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Emotional Influences on Altruistic Behavior in Children

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Altruistic behavior has been studied extensively by researchers due to the complex nature of the term and the emotions that influence it. It is a firmly established belief that altruism is a prosocial behavior; a behavior with the goal of benefitting another person. Altruism can best be defined as a behavior in which an individual makes a voluntary and intentional act that functions to benefit another person without any expectation of reward in return (Feigin, Owens, & Goodyear-Smith, 2014).

Altruistic Behavior

Historically, researchers have debated as to which kinds of human motivations qualify a prosocial behavior to be altruistic in nature. Some believe that selfish motivation (whether it be consciously or unconsciously motivated) and selfless motivation can fuel altruistic behavior (Barasch, Levine, Berman, & Small, 2014). For example, people who donate money to the homeless in order to make them feel better about themselves are performing a prosocial behavior that is fueled by selfish motivation. Therefore, when people have selfish motivation, it indicates that they are engaging in prosocial behavior with an expectation or anticipation of reward in return. This contradicts the concept that altruistic behavior must be selflessly motivated.

Thus, for pure altruistic behavior to occur, helping another person must be the primary and sole motivator of the individual. Because it can be difficult to ascertain that a behavior is not selfishly motivated in any way, it is sometimes challenging for experimenters to identify true altruistic behavior in research. Nonetheless, establishing a specific definition of the concept allows researchers to narrow their focus to better ensure that they are effectively measuring the concept. With that said, for the purpose of this paper, articles were chosen that best appeared to study altruistic behavior in humans.

Interestingly, research has shown that altruistic behavior can be observed throughout nearly the entire lifespan. Among the largest strides in altruism development occur during childhood. As early as 14 to 18 months, toddlers exhibit behaviors that are considered altruistic (Piliavin, 2009; Warneken & Tomasello, 2009a; Warneken & Tomasello, 2009b). This consistent finding suggests that there is a biological basis to altruistic behavior in humans.

A strong motivational component of altruistic behavior is emotion. Emotion as an intrinsic motivator is consistently present throughout childhood. Among the most prevalent emotions that drive child altruism is empathetic concern for other people. This may include feelings of sympathy and a strong desire to reduce another person’s feelings of distress. What is interesting about altruism in children is that the cognitive component, or specific train of thought, that underlies empathetic concern depends on the child’s developmental stage. Thus, depending on the age of the child, their thought process will trigger the emotional arousal that drives altruistic behavior.

The role of emotional influences of altruism and their cognitive components will be discussed at different developmental stages of childhood, including in toddlerhood, early childhood, and middle childhood. As children get older, altruistic behaviors occur more frequently because of their increase in cognitive abilities, emotional maturity, and socialization at home and at school (Hay, 2009). For example, a young child notices that her mother is crying and is driven by empathy to comfort her because she has affectionate feelings toward her mother and wants to help her feel better. However, an older child feels empathetically driven to comfort a fellow student who is in distress because she has acquired moral reasoning and judgment that it is good to help others in need. In both instances, empathy is a motivating force of altruistic behavior. However, the underlying cognitive component of emotion changes as children get older.


Through research studies, experimenters have observed that toddlers between 14 and 18 months start to show clear signs of altruistic behavior. It can be somewhat complicated to know for certain what exactly motivates the behavior, as one cannot inquire this of a toddler. Nonetheless, studies have found that by age two, toddlers will readily help adults when they appear to be struggling to attain an instrumental need (Dunfield and Kuhlmeier, 2013). The most common type of instrumental need that toddlers respond to are when adults are struggling to accomplish a simple task, such as opening a cabinet door when their hands are full or unsuccessfully trying to reach for something in a box (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009b). They were even willing to help when there were small barriers that the toddlers had to overcome, such as having to stop playing with a fun toy or navigate through a physical obstacle to approach the adult. These observed behaviors of toddlers are done in the absence of any form of praise or encouragement made by the adult.

In the toddler participant and adult interactions, the adults behaved in a way that signaled that they were unable to finish a goal-directed action, showed an unpleasant facial expression, and could not obtain a desired item. According to Dunfield and Kuhlmeier (2013), they believed that the toddlers were able to recognize and interpret these behavioral and situational cues in the encounter. The cues identified an adult in a negative state characterized by need, emotional distress, and desire. Toddlers engaged in helping behaviors through three main domains: helping the adults achieve goals, sharing valuable items with adults, and informing the adults of things that they desire. Through the helping behaviors exhibited by these toddlers, this demonstrates that they were motivated to voluntarily help others in distress without expecting anything in return. The emotion that most logically influenced this behavior was empathetic concern because the toddler recognized that the adult is struggling and made efforts to improve or resolve the problem. Thus, empathetic concern through spontaneous helping in toddlers demonstrates that emotionally-driven altruistic behavior begins very early in life.

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As opposed to the more complex cognitive constructs that trigger emotions in older children, these emotions most likely resulted from constructs that are found in toddlerhood. At least one source asserts that children with a secure attachment style are more likely to display more altruistic behaviors (Sharma, 2014). When children have higher levels of attachment security, they are more likely to feel comfortable when left with strangers, can explore their environment more, and can interact positively with new friends. Also, when toddlers’ security and attachment needs are met, they are more likely to direct their energy and attention to others besides themselves. For these reasons, it makes sense that children with a warm, healthy attachment style will have enhanced social interactions and exhibit helping behaviors. On a similar thread, a toddler who has a secure attachment will likely have affection toward their caretaker. Affection may play a part in a toddler’s emotional motivation when helping their parents.

Early Childhood

Children make important advances in altruistic behavior when they are between 2 and 6 years of age. This is primarily due to cognitive advancement and socioemotional growth in this age group. Early on in this stage, children experience growth in their social cognition and cognitive awareness which impact how they interact with others in their environment. Among the developmental milestones that children reach, a particularly important one is theory of mind. When children develop this, they become aware of their mental state as well as the mental state of others. This includes being able to perceive, understand, and predict how others think and feel.

As a result of a child’s increased social cognition, an important new emotion appears: distress. This ability to perceive distress in other people increases a great deal around 2 – 3 years of age and stabilizes around 3 – 4 years of age (Dunfield & Kuhlmeier, 2013). Children are now able to experience the two major emotions that influence altruism and prosocial behavior: distress and empathy (Barasch et al., 2014). Consequently, children encounter empathy as subjective in addition to being a form of involuntary arousal. This means that they not only can become distressed by another person’s distress but can also think about how they feel in response to it as well. The integration of these two ideas form a so-called “Intrinsic altruistic motive system” (Feigin et al., 2014).

An interesting point is that distress-driven prosocial behavior is generally not considered to be altruistic behavior. For example, an adult who commits a prosocial behavior to eliminate distress is engaged in a self-focused behavior, not an other-focused or selfless behavior. However, Barasch et al., (2014) found that 4-year-olds who ranked high in sympathy and experienced distress were not self-focused. When they participated in an activity in which they could share valuable items with others who did not have as much, they were motivated to share because they were genuinely concerned for the other children. The way these children experienced sympathy was predicted to be advantageous in their social-emotional development when they progress into middle childhood and adolescence.

Another example of early childhood distress motivating altruism is a study that hypothesized that anxious children who witnessed their peers donating items of value while standing next to them would be inclined to donate more (Wildeboer et al., 2017). Results showed their hypothesis to be accurate. Additionally, when the anxious children did not have peers donate beside them, they donated less. Interestingly enough, it is debatable whether this prosocial behavior is considered to be purely altruistic, based on the description that was provided earlier. However, these findings highlight the relevance of how situational demands impact donating behavior in those with anxious affect.

Middle Childhood

Between 6 and 12 years of age, children continue to make great strides in their cognitive development that allow them to consider altruism in an increasingly mature way. Nonetheless, the emotional influences and cognitive components of earlier childhood still serve as motivators of altruistic behavior. What makes this childhood stage unique is the strong emphasis on the moral self, moral judgments, and adherence to social and cultural norms. These areas of focus help children to mediate their altruistic behaviors as they begin to act more autonomously among bigger groups of people (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009b).

It becomes a concern of those in middle childhood of whether their altruistic behaviors align with their moral self, as determined by internalized societal or cultural norms. Specifically, children more often think about whether their actions reciprocate or judge their personal reputation. This kind of moral judgment can be generalized as well; children are more likely to label others’ actions as moral or immoral (Malti, Gasser, & Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, 2010). In addition, they might assert that people who engage in certain behaviors deserve punishment or a reward. Finally, social and cultural norms become increasingly important determinants of altruistic behavior. For example, sharing is valued in many cultural and ethnic groups; witnessing a diversion from this kind of behavior would be criticized by children who grew up in these settings.

A study by Malti and Ongley (2014) provides a good illustrative example of children’s behaviors and its relationship with moral alignment. They observed the influence of moral emotions in sharing behavior in early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. The authors assert that sharing exemplifies altruistic intentions of children. The dictator game, a popular economic game used by researchers to observe altruism through child sharing behaviors, was utilized in the study. Self-reports and caregiver-reports were completed to measure child sympathy. Also, each of the child participants were asked to predict what their moral emotion would be after they decisions in the game that either upheld moral norms or violated them. This demonstrated whether children in each of the age groups behaved in a way that was congruent with their internalized moral standards. The moral emotions were either positively valenced (ie., proud, being a good person, or happy) or negatively valenced (ie., guilty, being a bad person, or sad). The extent to which children allocated their resources within the dictator game determined their level of sharing.

The study found that, consistent with past research studies, that there was more sharing amongst 8-year-olds than there was amongst 4-year-olds. Additionally, for children who reported lower levels of sympathy reported higher levels of negatively valenced emotions. It is likely that these emotions were compensatory for their lack of sympathy and lower rates of sharing behaviors. Additionally, while about 40% of the 4-year-olds chose not to share their resources (stickers), it is important to note that most of them had likely not yet internalized social constructs of the importance of equality and treating others fairly. While the study had some limitations, its strongest trait was that it demonstrated how moral emotions can predict altruistic sharing behavior spanning early childhood, middle childhood, and early adolescence.

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Emotional Influences on Altruistic Behavior in Children. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“Emotional Influences on Altruistic Behavior in Children.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
Emotional Influences on Altruistic Behavior in Children. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Emotional Influences on Altruistic Behavior in Children [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from:
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