Relationship between sympathy, helping others could provide clues to development of altruism
Research could help inform interventions to promote positive behaviors in adolescents
- September 29, 2015
- 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 helps clarify some of the confusion.
Engaging in prosocial behaviors 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 behaviors 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 Ghandi, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and others," Carlo said. "We want to know which developmental processes led these individuals to eventually manifest altruistic behaviors 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 behaviors. The researchers questioned the adolescents four more times, each about a year apart, to observe changes in the adolescents' behavior 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 behaviors at all ages.
To increase prosocial behaviors among adolescents, and among boys in particular, attention should focus on changing the societal 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 to not express what's seen as a sign of weakness is suppressing prosocial behaviors," Carlo said. "We need to pay attention to adolescents' contexts and their socialization groups. Prosocial behaviors 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."
The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Missouri-Columbia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length
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