Prosocial behaviors, like volunteering and helping others, and sympathy are both important parts of well-rounded, emotionally stable people. How do these two traits develop in young people? A study from the University of Missouri (MU) investigated whether people help each other because they are sympathetic or whether sympathy develops because people engage in prosocial behavior. The findings show that prosocial behavior and sympathy have a reciprocal relationship for adolescents. These results could lead to better interventions for promoting prosocial behaviors.
For the study, the researchers conducted a series of surveys with 500 adolescents, beginning when the participants were 12 years old. The participants answered questions about sympathy and prosocial behaviors. Each year for four years, the researchers conducted additional surveys, which allowed them to observe the changes in the participants’ behavior and attitudes over time.
Engaging in prosocial behavior is self-reinforcing, the study reports. It may be that adolescents eventually come to incorporate prosocial and sympathetic behavior into their self-concept. The data demonstrated that boys have a decline in sympathy in early adolescence, but their sympathy increases steadily afterwards as they mature. In contrast, girls had higher levels of sympathy and prosocial behavior at all ages.
“We demonstrated that a reciprocal relationship existed between prosocial behaviors and sympathy for adolescents ages 12 to 16. Sympathy predicted prosocial behaviors, but also engaging in earlier prosocial behaviors positively predicted later sympathy,” stated Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor in Diversity at MU’s College of Human Environmental Sciences.
The results may help researchers understand what makes people altruistic and why some people exhibit exceptionally prosocial behaviors. The researchers also suggest that society needs to encourage both girls and boys to express prosocial and sympathetic behavior, instead of making boys act tough.
This research is published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
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