Ontogeny of prosocial behavior across diverse societies

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (36):14586-14591 (2013)
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Abstract

Humans are an exceptionally cooperative species, but there is substantial variation in the extent of cooperation across societies. Understanding the sources of this variability may provide insights about the forces that sustain cooperation. We examined the ontogeny of prosocial behavior by studying 326 children 3–14 y of age and 120 adults from six societies (age distributions varied across societies). These six societies span a wide range of extant human variation in culture, geography, and subsistence strategies, including foragers, herders, horticulturalists, and urban dwellers across the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. When delivering benefits to others was personally costly, rates of prosocial behavior dropped across all six societies as children approached middle childhood and then rates of prosociality diverged as children tracked toward the behavior of adults in their own societies. When prosocial acts did not require personal sacrifice, prosocial responses increased steadily as children matured with little variation in behavior across societies. Our results are consistent with theories emphasizing the importance of acquired cultural norms in shaping costly forms of cooperation and creating cross-cultural diversity.

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Stephen Laurence
University of Sheffield

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