who are doing fantastic work and helping to improve our society on a day-to-day basis."

For the study, the researchers recruited 500 12-year-olds to answer questions about sympathy and prosocial behaviours. The researchers questioned the adolescents four more times, each about a year apart, to observe changes in the adolescents' behaviour and sympathy over time. The researchers observed a decline in sympathy among boys in early adolescence, but a steady increase followed the dip as the boys matured. Girls had higher levels of sympathy and prosocial behaviours at all ages.

To increase prosocial behaviours among adolescents, and among boys, in particular, attention should focus on changing the social environment so it encourages boys and girls to express their prosociality, Carlo said.

"Unfortunately, in our society, the pressures for boys to act tough and do not express what's seen as a sign of weakness is suppressing prosocial behaviours," Carlo said. "We need to pay attention to adolescents' contexts and their socialization groups. Prosocial behaviours clearly are natural tendencies, and unfortunately, some cultural contexts make it difficult for adolescents to express those tendencies, which should be signs of strength and not weakness. We need to get that message across and make it easier for kids to express what's innately inside of them."

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Missouri-Columbia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Gustavo Carlo, Laura M. Padilla-Walker, Matthew G. Nielson. Longitudinal Bidirectional Relations Between Adolescents’ Sympathy and Prosocial Behaviour... Developmental Psychology, 2015; DOI: 10.1037/dev0000056