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There is little understanding about how prosocial behavior toward different targets might change over time, and what might promote initial levels and age-related changes in prosocial behavior. Thus, this study examined longitudinal change in prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and family from early adolescence through the transition to adulthood. Participants included 500 adolescents from the United States (age 12 to age 20; 52% female, 65% European American). Latent growth curve models suggested that prosocial behavior toward strangers increased across early to mid-adolescence and then flattened out during the transition to adulthood, prosocial behavior toward friends increased steadily, and prosocial behavior toward family was relatively stable across adolescence and then increased. Predictors of initial levels and growth in prosocial behavior varied by target.
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Longitudinal Change in Adolescents’ Prosocial Behavior Toward Strangers,
Friends, and Family
Laura M. Padilla-Walker
Brigham Young University
Gustavo Carlo
University of Missouri
Madison K. Memmott-Elison
Brigham Young University
There is little understanding about how prosocial behavior toward different targets might change over time,
and what might promote initial levels and age-related changes in prosocial behavior. Thus, this study examined
longitudinal change in prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and family from early adolescence through
the transition to adulthood. Participants included 500 adolescents from the United States (age 12 to age 20; 52%
female, 65% European American). Latent growth curve models suggested that prosocial behavior toward stran-
gers increased across early to mid-adolescence and then flattened out during the transition to adulthood, proso-
cial behavior toward friends increased steadily, and prosocial behavior toward family was relatively stable
across adolescence and then increased. Predictors of initial levels and growth in prosocial behavior varied by
target.
Prosocial behavior is defined as voluntary behav-
ior intended to benefit another person (Eisenberg,
Spinrad, & Knafo-Noam, 2015), and is important
because it is consistently related to desirable
developmental outcomes throughout adolescence.
Particularly, past studies suggest prosocial behav-
ior is positively associated with adolescents’ self-
worth, intrinsic work values (Johnson, Beebe,
Mortimer, & Snyder, 1998), well-being (Littman-
Ovadia & Steger, 2010), and academic success
(Wentzel, 1989, 1993), and is negatively associated
with internalizing and externalizing problems
(Flouri & Sarmadi, 2016). Because adolescence is
typified as the beginning of identity development
(Kroger, 2006), engaging in prosocial behavior
across this period might help to encourage indi-
viduals to follow a favorable trajectory into the
adult years as they develop a healthy moral iden-
tity (Hardy & Carlo, 2011). That being said, we
know little about how prosocial behavior changes
across the adolescent years, and what might be
associated with these changes. Thus, this study
examined longitudinal change in adolescents’
prosocial behavior from early adolescence
through the transition to adulthood.
The Multidimensional Study of Prosocial
Behavior
Given the importance of prosocial development
across adolescence, researchers have begun to
explore the multidimensional nature of these
behaviors, such as how behavior varies as a func-
tion of the target toward whom the behavior is
intended (e.g., family, friends, or strangers; Padilla-
Walker & Carlo, 2014). In exploring different
targets of prosocial behavior, dispositional and
relational theories have been used to explain differ-
ent patterns of behavior. For example, dispositional
theoretical approaches suggest that prosocial
behavior is primarily a function of how one sees
himself or herself (i.e., moral identity; Hart, Atkins,
& Ford, 1998) and is promoted, at least in part, by
positive character traits (Eisenberg et al., 2015).
From this perspective, youth who develop a more
salient prosocial personality or moral identity will
come to consider helping others as a part of their
sense of self, and will consequently develop or
strengthen dispositional traits that facilitate helping
behavior in order to build and maintain their moral
identity (Hart et al., 1998; Hart, Atkins, & Ford,
1999). For example, the dispositional approach to
prosocial behavior suggests that features such as
the development of prosocial values, sympathy
Requests for reprints should be sent to Laura M. Padilla-
Walker, Brigham Young University, 2071 JFSB, Provo, UT 84602.
E-mail: laura_walker@byu.edu
©2017 Society for Research on Adolescence
DOI: 10.1111/jora.12362
JOURNAL OF RESEARCH ON ADOLESCENCE, ***(*), 1–13
(McGinley, Lipperman-Kreda, Byrnes, & Carlo,
2010; Penner, 2002), and affective perspective tak-
ing (Vaish, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2009) are each
linked to increased prosocial behavior because they
motivate and predispose individuals to recognize
opportunities to help others. With this in mind, the
bulk of dispositionally focused work has suggested
that dispositional variables are more consistently
associated with prosocial behavior toward stran-
gers, but may be less consistently associated with
prosocial behavior toward family members and
friends (Padilla-Walker & Christensen, 2011). This
is likely rooted in the fact that motivations for
helping strangers are quite different than motiva-
tions for helping those with whom adolescents
have a relationship. Indeed, research has found
that helping strangers is promoted by dispositional
traits such as self-regulation and sympathy, which
help individuals to perceive the needs of others
who might not be in their direct social circle or in-
group, and to regulate personal needs to offer
assistance in potentially high-cost situations
(Padilla-Walker & Fraser, 2014). In contrast, help-
ing those with whom adolescents have a relation-
ship, while certainly influenced by one’s
disposition, are perhaps more saliently associated
with aspects of the relationship with that person.
This brings us to relational theories and perspec-
tives of prosocial development, which assert that
nuances in prosocial behavior surface when the rela-
tionship between the recipient and helper is taken
into account (Padilla-Walker & Carlo, 2014). This is
based on the idea that past experiences and ongoing
relationship quality with others will positively influ-
ence whom an individual chooses to help (Lewis,
2014). For instance, research suggests teens are more
likely to help someone they know (i.e., friends, fam-
ily) than a stranger (Killen & Turiel, 1998), in large
part because they are motivated to help by relation-
ship quality and norms that are a part of relation-
ships they have with friends and family. Friends
tend to be the most common target of prosocial
behavior during adolescence (Padilla-Walker &
Carlo, 2014) likely due to the salience of friendships
during this time period. In addition, prosocial
behavior toward family members is common during
adolescence (Lewis, 2014) and has been linked to
subsequent helping behavior toward both strangers
(in early childhood; Dunn & Munn, 1986) and those
with whom an adolescent has a relationship (in later
adulthood; Burr, Choi, Mutchler, & Caro, 2005).
Overall, relational theories suggest that prosocial
behavior toward family members is more likely to
be motivated by the quality of the relationship than
by emotions or dispositions such as sympathy,
probably because helping stems, in large part, from
a normative desire to maintain the relationship
(Lewis, 2014), rather than wholly from a moral sense
of self (Hart et al., 1998, 1999). One specific example
is a socialization theory that postulates parents, par-
ticularly mothers, have a salient influence in culti-
vating their children’s prosocial behavior because of
modeled parental warmth and helping behavior,
and because maternal responsiveness promotes a
child’s desire to cooperate and maintain the rela-
tionship (Eisenberg & Valiente, 2002; Hoffman,
2001). Thus, relational and socialization theories
make a strong case for relational variables as a moti-
vation for prosocial behavior within relationships.
Taken together, researchers posit that prosocial
behavior tends to vary based on who is being
helped during adolescence, and that predictors of
prosocial behavior (e.g., dispositional and relational
characteristics) also tend to differ as a function of
target. Although past researchers have often con-
trasted dispositional and relational theories or
argued for a theoretically one-dimensional
approach when studying prosocial behavior, the
perspective we took in this study was that disposi-
tional and relational theories complement one
another and can be used simultaneously to better
explain nuances in prosocial behavior, particularly
when the recipient or target is being considered.
Although dispositional traits and relationship vari-
ables have been found to influence prosocial
behavior toward diverse targets, primary motiva-
tors and predictors are likely to differ somewhat as
a function of the relationship the adolescent shares
with the recipient of the prosocial behavior. Thus,
this study draws from a multidimensional perspec-
tive of prosocial behavior and examines how dis-
positional and relational correlates of prosocial
behavior influence initial levels and trajectories of
prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and
family members.
Longitudinal Change in Prosocial Behavior
Toward Different Targets
Longitudinal research focusing on changes in
prosocial behavior across adolescence is scarce, and
research that distinguishes between prosocial
behaviors toward different targets across time is
even more rare. For instance, some research shows
that prosocial behavior toward unidentified targets
is stable from childhood to adolescence (Zimmer-
Gembeck, Geiger, & Crick, 2005), while other
research shows that prosocial behavior slightly
2 PADILLA-WALKER, CARLO, AND MEMMOTT-ELISON
decreases and then increases in late adolescence
(Carlo, Crockett, Randall, & Roesch, 2007). One
study yielded evidence of heterogeneity in trajecto-
ries as a function of target with most trajectories of
prosocial behavior toward friends increasing from
early to mid-adolescence, whereas prosocial behav-
ior toward family members was stable or decreased
slightly (Padilla-Walker, Carlo, & Nielson, 2015).
Another study found that prosocial behavior
toward family members increased from early to
middle adolescence and then decreased from mid-
dle to late adolescence (Eberly & Montemayor,
1998). It is of note that research is less clear when
it comes to changes in prosocial behavior toward
strangers across adolescence, in part because indi-
viduals engage in such varying types of prosocial
behavior toward strangers (Matsuba, Hart, &
Atkins, 2007) and because we are not aware of any
studies that have explored long-term age-related
changes in adolescence using measures of prosocial
behavior toward strangers. As such, we know little
about developmental patterns in prosocial behavior
toward strangers during adolescence, especially in
comparison to family and friends.
Predictors of Prosocial Behavior Toward Different
Targets
In past research, some common and distinct pre-
dictors of prosocial behavior toward strangers,
friends, and family members have been identified.
For instance, research reveals prosocial behavior
toward strangers varies as a function of demo-
graphic variables such as parental income, family
structure, education, and ethnicity. It is of note that
prosocial behavior toward strangers exists in many
varieties, most of which have not been considered
in the same study. One unique and intentional type
of prosocial behavior toward strangers is volunteer-
ing, so we discuss predictors of volunteering that
have been found in the research, while noting that
this is only one type of prosocial behavior toward
strangers. In general, adolescents from low-income,
single-parent households whose parents have lim-
ited education are less likely to volunteer com-
pared to those who have more economically
advantageous backgrounds, have educated parents,
and are reared in two-parent households (Lichter,
Shanahan, & Gardner, 2002). In addition, research
suggests that European American adolescents tend
to participate in the community (e.g., engage in
voluntary group activities, informal helping, civic
activities) more than do Asian and Black individu-
als (Fieldhouse & Cutts, 20102010). Moreover,
prosocial behavior toward strangers has been asso-
ciated with sympathy (Matsuba et al., 2007), per-
spective taking (Eisenberg, Zhou, & Koller, 2001), a
prosocial personality (Finkelstein, Penner, & Bran-
nick, 2005), and social support (Matsuba et al.,
2007). In contrast, research shows that prosocial
behavior aimed toward friends is associated with
adolescents’ self-regulation, paternal warmth and
support (Padilla-Walker, Nielson, & Day, 2016),
perceived support from peers (through decreased
emotional distress; Wentzel & McNamara, 1999),
and friend connectedness (via sympathy; Padilla-
Walker, Fraser, Black, & Bean, 2015). Finally,
research suggests that prosocial behavior toward
family is predicted by constructs such as protec-
tive, positive, and authoritative parenting (Hast-
ings, Rubin, & DeRose, 2005; Knafo & Plomin,
2006; Kumru, 2003), and the quality of the parent
child relationship (Eberly, Montemayor, & Flan-
nery, 1993).
Although research suggests that girls generally
report higher levels of prosocial behavior than do
boys (Eisenberg et al., 2015), other research sug-
gests that boys may be more prosocial than girls in
specific situations and contexts, like helping those
one does not know. This may be due to social gen-
der roles that suggest helping strangers is more
appropriate for boys than girls (Eagly & Crowley,
1986). However, other research suggests girls are
more prosocial toward strangers as well as friends
and family members (Padilla-Walker & Chris-
tensen, 2011), so it is important for researchers to
continually seek to clarify differences between
females and males with regard to prosocial
behavior.
Based on the existent literature and theory, we
chose to consider demographic correlates (child
gender, family structure, ethnicity), as well as dis-
positional (sympathy, perspective taking), and rela-
tional (mother and father warmth, friend
connection) predictors of prosocial behavior toward
family members, friends, and strangers in an
attempt to identify correlates of initial levels and
growth in prosocial behavior toward different tar-
gets across adolescence.
The Current Study
The purpose of this study was twofold. First, we
examined growth in prosocial behavior toward
strangers, friends, and family members to explore
age-related changes in prosocial behavior from
early adolescence through the early years of the
transition to adulthood. Given the mixed findings
LONGITUDINAL CHANGE IN PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR 3
in existing research (Carlo et al., 2007; Eberly &
Montemayor, 1998; Padilla-Walker, Carlo, et al.,
2015), in part due to variability in the target of
prosocial behavior, it was difficult to make specific
hypotheses, especially with regard to prosocial
behavior toward strangers. However, based on
existing research, we expected prosocial behavior
toward friends to increase across adolescence and
prosocial behavior toward family members to
either remain stable or decrease slightly. We also
explored gender differences in trajectories of proso-
cial behavior and expected that girls would have
higher initial values of prosocial behavior and
potentially steeper and more, positive trajectories
than would boys (Eisenberg et al., 2015). Second,
based on past research and on dispositional and
relational theories, we examined demographic, dis-
positional, and relational variables that might
account for initial levels and change in prosocial
behavior over time. Given the potentially comple-
mentary relations between dispositional (Eisenberg
et al., 2002) and relational (Eisenberg & Valiente,
2002; Hoffman, 2001; Lewis, 2014) approaches to
prosocial development, we explored whether both
dispositional and relational variables would be
associated with all three targets of prosocial behav-
ior. However, we also expected sympathy and per-
spective taking to be associated with prosocial
behavior toward strangers, friend connectedness to
be associated with prosocial behavior toward
friends, and maternal and paternal warmth to be
associated with prosocial behavior toward family
members. Because predictors were only measured
at the initial time point, we thought it possible that
they would be associated more consistently with
initial levels of prosocial behavior than with change
over time.
METHOD
Participants and Procedures
Participants were taken from the Flourishing
Families Project (FFP), which is a longitudinal
study of family life and adolescent development.
The project included 500 adolescents (Mage at
Time 1, 11.25 years, 52% girls) who participated
each year for 10 years. The current analyses
include adolescents when they were ages 12
20 years, including all nine time points. Because of
the availability of variables of interest, predictors
were only considered at the initial time point. Lon-
gitudinal retention rate was over 90%. Thirty-three
percent of adolescents came from single-parent
families, with 65% European American, 12% Afri-
can American, and 23% multiethnic. Average
annual income was $60,000, although 25% of the
sample reported an annual income below $36,000.
Participant families were randomly selected
from a Northwestern city in the United States and
were interviewed during the summer of 2007 for
the initial time point, and approximately one year
apart for all other time points. Families were ran-
domly selected from targeted census tracts that
mirrored the socioeconomic and racial stratification
of reports of local school districts, and were con-
tacted directly using a multistage recruitment pro-
tocol. All families with a child between the ages of
10 and 14 years living within target census tracts
were deemed eligible to participate in the study.
Of the 692 eligible families contacted, 423 agreed to
participate, resulting in a 61% response rate at the
initial time point. In an attempt to more closely
mirror the demographics of the local area, a limited
number of families were recruited into the study
through other means (e.g., referral, fliers; n=77,
15%), resulting in 500 total families participating at
Time 1. For the first five waves of data collection,
interviewers visited the family’s home and admin-
istered questionnaires. For subsequent waves, ques-
tionnaires were completed online. Missing data
were minimal (<5%) when examining data by
waves, and none of the variables of interest dif-
fered as a function of longitudinal attrition. How-
ever, we restructured data in this study by age to
address the large age range within each wave of
data collection. This did result in missing data, par-
ticularly at the initial time point when some partic-
ipants entered the study after age 12 years or
because measures were not included in the study
until the second wave (~30% missing). However,
because the age of the child at the first interview
was random (in the range from 10~14 years), data
missing at age 12 years of age due to the child not
being 12 years of age at the time were missing
completely at random. The full information maxi-
mum likelihood feature of Mplus was used to deal
with these missing values, so data from all 500
adolescents were used.
Measures
Prosocial behavior. Adolescents reported on 15
items (aranged from .79.93) assessing their own
prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and
family (five items each) every year from ages 12 to
20 using an adaptation of the Kindness/Generosity
Inventory of Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
4 PADILLA-WALKER, CARLO, AND MEMMOTT-ELISON
Adolescents responded on a 5-point scale ranging
from 1(not at all like me)to5(very much like me)
with sample items including “I go out of my way
to cheer up people who seem sad, even if I do not
know them,” “I help my friends, even if it is not
easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my family
(with things like chores or watching a sibling).”
Higher scores were indicative of more prosocial
behavior.
Parental warmth. Maternal and paternal
warmth were measured at the initial time point
using a 5-item warmth/support subscale of the
Authoritative Parenting Scale of the Parenting
Styles and Dimensions Questionnaire-Short Version
(a=.81, .83, PSDQ; Robinson, Mandleco, Olsen, &
Hart, 2001). Adolescents were asked how often
their mother and father (separately) did certain
behaviors relating to warm/supportive parenting,
such as “My parent gives comfort and understand-
ing when I am upset.” Responses range on a five-
point Likert-type scale from 1 (never)to5(always),
with higher scores indicating higher levels of
warm/supportive parenting.
Friend connectedness. Adolescents’ connected-
ness with a best friend was assessed at the initial
time point using five items (a=.81, e.g., “If you
needed help with something, how often could you
count on this friend to help you?”) from Barber
and Olsen (1997). Participants responded on a 4-
point Likert-type scale ranging from 0 (never)to4
(every day), with higher scores indicating higher
levels of friend connection.
Perspective taking and sympathy. Adolescents’
perspective taking and sympathy were assessed at
the initial time point using a 14-item self-report
measure with two subscales: perspective taking
(seven items; a=.74) and sympathy (seven items,
a=.79; Davis, 1983). The Likert-type response
scale ranged from 1 (strongly disagree)to5(strongly
agree) and higher scores indicate greater perspec-
tive taking and sympathy. Sample items included
“I sometimes try to understand my friends better
by imagining how things look from their point of
view,” and “When I see someone being taken
advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards
them.”
RESULTS
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations
Means and correlations between all study variables
at the initial time point are represented in Table 1.
It is of note that skew and kurtosis for all the vari-
ables in this study were within acceptable range
(<1.0). Prosocial behavior toward strangers was
associated with dispositional variables (e.g., per-
spective taking and sympathy), prosocial behavior
toward friends was associated with paternal
warmth, friend connection, and sympathy, and
prosocial behavior toward family was associated
with maternal and paternal warmth. It is also of
note that prosocial behaviors toward strangers,
friends, and family members were significantly cor-
related with one another at all time points (rrang-
ing from .39.58).
Growth Curve Analyses
Three growth curve analyses were conducted with
Mplus software (Muth
en & Muth
en, 2010) using
adolescents’ reports of their own prosocial behavior
toward strangers, friends, and family at nine time
TABLE 1
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations for Prosocial Behavior Toward Strangers, Friends, and Family at Age 12
12345678
1. PB_strangers
2. PB_friends .58***
3. PB_family .49*** .56***
4. Maternal warmth .03 .05 .43***
5. Paternal warmth .07 .19* .37*** .69***
6. Friend connection .02 .23** .05 .04 .02
7. Perspective taking .35*** .08 .01 .05 .03 .17*
8. Sympathy .31*** .18* .02 .09 .08 .24 .39***
Mean (SD) 3.26 (.80) 4.31 (.65) 3.94 (.81) 4.03 (.79) 3.83 (.81) 2.63 (.63) 3.21 (.66) 3.78 (.64)
Note.PB=prosocial behavior.
*p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001.
LONGITUDINAL CHANGE IN PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR 5
points, ages 1220. For each growth curve, means
of the intercept, slope, and quadratic were con-
strained (using the MODEL TEST command in
Mplus) to be equal across child gender to deter-
mine if model fit decreased upon constraint. Then,
for each target of prosocial behavior, a conditional
model was conducted with gender (males had the
higher coded value), family structure (single par-
ents had the higher coded value), ethnicity (Euro-
pean Americans had the higher coded value
compared to non-European Americans), maternal
warmth, paternal warmth, friend connectedness,
perspective taking, and sympathy as predictors of
the intercept, slope, and quadratic.
Prosocial behavior toward strangers. The
growth curve for prosocial behavior toward stran-
gers had adequate model fit, v
2
(36) =174.84,
p<.001; comparative fit index (CFI) =.93, root
mean square error of approximation
(RMSEA) =.08, with a significant intercept
(I=3.11, p<.001), slope (S=.12, p<.001), and
quadratic (Q=.006, p<.01). Constraints on the
means of the intercept, slope, and quadratic as a
function of child gender suggested that only con-
straining the means of the intercept resulted in a
decrease in model fit, so the final model included a
model for boys (I=2.90) and girls (I=3.29), with
constrained slope and quadratic (see Figure 1 and
Table 2). Figure 1 demonstrates that such behaviors
gradually increased into middle adolescence and
then plateaued in late adolescence.
Constraining all predictive paths to be equal
across gender did not result in a decrease in model
fit, so the conditional model was the same for boys
and girls. Model fit was acceptable,
v
2
(181) =358.33, p<.001; CFI =.91, RMSEA =.06.
Analyses suggested that ethnicity (b=.13,
p<.05), maternal warmth (b=.24, p<.01), per-
spective taking (b=.35, p<.001), and sympathy
(b=.35, p<.001) were all positively associated
with the intercept of prosocial behavior toward
strangers. Ethnicity was associated with the slope
(b=.25, p<.01) and the quadratic (b=.19,
p=.05) as well, suggesting that that being Euro-
pean American (compared to non–European Amer-
ican) was associated with a lower intercept, a
steeper increase, and a steeper downward quadra-
tic trend over time. In other words, European
Americans reported greater increases in prosocial
behavior toward strangers over time, as well as
greater decreases in prosocial behavior as they
transitioned to adulthood. No other predictors
were associated with the slope or quadratic of
prosocial behavior toward strangers.
Prosocial behavior toward friends. The growth
curve for prosocial behavior toward friends had
good model fit, v
2
(36) =79.01, p<.001; CFI =.97,
RMSEA =.05, with a significant intercept (I=4.26,
p<.001) and slope (S=.04, p<.05), and a non-
significant quadratic (Q=.001, ns). Constraints
on the means of the intercept, slope, and quadratic
suggested that only constraining the means of the
intercept resulted in a decrease in model fit; so, the
final model included a model for boys (I=4.10)
and girls (I=4.41), with constrained slope and
quadratic (see Figure 2 and Table 2). Figure 2
shows that such behaviors gradually increased
across adolescence.
Constraining all predictive paths to be equal
across gender did not result in a decrease in model
fit, so the conditional model was the same for boys
and girls. Model fit was acceptable,
v
2
(181) =311.47, p<.001; CFI =.91, RMSEA =.05.
Analyses suggested that paternal warmth (b=.28,
1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
5
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR STRANGERS
AGE IN YEARS
Girls Boys
FIGURE 1 Latent growth curve of adolescents’ prosocial
behavior toward strangers.
Note. Intercept boys = 2.90, girls = 3.29; slope = .12, p< .001;
quadratic = .006, p< .01.
TABLE 2
Growth Parameters for Prosocial Behavior Toward Strangers,
Friends, and Family
Intercept Linear slope Quadratic slope
b(SE)b(SE)b(SE)
Strangers 3.11*** (.04) .12*** (.02) .006** (.01)
Friends 4.26*** (.03) .04* (.02) .001 (.00)
Family 3.88*** (.04) .01 (.02) .009*** (.00)
*p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001.
6 PADILLA-WALKER, CARLO, AND MEMMOTT-ELISON
p<.01), friend connectedness (b=.13, p<.05),
perspective taking (b=.17, p<.05), and sympathy
(b=.24, p<.01) were all positively associated with
the intercept of prosocial behavior toward friends.
Ethnicity was associated with the slope (b=.39,
p<.001) and the quadratic (b=.36, p<.01) as
well, in that being European American was associ-
ated with a steeper slope and a steeper leveling off
of prosocial behavior over time. In other words,
European Americans reported greater increases in
prosocial behavior toward friends over time, and a
greater decline in prosocial behavior as they transi-
tioned to adulthood. Maternal warmth (b=.36,
p<.01) was also associated with the quadratic,
suggesting a less steep leveling off of prosocial
behavior toward friends over time when maternal
warmth was high at the initial time point.
Prosocial behavior toward family. The growth
curve for prosocial behavior toward family had
good model fit, v
2
(36) =145.181, p<.001;
CFI =.98, RMSEA =.05, with a significant inter-
cept (I=3.88, p<.001), a nonsignificant negative
slope (S=.01, ns.), and a significant quadratic
(Q=.009, p<.001). Constraints on the means of
the intercept, slope, and quadratic suggested that
only constraining the means of the intercept
resulted in a decrease in model fit, so the final
model included a model for boys (I=3.78) and
girls (I=3.98), with constrained slope and quadra-
tic (see Figure 3 and Table 2). Figure 3 shows that
such behaviors were relatively stable in early ado-
lescence but then increased into late adolescence.
Constraining all predictive paths to be equal
across gender did not result in a decrease in model
fit, so the conditional model was the same for boys
and girls. Model fit was good, v
2
(181) =248.84,
p<.001; CFI =.97, RMSEA =.04. Analyses sug-
gested that ethnicity (b=.24, p<.05), maternal
warmth (b=.34, p<.001), paternal warmth
(b=.25, p<.01), perspective taking (b=.14,
p<.05), and sympathy (b=.13, p<.05) were all
positively associated with the intercept of prosocial
behavior toward family. Ethnicity (b=.21, p<.05)
and maternal warmth (b=.33, p<.01) were asso-
ciated with the slope, and maternal warmth
(b=.29, p<.05) was associated with the quadratic
of prosocial behavior toward family. In other
words, being European American was associated
with lower initial levels of prosocial behavior
toward family and a steeper decrease over time,
while higher levels of maternal warmth at the ini-
tial time point were associated with a less steep
decline over time and a greater increase in proso-
cial behavior toward family during the transition
to adulthood.
DISCUSSION
The present findings yield important information
regarding age-related changes in prosocial behavior
toward different recipients and the demographic,
dispositional, and relational predictors of such
behaviors. There were distinct patterns of age-
related changes in prosocial behavior toward
1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
5
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR FRIENDS
Girls Boys
FIGURE 2 Latent growth curve of adolescents’ prosocial
behavior toward friends.
Note. Intercept for boys = 4.10, girls = 4.41, slope = .04, p< .05,
quadratic = .001, ns.
1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
5
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR FAMILY
Girls Boys
FIGURE 3 Latent growth curve of adolescents’ prosocial
behavior toward family.
Note. Intercept for boys = 3.78, girls = 3.98, slope = .01, ns,
quadratic = .009, p< .001.
LONGITUDINAL CHANGE IN PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR 7
specific targets of prosocial behaviors. Moreover, in
general, the findings were in accordance with dis-
positional and relational theories of prosocial
development such that sympathy, perspective tak-
ing, and maternal warmth were common predic-
tors of initial levels of prosocial behaviors toward
all targets. All findings were robust across boys
and girls, although intercepts were lower for boys
on all three targets of prosocial behavior. Interest-
ingly, ethnicity, dispositional, and relational predic-
tors were differentially associated with changes in
prosocial behaviors towards specific targets. These
distinct and complex patterns of developmental
trajectories toward strangers, friends, and family
further our understanding of prior mixed findings
and suggest the need to utilize a multidimensional
approach while studying prosocial behavior and
integrating relational theories with traditional dis-
positional theories of prosocial development.
Longitudinal Change in Prosocial Behavior
Research has generally found stability (Zimmer-
Gembeck et al., 2005) or decreases in prosocial
behavior toward unidentified targets across adoles-
cence (Carlo et al., 2007), while showing increases
in prosocial behavior toward friends across early
adolescence (Padilla-Walker, Carlo, et al., 2015),
and stability or increases in prosocial behavior
toward family members from early to middle ado-
lescence and then decreases from middle to late
adolescence (Eberly & Montemayor, 1998). Find-
ings in this study were somewhat consistent with
past findings, but also added important nuances
based on the consideration of the target toward
whom the prosocial behavior was directed. For
instance, this study showed that prosocial behavior
toward strangers increased across early and middle
adolescence and leveled off slightly into late ado-
lescence and the transition to adulthood. Similarly,
there were increases in prosocial behaviors toward
friends across adolescence but prosocial behaviors
toward family was relatively stable initially and
then showed increases into late adolescence. Thus,
in general, current findings suggest some increases
in prosocial actions, although at different periods
during adolescence.
Of particular interest, the present findings
showed that increases in prosocial behaviors
toward strangers and friends began early in adoles-
cence but that increases in prosocial behaviors
toward family occurred later in adolescence.
Increases in prosocial behavior toward strangers
might be due to greater opportunities to help those
outside the family during middle and late adoles-
cence than early adolescence or childhood. Indeed,
school and youth group opportunities that often
structure prosocial behavior toward strangers (e.g.,
volunteer service) are more common in secondary
than primary school, and adolescents’ moral rea-
soning in middle to late adolescence might lead to
a greater desire to become involved in civic and
political activism that could take the form of help-
ing individuals or groups one might not know per-
sonally (Carlo, 2006). In light of the lack of
previous studies examining such changes, future
research is needed. Similarly, the pattern of helping
friends steadily increased across early to late ado-
lescence, which is consistent with the one previous
study that explored prosocial behavior toward
friends during early adolescence (Padilla-Walker,
Carlo, et al., 2015). This increase may result from
an increased investment in developing and main-
taining close, interpersonal relationships with the
peer group during this age period. Indeed, inti-
macy and time spent with friends (compared to
family) both increase from early to middle adoles-
cence (Larson & Richards, 1991).
As noted, prosocial behavior toward family fol-
lowed a somewhat different pattern than that
toward strangers and friends. A prior study
explored changes in prosocial behavior toward
family using profile analysis and found that three
of four profiles of adolescents reported stable or
decreasing levels of prosocial behavior toward fam-
ily, whereas only one profile (21% of teens)
reported increasing prosocial behavior toward fam-
ily (Padilla-Walker, Carlo, et al., 2015), although
the referenced study only spanned ages 1114.
Thus, this study builds upon existing research to
suggest that, while initial decreases in prosocial
behavior toward family members are typical dur-
ing early adolescence, a rebound likely occurs dur-
ing middle to late adolescence. The increases in
helping family members may result from later mat-
urational processes (e.g., increases in moral reason-
ing), from greater expectations from parents placed
upon older adolescents, or from changes in the par-
entchild relationship during late adolescence and
the transition to adulthood (see Carlo, 2006). For
example, in the current sample about half of ado-
lescents reported living outside the parental home
by age 19 years, which might have resulted in
decreased parentchild conflict and increases in
prosocial behavior.
It is also of note that although change over time
was similar for boys and girls in this study, levels
of prosocial behavior were lower for boys toward
8 PADILLA-WALKER, CARLO, AND MEMMOTT-ELISON
all three targets. Although past research has sug-
gested that perhaps boys engage in higher levels of
prosocial behavior toward strangers than do girls
(Eagly & Crowley, 1986), this study did not sup-
port that notion. Another possibility is that boys
engage in different types of prosocial behavior than
do girls; for example, some studies suggest that
boys help more often, while girls are more likely to
provide emotional comfort (Bergin, Talley, &
Hamer, 2003; Eisenberg et al., 2015). However, gen-
der differences found in this current study may
also be a function of self-report measurement, as
self-report measures typically assess more “femi-
nine” types of prosocial behavior (see Nielson,
Padilla-Walker, & Holmes, 2017) and physiological
data finds few differences between boys and girls
in responding to the distress of others, despite
women self-reporting more distress (Michalska,
Kinzler, & Decety, 2013). Thus, future researchers
should consider reports of prosocial behavior out-
side of only self-reports, but should also consider
different types of prosocial behavior and measures
of prosocial behavior that are more gender-neutral
(e.g., Nielson et al., 2017).
Predictors of Prosocial Behavior Toward Different
Targets
Although demographic, dispositional, and rela-
tional predictors were associated with initial levels
of prosocial behavior, only demographic and rela-
tional predictors were associated with changes over
time. There was evidence that ethnicity was associ-
ated with initial levels and age-related changes in
prosocial behaviors toward all targets. Specifically,
European Americans had lower initial levels of
prosocial behavior toward both strangers and fam-
ily than did non–European Americans (Black and
multiethnic). Moreover, being European American
was also associated with steeper increases in proso-
cial behavior toward strangers and friends during
adolescence. In contrast, prosocial behaviors
toward family members decreased across adoles-
cence for European American youth as compared
to non–European American youth.
Because these are the first findings regarding
links between ethnicity and changes in prosocial
behaviors toward specific target groups, compar-
isons to previous findings are untenable. However,
ethnicity has been shown to act as a proxy for a
host of personal, interpersonal, and social contex-
tual influences; thus, there might be culture-specific
mechanisms that account for such differences.
Some scholars have reported culture-specific
mechanisms (e.g., cultural values, ethnic identity)
associated with prosocial behaviors (Knight &
Carlo, 2012). For example, it is possible that cul-
tural values about the importance of family are
associated with greater increases in prosocial
behavior toward family members among some cul-
tural groups compared to others (e.g., Asians and
Latin Americans compared to European Ameri-
cans, respectively; Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999).
Thus, the present findings point to the need for
future research that aims to untangle specific cul-
ture-related mechanisms (e.g., ethnicity, race, socio-
economic status) associated with developmental
trajectories in prosocial behavior.
We also explored whether age-related changes
in prosocial behaviors were associated with paren-
tal warmth, sympathy, and perspective taking,
although we expected this to vary somewhat by
target. Maternal warmth was associated with less
leveling off of prosocial behaviors toward friends
during late adolescence, and a less steep decline in
prosocial behavior toward family across adoles-
cence. There were no other significant dispositional
or interpersonal correlates of changes in prosocial
behavior. The fact that maternal warmth was
related to such age-related changes in prosocial
behavior provides support for the relative impor-
tance of maternal parenting on prosocial develop-
ment during adolescence, especially toward targets
with whom the adolescent has a long-term, close
relationship. This explanation is in accordance with
scholars who note that time spent together with
family and increases in social-emotional develop-
ment during adolescence could result in less de-
clines in prosocial behaviors toward family
members (Steinberg & Silk, 2002). While the bivari-
ate correlations certainly suggested that parental
warmth was more consistently associated with
prosocial behavior toward family than any other
target, maternal, rather than paternal, warmth was
linked to age-related changes in prosocial behav-
iors toward family. These findings are consistent
with socialization theorists (Eisenberg & Valiente,
2001; Hoffman, 2000) who posit that mothers are
important sources of prosocial socialization and
with prior evidence that suggests that mothers,
more than fathers, may play a particularly influen-
tial role in shaping their children’s prosocial behav-
ior (Hastings, McShane, Parker, & Ladha, 2007).
The fact that sympathy and perspective taking
were not significant predictors of age-related
changes in prosocial behaviors was somewhat sur-
prising, given past research that shows prosocial
behavior tends to increase as perspective taking
LONGITUDINAL CHANGE IN PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR 9
(Eisenberg, Cumberland, Guthrie, Murphy, & Shep-
ard, 2005) and sympathy (Malti, Gummerum, Kel-
ler, & Buchmann, 2009) increase. However, this is
likely explained because predictors were only mea-
sured at the initial time point in this study.
Another possibility is that sympathy and perspec-
tive taking help account for change in prosocial
behavior in earlier childhood; there is evidence that
such traits are relatively well developed by early
adolescence (see Carlo, Knight, McGinley, Good-
vin, & Roesch, 2010). Alternatively, the lack of sig-
nificant links between dispositional characteristics
and prosocial behaviors over time might be due to
the relative stability of traits (e.g., sympathy) across
adolescence. As such, future research should seek
to examine whether sympathy, perspective taking,
and other dispositional characteristics are more
consistently linked to age-related changes in proso-
cial behaviors in earlier childhood than in adoles-
cence in order to clarify nuances in age-related
changes in prosocial behavior.
Although weak evidence of dispositional and
relational predictors related to age-related changes
in prosocial behaviors was found, there was sub-
stantive evidence on links between such predictors
in early adolescence and concurrent levels of
prosocial behavior. For instance, in accordance
with traditional theories and prior research on
prosocial behavior (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 2015),
sympathy, perspective taking, and maternal
warmth were positively related to initial levels of
prosocial behavior toward all target groups. In
addition, paternal warmth was associated posi-
tively with prosocial behaviors toward friends and
family (although not strangers). This finding is con-
sistent with another study that found that paternal
warmth was uniquely associated with prosocial
behavior toward friends, suggesting that fathers
potentially act as socializers of prosocial behavior
to those outside the family (Padilla-Walker, Fraser,
et al., 2015), although this explanation should also
apply to prosocial behavior toward strangers and
did not. As such, future research should aim to
investigate the role of paternal parenting practices
in prosocial behavior toward different targets, in
order to validate or clarify the current findings.
Taken together, these findings provide overall sup-
port for the notion that parental warmth, social
understanding (i.e., understanding the needs of
others), and emotional sensitivity toward others
facilitate a greater proclivity to help others across
different relationship statuses.
As expected, connectedness to friends was only
significantly related to helping friends and not to
helping family members or strangers. Given the
important and unique role of the friend relation-
ship on prosocial behavior toward friends found in
this study and others (e.g., Padilla-Walker, Fraser,
et al., 2015; Wentzel & McNamara, 1999), this find-
ing suggests the need to consider the specific char-
acteristics (e.g., gender, relationship status, age) of
friends or other targets in relation to the character-
istics of the helper. Consistent with this notion, in
a meta-analytic review researchers reported a sig-
nificant increase in the amount of systematic vari-
ance between perspective taking and prosocial
behaviors when the characteristics of the targets in
the helping and the perspective taking task were
more similarly matched (Carlo et al., 2010). Taken
together, the overall pattern of findings suggests
the need to integrate a relational theoretical per-
spective to that of traditional dispositional theories
of prosocial development, and future research
should consider additional aspects of relationships
(beyond quality) such as rules, norms, and expecta-
tions for behavior.
Limitations and Conclusions
Despite the strengths of this study, there were sev-
eral limitations. The measures were all self-report
instruments, which raises concern regarding shared
method variance (e.g., same reporter) and social
desirability. Several studies yield supportive evi-
dence regarding the validity of the present mea-
sures, which reduces some concerns regarding
social desirability. However, future research using
multiple methods (e.g., observational) or reporters
is needed to better address such concerns. In addi-
tion, researchers have recently provided empirical
support for bidirectional relations between both
dispositional and parental socialization influences
and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg et al., 1999;
Newton, Laible, Carlo, Steele, & McGinley, 2014).
Therefore, it is likely that dispositional and rela-
tional traits as well as prosocial behavior influence
one another over time, so more research directly
aimed at understanding these longitudinal, bidirec-
tional associations is greatly needed. In addition,
predictors of growth in this study were only con-
sidered at the initial time point, which may be
expected to influence intercepts but not necessarily
change in prosocial behavior over time. Although
many of the predictors in this study are relatively
stable over time, future research should consider
how changes in dispositional and relational vari-
ables across adolescence influence change in proso-
cial behavior. Finally, the present sample was
10 PADILLA-WALKER, CARLO, AND MEMMOTT-ELISON
relatively homogenous, especially with regard to
ethnicity and race. Given the prominent role of
these demographic variables in the current find-
ings, further research is needed to ascertain the
generalizability to broader and more representative
populations.
Nonetheless, the present research advances our
understanding of age-related changes in prosocial
behavior toward strangers, friends, and family
membersand of demographic, dispositional, and
relational predictors of such behaviors. In general,
there were increases in prosocial behavior toward
friends, family, and strangers although the increases
occurred at different points during adolescence. The
fact that sympathy, perspective taking, and maternal
warmth (and to a lesser extent, paternal warmth) all
predicted initial levels of prosocial behavior lends
overall support to theorists who posit the central
roles of cognitive-developmental and parental
socialization processes in predicting prosocial
behavior. These age-related changes and their corre-
lates are important to consider in light of previous
broad claims that adolescents (across generations)
are increasingly narcissistic and lacking empathy
(Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011). Although direct
comparisons to such studies are difficult, given
cohort and time-period confounds, the present find-
ings and other previous findings (see Eisenberg,
Fabes, & Spinrad, 2006) suggest that many adoles-
cents actually demonstrate increases, rather than
decreases, in prosociality, although perhaps in quite
nuanced manners (depending upon the target of
helping and ethnicity). The somewhat contradictory
picture regarding the characterization of adoles-
cents’ prosociality and the relative lack of longitudi-
nal studies across adolescence no doubt underscore
the need for more longitudinal research using
sophisticated and multidimensional approaches in
the study of prosocial development.
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LONGITUDINAL CHANGE IN PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR 13
... Prosocial behavior-generally defined as voluntary acts with the intention of benefiting others-is an important component of creating and maintaining social relationships with others that has been linked with better psychological and physical health (Fuligni, 2019;Padilla-Walker and Carlo, 2014). Studies have highlighted how prosocial behavior becomes more differentiated with age, increasingly depending upon factors such as the intended recipient of the actions (Güroglu et al., 2014;Padilla-Walker et al., 2018). It is possible that this differentiation may be linked with key changes in the adolescent brain that have been tied to more sophisticated decision-making, particularly in the social realm Crone and Dahl, 2012;Crone and Fuligni, 2020). ...
... For example, Güroglu et al. (2014) observed that whereas 9 year-old children gave resources at a cost to themselves equally to close friends and strangers, older adolescents (15 and 18 years) increasingly gave more to friends than to strangers. Padilla-Walker et al. (2018) obtained similar patterns in a longitudinal study of adolescents' self-reports of giving support and helping others, and additionally found that prosocial behaviors directed towards family remained stable and then increased in late adolescence. Distinctions in adolescent prosocial behavior by target has been observed in other studies and has been argued to be due to adolescents' increasingly complex social reasoning such as a preference for known others and understanding the role of reciprocity in close relationships (Fehr et al., 2013;Güroglu et al., 2014;van de Groep et al., 2020b). ...
... By examining both the behavior and neural responses associated with giving to caregivers, friends, and strangers during early and late adolescence, this investigation extended previous studies' aims that have compared fewer giving targets or excluded neuroimaging. Adolescents' greater preference for providing resources and support to both family and friends with increasing age, likely reflecting a move away from basic allocation rules such as equality and an enhanced understanding of the role of mutuality and reciprocity within close relationships (Fehr et al., 2013;van de Groep et al., 2020b;Güroglu et al., 2014;Padilla-Walker et al., 2018). At the same time, the developmental patterns suggest increased parochialism and potentially in-group favoritism in prosociality that may be less desirable from a broader, societal perspective (Fehr et al., 2013). ...
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Adolescence is marked by an increased sensitivity to the social environment as youth navigate evolving relationships with family, friends, and communities. Prosocial behavior becomes more differentiated such that older adolescents increasingly give more to known others (e.g., family, friends) than to strangers. This differentiation may be linked with changes in neural processing among brain regions implicated in social decision-making. A total of 269 adolescents from 9 to 15 and 19 to 20 years of age completed a decision-making task in which they could give money to caregivers, friends, and strangers while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Giving to caregivers and friends (at a cost to oneself) increased with age, but giving to strangers remained lower and stable across age. Brain regions implicated in cognitive control (dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) showed increased blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) activation with increasing age across giving decisions to all recipients; regions associated with reward processing (ventral striatum and ventral tegmental area) showed increased activation across all ages when giving to all recipients. Brain regions associated with social cognition were either not active (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) or showed reduced activation (temporal parietal junction and posterior superior temporal sulcus) when giving to others across all ages. Findings have implications for understanding the role of brain development in the increased complexity of social decision-making during adolescence.
... By taking the comment and improving on it incurred a cost while an improved teaching style would benefit the student. Potential functions of prosocial behavior could act as a protective factor against problematic or delinquent behavior [40], and is an important factor in predicting the manifestation of antisocial behavior [41]. Additionally, prosocial behavior could increase an individual's positive emotions [42]. ...
... 19) and there is a significant difference between nostalgic group and control group t (112.28)=8. 40 ...
... The reason is, relating to someone who is psychologically closer to me may involve potential positive bias (e.g. when I think of my best friend, I recognize his positive qualities first; [31], [35]. In line with Padilla-Walker [40] saying that helping a stranger is different from helping someone with whom they have a relationship. Thus, this may skew the score on the scales as it is more likely for an individual to feel appreciative joy and perform prosocial behavior for someone to who they are psychologically closer. ...
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The effect of maintaining mental wellbeing by conducting prosocial behavior has been established for quite some time and is supported by many theories. Nevertheless, prosocial behavior might not easily be done by individuals with negative feelings due to certain emotional burdens. The current study examined the mediating effect of appreciative joy in the relationship between nostalgia and prosocial behavior. There were 123 undergraduate students with an average age of 21.2 years old recruited from a Malaysian private university using the purposive sampling method. Employing an experimental single-factor independent design; the experiment was conducted online. Multiple regression analysis showed that only the relationship between appreciative joy and prosocial behavior is statistically significant in this study, without being mediated by appreciative joy. In conclusion, nostalgia did not significantly inflict any appreciative joy that eventually drove people to conduct any prosocial behavior. Further implications and suggestions are discussed.
... However, the exact developmental patterns are still debated. Some studies show increases in prosocial behavior during adolescence (Fu, Padilla-Walker, & Brown, 2017;Padilla-Walker, Carlo, & Memmott-Elison, 2018), whereas others find decreases or stabilization (Malti et al., 2015). This has recently been interpreted as evidence that prosocial behavior should be regarded as a multi-dimensional construct, comprising many behaviors such as cooperating, helping, and giving. ...
... Although originally regarded as a generalized construct, recent studies have elucidated that prosocial behavior is an umbrella term consisting of many different types of other-benefitting behaviors. These studies have shown that different types of prosocial behaviors do not always correlate within individuals, and often have unique antecedents and developmental patterns (Carlo & Padilla-Walker, 2020;Padilla-Walker et al., 2018). In the next sections, we examine developmental changes in four key dimensions of prosocial development which are increasing in complexity: (i) socio-affective valuing of rewards for others through vicarious gains and cooperation, (ii) socio-cognitive understanding of needs when helping, (iii) combining socio-affective and socio-cognitive building blocks during giving and sharing, and (iv) understanding long-term consequences for others when trusting or reciprocating trust. ...
Chapter
Adolescent development is often regarded as a period of social sensitivities, given that brain development continues into the early 20s in interplay with social experiences. In this review, we present adolescence as a unique window for prosocial development; that is, behavior that benefits others. We present evidence for multiple pathways of neural sensitivity that contribute to key developmental processes related to prosocial behaviors, including valuing, perspective taking, and goal-flexibility. Yet, these processes are dependent on several contextual factors including recipients, audience effects, and strategic motivations. Next, we present intervention findings suggesting that prosocial experiences within these various contexts are crucial for adolescents developing into engaged and contributing members of society. These findings suggest a new interpretation of the elevated socio-affective sensitivity and emerging socio-cognitive development in adolescence, focusing on opportunities rather than risks.
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