Modeling prosocial behavior increases helping in 16-month-olds

April 17, 2018, Society for Research in Child Development
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Shortly after they turn 1, most babies begin to help others, whether by handing their mother an object out of her reach or giving a sibling a toy that has fallen. Researchers have long studied how this helping behavior develops, but why it develops has been examined less. A new study looked at the role of imitation to find that when 16-month-olds observe others' helping behavior, they're more likely to be helpful themselves.

The findings come from researchers at the University of Münster and Free University Berlin in Germany. They appear in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

"Our study is the first to demonstrate that observing helping, or prosocial, in others affects ' and provides a critical mechanism in early prosocial development," says Joscha Kärtner, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Münster and senior author of the study.

In two experiments, the researchers investigated imitating helping behavior. The study looked at 91 infants (16-month-olds) from Western middle-class families living in a midsized city in Germany.

In the first study, the babies repeatedly observed an adult helping or not helping another person who showed that she needed an object. For example, an experimenter needed three cups to build a tower, but she could not reach the cups. Babies were given the opportunity to help her when she reached for the cups. Nearly half of the children helped when they had seen an adult helping her, whereas only a few children helped after having observed an adult not helping her.

The second study sought to determine whether infants simply imitated behavior they had seen or whether they were more selective and considered the neediness of the person who wanted the object. In the second study, the same experiments were done, but in one of the conditions, the adult didn't need the object. For example, an experimenter building a tower reached for objects that were close by rather than those that were far away, suggesting that she didn't need the items that were far away. Once again, children who had seen an adult helping the experimenter were more likely to help when given the opportunity, but when the adult didn't need the object, children were somewhat less inclined to imitate the adult who helped.

"These findings tell us that children's prosocial development may be affected not only by direct and active structuring of helping situations by others, as when parents offer suggestions to babies to help someone, but also through learning by observing people who help others," according to Nils Schuhmacher, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Münster, who led the research. "The study highlights the importance of having prosocial role models." These include individuals who explain to infants when they are engaged in helping behavior and who give infants the opportunity to observe helping behaviors in others, such as when siblings help each other during play or a parent comforts a child who has been hurt.

Explore further: Parents' views on justice affect babies' moral development

More information: Nils Schuhmacher et al, Modeling Prosocial Behavior Increases Helping in 16-Month-Olds, Child Development (2018). DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13054

Related Stories

Parents' views on justice affect babies' moral development

September 1, 2015
Babies' neural responses to morally charged scenarios are influenced by their parents' attitudes toward justice, new research from the University of Chicago shows.

Want a young child to 'help' or 'be a helper'? Choice of words matters

April 30, 2014
How do you get a preschooler to help with chores and other household tasks? A new study suggests that adults' word choice can make a big difference.

Teens who help strangers have more confidence, study finds

December 18, 2017
Tis the season for helping at a soup kitchen, caroling at a care facility or shoveling a neighbor's driveway.

Baby see, baby do? Study shows infants take cues from trusted sources, ignore unreliable cues

December 6, 2011
Babies love to imitate. Ask any parent and they'll report how infants mimic sounds, facial expressions and actions they observe. Now new research from Concordia University, published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, ...

Do children inherently want to help others?

November 22, 2016
Prosocial behavior is often defined in developmental science research as "voluntary behavior intended to benefit another." This can include behaviors like helping, sharing, comforting, or volunteering. Developmental scientists ...

Going the distance: Babies reach farther with adults around

August 10, 2016
Eight-month-old infants are much more likely to reach towards distant toys when an adult is present than when they are by themselves, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Recommended for you

Culture shapes the brain: How reading changes the way we think

April 23, 2018
From a research perspective, reading and writing is a fascinating phenomenon. After all, the first writing systems date back less than 6,000 years – the blink of an eye in the timescale of human evolution. How the human ...

Asthma and hay fever linked to increased risk of psychiatric disorders

April 23, 2018
Patients with asthma and hay fever have an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders, finds a new study published in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. Almost 11% of patients with common allergic diseases ...

Scientific guidelines for using cannabis to treat stress, anxiety and depression

April 19, 2018
In a first-of-a-kind study, Washington State University scientists examined how peoples' self-reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression were affected by smoking different strains and quantities of cannabis at home.

Neuroscientists use magnetic stimulation to amplify PTSD therapy

April 19, 2018
Researchers from The University of Texas at Dallas have found that a standard therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more effective when paired with transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain.

Research reveals stronger people have healthier brains

April 19, 2018
A study of nearly half a million people has revealed that muscular strength, measured by handgrip, is an indication of how healthy our brains are.

Study suggests we can recognize speakers only from how faces move when talking

April 18, 2018
Results of a new study by cognitive psychologist and speech scientist Alexandra Jesse and her linguistics undergraduate student Michael Bartoli at the University of Massachusetts Amherst should help to settle a long-standing ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.