Study 1: Encouraging Pro-social Behavior in Adolescents
Developmental psychologists long have debated whether individuals volunteer and help others because they are sympathetic or whether they are sympathetic because they are prosocial. Research from the University of Missouri helps clarify some of the confusion, which could lead to better interventions to promote positive behaviors in adolescents and clues as to what makes some individuals altruistic.
“As researchers, we’ve known about the link between sympathy and prosocial behavior, 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 behaviors and sympathy for adolescents from ages 12 to 16. Sympathy predicted prosocial behaviors, but also engaging in earlier prosocial behaviors positively predicted later sympathy.”
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, 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 pro-sociality, 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.”
Study 2: Teens Who Help Strangers Have More Confidence
Helping out at the local charity, helping an elderly neighbor clear their yard, or volunteering at a local hospital are all self-less acts that help others.
While those gifts of self surely help others, new research suggests that such selfless and serving behaviors have a specific benefit to adolescents.
Brigham Young University School of Family Life professor Laura Padilla-Walker, in a longitudinal study she coauthored with a former student (Xinyuan Fu, Central University of Finance and Economics, China) in the Journal of Adolescence, found that adolescents who exhibited prosocial behavior — such as helping, sharing and comforting — toward strangers had higher self-esteem a year later. The same was not true for those in the study who exhibited prosocial behavior solely to friends and family.
“This study helps us to understand that young people who help those with whom they do not have a relationship report feeling better about themselves over time,” Padilla-Walker said. “Given the importance of self-esteem during the teen years, this is an important finding. It suggests there might be something about helping strangers that impacts one’s moral identity or perceptions of self in a more significant way than helping friends or family members, although these are beneficial behaviors as well.”
Padilla-Walker has authored multiple studies looking at prosocial behavior. While she’s found that teens who exhibit these positive behaviors stay out of trouble and have better familial relationships, this was her first time tying it to self-esteem.
In the study, researchers looked at 681 adolescents, 11–14 years old, in two U.S. cities. They tracked them for four different time points, starting in 2008 through 2011. The participants responded to 10 statements such as “I feel useless at times” or “I am satisfied with myself” to assess self-esteem. Prosocial behavior was measured by self-reports, looking at various aspects of kindness and generosity, such as “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me” or “I go out of my way to cheer up my friends” or “I really enjoy doing small favors for my family.”
“A unique feature of this study is that it explores helping behaviors toward multiple different targets,” Padilla-Walker said. “Not all helping is created equal, and we’re finding that prosocial behavior toward strangers is protective in a variety of ways that is unique from other types of helping. Another important finding is that the link between prosocial behavior and self-esteem is over a one-year time period and present across all three age lags in our study. Though not an overly large effect, this suggests a stable link between helping and feeling better about oneself across the early adolescent years.”
For many adolescents, this time of life can be confusing for them. In a state of such self-exploration and self-identification, Padilla-Walker suggests that helping your kids find confidence, self-respect and self-worth can be of monumental importance.
“For teens who sometimes have a tendency to focus on themselves, parents can help by providing opportunities for their children to help and serve others who are less fortunate,” Padilla-Walker said. “It is best if teens can directly see the benefit of their help on others. This can increase gratitude in young people and help them to focus less on their own problems. It is also a way to help them meet new friends or spend time with family. A family tradition of helping those who are less fortunate throughout the year or during the holidays is a great way to instill in children a desire to serve and a greater sense of self-worth.”
Final Thoughts: On a daily basis we see and hear stories of young people acting selfishly and lacking concern for others. Parents and other influential adults can do much to encourage altruistic behavior for the benefit not only of others for young people themselves.