What Makes People Prosocial
Kim, Sanghag (Department of Sociology)
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Have you ever wondered what makes some people particularly social and not others? Kim, Sanghag (Department of Sociology) tried to identify the relationship among empathy, attachment to parents, and prosociality. Prosociality refers to behaviors that are intended to benefit others. Kim mentioned that there was not a lot of research done to figure the relations among the aforementioned three aspects of human psychology. To make matters worse, research on empathy predominantly focused on older children from around 11 to 15 years of age, as morality was conceived as a cognitive process.
That focus has recently shifted to younger children – as young as just a few months old – and the findings in the differences in emotional empathy at such an early stage have emphasized the importance in the influence of nurture on empathy and the prosociality of a person. Kim stressed that one of the strengths of his recent paper titled, ‘Relational Antecedents and Social Implications of the Emotion of Empathy: Evidence from Three Studies’ is the quality of data that the team has collected over the course of 12 years. In order to discern the link among empathy, attachment, and prosociality, the research team had used three forms of studies: family study, play study, and the parent-child study.
In the studies, a child’s empathy for either the mother or father was elicited under a scripted, stimulated distress paradigm, where the parents acted upon a detailed script to see the child’s reaction. The entire process was recorded for later coding, capturing the child’s expressions of emotion through facial, verbal, and behavioral means. The child’s attachment security was measured under the Strange Situation Paradigm (SSP) and the Attachment Q-Set. In the former measure, the child was left with a stranger and the action was analyzed through coding; while in the latter measure, the parents were asked about the attachment security. The last and probably the most important measure, the child’s prosociality was measured in a peer context in order to determine whether the child took turns when playing, askings for things nicely, and so on.
Through such vigorous research from middle class families with various educational and ethnic backgrounds to high risk families with financial issues, Kim and the research team were able to draw lines between the factors. Attachment here turned out to be a moderated mediation. Moderated mediation is a statistical term where the effect of an independent variable A on an outcome variable C via a mediator variable B differs depending on the levels of a moderator variable D. In this context, the effect of ‘empathy’ on the outcomes ‘prosociality’ depends on the level of the moderator's ‘attachment security’, as you can see in the graph. There is an arrow pointing to the solid line between empathy and prosociality.
What is surprising about the finding is the impact of empathy on prosociality, which is stronger when the attachment level is lower. This goes against the common perception that the better the relationship between the parents and a child, the better the child behaves in society. However, this does not necessarily mean that children are more prosocial when they have a bad relationship with their parents, but that the impact of empathy is noticeably stronger under an undesirable context. “This research will provide supporting evidence that prosocial behavior and empathy is at least partially due to the environment, as infants are a good subject to see the effects of nature and nurture. They do not have any other contaminating factors that the researchers have to take into account,” said Kim.
Kim, unlike most social science researchers, is highly interested in what induces positive aspects from people such as happiness, morality, and identity. “Social science and social psychology to be specific, are great tools in explaining to me and the people around me. What we feel, acknowledge, and learn is what makes this area so fascinating for me,” smiled Kim. He plans to continue his research further on the three key words both in Korea and in the United States.
Kim So-yun firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Choi Min-ju
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