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Friday, March 25, 2022

How development and culture shape intuitions about prosocial obligations

Marshall, J., Gollwitzer, A., et al. (2022).
Journal of experimental psychology. 
General, 10.1037/xge0001136. 
Advance online publication.


Do children, like most adults, believe that only kin and close others are obligated to help one another? In two studies (total N = 1140), we examined whether children (∼5- to ∼10-yos) and adults across five different societies consider social relationship when ascribing prosocial obligations. Contrary to the view that such discriminations are a natural default in human reasoning, younger children in the United States (Studies 1 and 2) and across cultures (Study 2) generally judged everyone-parents, friends, and strangers-as obligated to help someone in need. Older children and adults, on the other hand, tended to exhibit more discriminant judgments. They considered parents more obligated to help than friends followed by strangers-although this effect was stronger in some cultures than others. Our findings suggest that children's initial sense of prosocial obligation in social-relational contexts starts out broad and generally becomes more selective over the course of development.

From the General Discussion

Other than urban versus rural, our cross-cultural samples varied on a variety of dimensions, including (but not limited to) Westernization, collectivism versus individualism, and SES. Again, because of our samples do not vary systematically on any of these dimensions, we cannot directly examine the role of certain cultural factors in the development of prosocial obligation judgments. But we do suspect that variation in societal values related to collectivism and individualism may shape children’s emerging sense of prosocial obligation. This proposal is motivated by the finding that participants in more collectivistic societies(Japan, India, Uganda) exhibited broader senses of obligation than  those  in  more  individualistic societies (Germany,  United  States) (see Hofstede, 2011; Rarick et al., 2013).

How would collectivism and individualism shape the development of our sense of obligation?After all, collectivism in a theoretical sense tends to emphasize obligations to the group—not  necessarily to  strangers  (e.g.,  Brewer  &  Chen,  2007). It is possible, however,  that participants across societies view strangers in our stimuli as part of the cultural in-group. After all, the  characters in the stimuli are all the  same  ethnicity and also presumably live in the  same community. The variance in responses we find, then, might be variance in the degree to which they consider individuals obligated to help in-group strangers—and this in turn, may depend on cultural values, such as collectivism. Future research is best suited to address this question by examining how  group  membership  and  social relationship  independently  impact the development of obligation judgments across societies.

Regardless of which societal values ultimately impact children’s sense of obligation, the findings raise the question of how this process occurs during childhood.Adults and trusted others may explicitly or implicitly teach children about societal values either via testimony or observation(e.g., Maccoby, 2007; Pratty & Hardy, 2014; see Dahl, 2019 for a useful review). Through this process, children may then absorb this information, which ultimately alters children’s obligation judgments. Alternatively, and in line with more of a Piagetian constructivist view(Piaget, 1932), children may update  their  beliefs  about  obligation through  exploring how  individuals  in  their community act toward one another and eliciting information about obligation from others (Dahl et al., 2018; Turiel, 2015, 1983).We hope future research will investigate these questions in greater detail.