Motive for Young Children’s Developing Concern for Others’ Well-Being as a Core Motive for Developing Prosocial Behavior

  • Robert HepachEmail author


This paper investigates the underlying motive of prosocial behavior in young children, particularly the function of benevolent feelings. On an evolutionary scale, the human capacity for genuine other-oriented behavior significantly contributed to a group’s survival as a whole. Studies on the ontogeny of prosocial behavior suggest that the motive of young children’s helping behavior is a genuine concern for another’s well-being. By the second year of life, children engage in various ways on behalf of others, including fulfilling others’ goals and comforting those who are hurt. A brief review of this developmental work is provided with a focus on specifying the intrinsic motivational mechanism of children’s prosociality. Not only do children show signs of genuinely selfless behavior, but their concern for others develops to include more flexible sympathetic responses, such that children help less if a request for help is unjustified. Children’s sympathetic helping is driven by an assessment of the person’s actual need. Such insights into justified and unjustified requests for help may represent one crucial step toward children’s more flexible forms of prosociality, including moral behavior.


Emotional Distress Prosocial Behavior Pupil Dilation Altruistic Behavior Reciprocal Altruism 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Axelrod, R. (2006). The evolution of cooperation: revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Basic books.Google Scholar
  2. Barta, Z., McNamara, J., Huszár, D., & Taborsky, M. (2011). Cooperation among non-relatives evolves by state-dependent generalized reciprocity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 278(1707), 843–848.Google Scholar
  3. Batson, C. (2010). Empathy-induced altruistic motivation. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature (pp. 15–34). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Batson, C., Duncan, B., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of personality and Social Psychology 40(2), 290.Google Scholar
  5. Bijleveld, E., Custers, R., & Aarts, H. (2009). The unconscious eye opener pupil dilation reveals strategic recruitment of resources upon presentation of subliminal reward cues. Psychological Science 20(11), 1313–1315.Google Scholar
  6. Bischof-Köhler, D. (1991). The development of empathy in infants. In M. E. Lamb & H. Keller (Eds.), Infant development: Perspectives from German speaking countries (pp. 245–273). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  7. Bradley, M., Miccoli, L., Escrig, M., & Lang, P. (2008). The pupil as a measure of emotional arousal and autonomic activation. Psychophysiology 45(4), 602–607.Google Scholar
  8. Burnstein, E., Crandall, C., & Kitayama, S. (1994). Some neo-Darwinian decision rules for altruism: Weighing cues for inclusive fitness as a function of the biological importance of the decision. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(5), 773–789.Google Scholar
  9. Carnegie Hero Fund. (2014)., 28.7.2014.
  10. Coke, J., Batson, C., & McDavis, K. (1978). Empathic mediation of helping: A two-stage model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(7), 752.Google Scholar
  11. Darwin, C. (1874). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London, UK: John Murray.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Darwin, C. (1909). The Origin of Species. New York, NY: Collier & Son. (Original work published 1859)Google Scholar
  13. Dunfield, K., & Kuhlmeier, V. (2010). Intention-mediated selective helping in infancy. Psychological Science 21(4), 523–527.Google Scholar
  14. Dunfield, K., Kuhlmeier, V. A., O’Connell, L., & Kelley, E. (2011). Examining the Diversity of Prosocial Behavior: Helping, Sharing, and Comforting in Infancy. Infancy 16(3), 227–247.Google Scholar
  15. Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. (1990). Empathy: Conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior. Motivation and Emotion 14(2), 131–149.Google Scholar
  16. Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin 101(1), 91.Google Scholar
  17. Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425, 785–791.Google Scholar
  18. Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2005). Human altruism: proximate patterns and evolutionary origins. Analyse & Kritik 27(1), 6–47.Google Scholar
  19. Gintis, H., Henrich, J., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., & Fehr, E. (2008). Strong reciprocity and the roots of human morality. Social Justice Research 21(2), 241–253.Google Scholar
  20. Gredebäck, G., & Melinder, A. (2010). Infants’ understanding of everyday social interactions: a dual process account. Cognition 114(2), 197–206.Google Scholar
  21. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814.Google Scholar
  22. Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I. Journal of theoretical biology 7(1), 1–16.Google Scholar
  23. Hepach, R. (2012). The motivation of early benevolence: An investigation into a causal mechanism of cooperation. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Leipzig, Germany.Google Scholar
  24. Hepach, R., & Westermann, G. (2013). Infants’ sensitivity to the congruence of others’ emotions and actions. Journal of experimental child psychology 115(1), 16–29.Google Scholar
  25. Hepach, R., Vaish, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Young children are intrinsically motivated to see others helped. Psychological Science 23(9), 967–972.Google Scholar
  26. Hepach, R., Vaish, A., & Tomasello, M. (2013a). A new look at children’s prosocial motivation. Infancy 18(1), 67–90.Google Scholar
  27. Hepach, R., Vaish, A., & Tomasello, M. (2013b). Young children sympathize less in response to unjustified emotional distress. Developmental Psychology 49(6), 1132–1138.Google Scholar
  28. Hastings, P. D., Zahn-Waxler, C., & McShane, K. (2006). We are, by nature, moral creatures: Biological bases of concern for others. In M. Killen & J. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 483 - 516). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  29. Hume, D. (2002). Eine Untersuchung über die Prinzipien der Moral. Stuttgart, Germany: Reclam. (Reprinted from Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777)Google Scholar
  30. Jackson, I., & Sirois, S. (2009). Infant cognition: going full factorial with pupil dilation. Developmental Science 12(4), 670–679.Google Scholar
  31. Kahneman, D., & Beatty, J. (1966). Pupil diameter and load on memory. Science 154, 1583–1585.Google Scholar
  32. Kropotkin, P. (1910). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London, UK: William Heinemann.Google Scholar
  33. Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the" overjustification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and social Psychology 28(1), 129.Google Scholar
  34. Leslie, A. M., Mallon, R., & DiCorcia, J. A. (2006). Transgressors, victims, and cry babies: Is basic moral judgment spared in autism? Social Neuroscience 1, 270–283.Google Scholar
  35. Mayr, E. (1963). Animal species and evolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Milinski, M., Semmann, D., & Krambeck, H. J. (2002). Reputation helps solve the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Nature 415(6870), 424–426.Google Scholar
  37. Nieuwenhuis, S., De Geus, E., & Aston-Jones, G. (2010). The anatomical and functional relationship between the p3 and autonomic components of the orienting response. Psychophysiology 48(2), 162–175.Google Scholar
  38. Nowak, M. A., & Sigmund, K. (1998). Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature 393(6685), 573–577.Google Scholar
  39. Ozinga, J. R. (1999). Altruism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  40. Panchanathan, K., & Boyd, R. (2004). Indirect reciprocity can stabilize cooperation without the second-order free rider problem. Nature 432(7016), 499–502.Google Scholar
  41. Preston, S., & De Waal, F. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25(01), 1–20.Google Scholar
  42. Partala, T., & Surakka, V. (2003). Pupil size variation as an indication of affective processing. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 59(1), 185–198.Google Scholar
  43. Rheingold, H. (1982). Little children’s participation in the work of adults, a nascent prosocial behavior. Child Development 53(1), 114–125.Google Scholar
  44. Radiolab. (2014)., 28.07.2014.Google Scholar
  45. Roberts, G. (2005). Cooperation through interdependence. Animal Behaviour 70(4), 901–908.Google Scholar
  46. Rockenbach, B., & Milinski, M. (2006). The efficient interaction of indirect reciprocity and costly punishment. Nature 444(7120), 718–723.Google Scholar
  47. Roth-Hanania, R., Davidov, M., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2011). Empathy development from 8 to 16 months: Early signs of concern for others. Infant Behavior and Development 34(3), 447–458.Google Scholar
  48. Rousseau, J.-J. (2010). Abhandlung über den Ursprung und die Grundlagen der Ungleichheit unter den Menschen. Stuttgart: Reclam. (Original work published 1755)Google Scholar
  49. Simpson, J. A., & Beckes, L. (2010). Evolutionary perspectives on prosocial behavior. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature (pp. 35–54). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  50. Smith, A. (1994). Theorie der moralischen Gefühle. Hamburg, Germany: Meiner. (Reprinted from The Theory of moral Sentiments, 1759)Google Scholar
  51. Sober, E., & Wilson, D. (1999). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Svetlova, M., Nichols, S., & Brownell, C. (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child development 81(6), 1814–1827.Google Scholar
  53. Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.Google Scholar
  54. Tomasello, M., Melis, A. P., Tennie, C., Wyman, E., & Herrmann, E. (2012). Two key steps in the evolution of human cooperation. Current Anthropology 53(6), 673–692.Google Scholar
  55. Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly review of biology 46(1), 35–57.Google Scholar
  56. Vaish, A., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Sympathy through affective perspective taking and its relation to prosocial behavior in toddlers. Developmental Psychology 45(2), 534.Google Scholar
  57. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science 311(5765), 1301–1303.Google Scholar
  58. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy 11(3), 271–294.Google Scholar
  59. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental psychology 44(6), 1785.Google Scholar
  60. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2009). The roots of human altruism. British Journal of Psychology 100(3), 455–471.Google Scholar
  61. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Parental presence and encouragement do not influence helping in young children. Infancy 18(3), 345–368.Google Scholar
  62. Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A., Hanus, D., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children. PLoS biology 5(7), e184.Google Scholar
  63. Watts, D. P., & Mitani, J. C. (2002). Hunting behavior of chimpanzees at Ngogo, Kibale national Park, Uganda. International Journal of Primatology, 23(1), 1–28.Google Scholar
  64. Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., Wagner, E., & Chapman, M. (1992). Development of concern for others. Developmental psychology 28(1), 126.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyDepartment of Developmental and Comparative PsychologyLeipzigGermany

Personalised recommendations