Most people understand what “antisocial behavior” is. The term brings to mind loners (people who avoid social connections) or people who actively seek to hurt others.
The opposite of this is “prosocial behavior”. This refers to behavior that seeks to benefit other individuals or society as a whole. Doing things like helping, sharing or being kind are all examples of prosocial behavior and clearly represent something that parents would want to help their children cultivate.
Cultivating prosocial behavior in your child is important not just because it will make him/her a nice person. It is important to their social well-being.
A study done in Canada had children either visit three places of their choosing or do three acts of kindness each week for four weeks. All of the kids showed significant increases in positive emotions and small increases in life satisfaction and happiness.
What was interesting was that the researchers, at the beginning and the end of the four weeks, had the children list all of the classmates they would like to spend time with. At the end of the four weeks, those who performed acts of kindness had significantly more nominations from their peers than kids in the other group.
This is an indication that prosocial behavior improves social connections with others and can contribute to long term well-being.
Children have a built in impulse towards prosocial behavior. This is something you can see very early in their development. An example is a game I like to play with young toddlers who are old enough to walk, but not yet talking very much. At that stage, even though they can say very little, they understand a lot and playing with them can be a lot of fun.
One of my favorite things to do is to ask them if I can have the toy they are playing with. All I have to do is hold out my hand, I do not have to say anything at all. Generally, they will hand it over immediately. I then hand it right back and they go back to playing. And they will repeat the exchange over and over again.
When I extend my hand, the child’s impulse is to share which is a prosocial behavior. This is fairly universal among kids this age, so it is likely not a learned behavior—kids are hardwired to be prosocial. As they get older and have more complex social experiences, their capacity for prosocial behavior becomes more sophisticated. In addition to behaving in prosocial ways, they have the ability to develop a more prosocial sense of identity and experience emotions such as empathy and compassion that drive prosocial behavior.
So how can you help your child cultivate prosocial behavior?
One way is to simply remind them of the characteristics of being prosocial, also called “priming” them. In one experiment, college students were asked to either describe the characteristics of a superhero (priming), or describe their dorm room. Those who described superheroes were much more likely volunteer to help others than those who described their room. Interestingly, this effect was very sticky and was still evident three months later.
What can be even more effective is to remind your child of their own prosocial behavior. In another study, participants were asked to either remember “good” deeds they had committed in the past (priming), “bad” deeds in their past or a conversation they recently had. They were then asked to make a charitable donation.
Those asked to recall their good deeds were inclined to donate twice as much as the other two groups!
Furthermore, the value of recognition impacted the donation size. When people in the good deed group described what they had done, some mentioned whether or not they received credit for their actions. Others did not. Those who did not mention receiving recognition gave significantly higher donations than those who did.
This suggest in addition to priming your child by reminding them of prosocial things they have done, you should emphasize the importance of doing things that benefit others for the sake of the action itself, not for the possibility of getting credit. This is more likely to have a larger impact on your child’s prosocial behavior.
At this point, I want to follow an interesting tangent. In adults, describing the value of doing things that benefit others and reminding them of past good deeds can encourage prosocial behavior up to a certain point. But once that point is crossed, it can actually move adults to be more selfish and destructive to others.
This is a phenomena known as “moral licensing”.
One study that explored moral licensing looked at how green (environmentally-friendly) versus conventional products could impact people’s behavior.
Participants were sent to online stores. Some were sent to stores that had primarily green products, the other group was sent to stores that had primarily conventional products. Within both groups, half were asked to make purchases, the other half were asked simply to describe the aesthetics and product descriptions.
All of the participants were then given six dollars and told that there was a person in the other room and that they could anonymously share as much of the money as they wanted with the other person.
When people were only exposed to products (asked to describe the online stores and products, but not to purchase them), the green group was more generous in sharing than the conventional group. The green products primed them by reminding them of prosocial behavior (being environmentally responsible).
Interestingly, this effect flipped for the groups that actually made purchases. Among these participants the green group was much less generous than the conventional group. This effect reversal suggests that they had a sense of accruing moral credit by purchasing green that gave them permission to be selfish with the money.
The study went a step further and showed participants who had made purchases two different types of images made up of lines and dots. If they saw one type of image, they would earn half a penny. The other type would earn them five cents. They then learned that their answers were not going to be double checked, making it safe for them to lie in order to get more money. Additionally, they would be paid the total amount for their answers at the end of the test by pulling the money from an envelope full of cash without supervision. This made it safe for them to steal.
Of the images show to participants, 40% of them were the 5-cent ones. Those who had made conventional purchases on average said there were 5-cent images 42.5% of the time. Those who made green purchases said 51.4% were 5-cent images. Furthermore, the green group on average stole 48 cents more than the conventional group.
So, in addition to moral licensing reducing generosity, it can lead active deception and theft.
Moral licensing can also impact prejudice.
It has become cliché for someone who has demonstrated racist behavior to defend themselves by saying, “But I have [insert minority] friends, so I can’t be a racist!”
This was explored in a study that gave participants five resumes, with one clearly being way more qualified than the other four, making it the obvious one to choose as most qualified for a job.
When the standout resume was presented as being an African American, participants showed unconscious bias later in the experiment.
For the second part of the experiment, participants were presented with a series of hypothetical situations. Most of these were irrelevant to the experiment and were presented in order to hide the hypothetical that was the actual focus of the test.
In that hypothetical scenario, they were a police chief in a small, mostly white town that was culturally racist. They needed to hire a new officer and should find a balance between progressing the needs of minorities (hiring someone of color) against keeping the peace (hiring someone who is white). They are then asked if the job is better suited to one ethnicity over the other.
When the participants picked the most qualified resume during the first part of the experiment, and that resume belonged to an African American, they were more likely to say that it would be better to hire a white cop.
The researchers found similar effects on gender bias, though this only impacted men showing prejudice against women being hired for certain jobs.
So, for adults, contemplating one’s own past prosocial behavior can help to cultivate more of the same. But only to a point. Beyond that, a sense of moral entitlement can kick in that undermines prosocial behavior and can lead to more selfish, even unethical, choices.
Thankfully, moral licensing seems to be an issue for adults, not for children.
In a study that focused on kids 6-8 years old, kids were divided into five groups where they were to describe something in their past:
- Group 1—described a time they were nice to someone.
- Group 2—described three different times they were nice to others.
- Group 3—described a time someone was nice to them.
- Group 4—described a time when they were mean to someone.
- Group 5—described watching a movie
The children were given five stickers. They were then shown a picture of a kid, told that he had no stickers and asked if they wanted to give him any of their stickers.
Groups 1 and 2 were more generous than the other groups, offering an average of three stickers when the other kids offered an average of two.
Group 1 reminded children of past good deeds. Group 2 reminded them of multiple times. The results for group 2 is significant because being reminded three times instead of only once is enough to lead adults away from prosocial behavior and into moral licensing. For these children, that was not the case.
Interestingly, being reminded of good deeds (group 3) wasn’t enough to impact their behavior. They need to be reminded of their own good deeds.
By reminding children of their past prosocial behavior, you can encourage future prosocial behavior. You can combine this with carefully choosing the words you use to describe that behavior so that it taps into their sense of identity as a prosocial person. Instead of saying, “Remember that time you helped?” you can say, “Remember that time you were a helper?”. (Learn more about this here.)
By encouraging prosocial behavior in your child, you can help them improve their connections with others and be more emotionally healthy. So go ahead and remind your child of times when they did random acts of kindness and encourage them to do more!